Spirited Away: A brief analysis

(something I wrote as a requirement while I was still a college student, to make up for this week’s quota of review. It doesn’t encompass all my impressions on the film, which I personally adored. Thank you to Jude Lastimosa for making me bring this up.)

The most obvious Shinto element that could be found in Hayao Miyazaki’s Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (Spirited Away in the English release) is the belief in a vast pantheon of kami, which could be more accurately called Divine spirits rather than gods. These kami are often associated with particular objects in nature, something also shown in the animated movie (example include the Daikon-kami, the river god and Haku).  In Shinto mythological hierarchy, the kami occupy the top tier, with everything else just beneath them. This is very much evident in the anime’s kami – bathhouse scenario, where they are treated as costumers (Miyazaki also deserves to be commended for taking advantage of the Japanese dedication to serving costumers). Particulars of Shinto divinity are also shown, such as the distinction between kami and mortals, and how they are not supposed to even eat one another’s food.

Being in the bathhouse, another distinctly Shinto concept is revealed, that of kiyome (purity) and kegare (impurity). On the most graphic level we see this in the scenes concerning the river god, who enters the bathhouse filthy and being the object of all the other characters’ disgust. The viewer sees this god’s transition from that state to the state of purity in a most cathartic way.

Chihiro (as Sen) bathing the River God

In this graphic representation of these concepts, the efficacious symbol of water plays a prominent role. Many of the characters (all of whom are kami) are related to water, and all of them are agents of purification. The very nature of the bathhouse shows the archetype of water as an agent of purification, an archetype maid most evident in the contrast between water and the river god’s sludge.

But the contrast between the two states thereby portrayed is not the only facet shown. It needs be noted that impurity in Shinto is not a negative presence of something bad but a negative absence of something good, a belief which is converse to the western conception of the purity-impurity dichotomy. This theme is most evident in that ubiquitous symbol of water, which, as purity, is present and tangible and not merely the absence of filth. The difference of the dichotomy’s understanding in the Shinto sense to that of the western is seen in the growth of the giant baby, who is kept “clean” in the western sense of the idea (and who is even cloistered in a European themed room) but who is in character quite “unclean,” lacking any sympathy. “Purity” therefore is not removing something negative, not merely “sterility,” but gaining something positive, in the baby’s case, experience.

The baby trying to kill the rat and the bird.

But perhaps most importantly, Spirited Away’s most distinctly Shinto element is its main theme, the harmonious co-existence between nature (personified in the spirit of the kami) and man. The two need one another, nature to help man gain kiyome, man to help nature maintain it. For the first case, we see this in Chihiro’s and Haku’s interactions, most evidently when Haku (a kami) feeds Chihiro a piece of the kami’s food (which, being of the world of kami, is pure). By eating the food, Chihiro “gains” presence. On a more subtle level, her growth as a character is greatly influenced by the kami around her: she develops politeness because of the Daikon-kami, thoughtfulness and commitment to duty because of the River God, and courage because of Haku. Her achievement of the virtue of purity is such that, when we see her hold on to her mother as they come of the passage at the end of the movie (a seen we also see in the beginning) we realize that the act has gained a more positive meaning: far from cowering behind them, she is now wary of protecting her loved ones. The second case is evident in how Chihiro (during the time she is known as Sen) helps the kami in the bathhouse. She helps the river god purify himself (again, the most graphic portrayal of the theme), she helps no-face acquire friends, she helps Haku remember his name (this time, kegare as incompleteness displayed) and she helps the giant baby gain experience.

Haku feeding Chihiro. It’s hard not to like Spirited Away with Haku in it.

In Spirited Away we now see that spirituality in the Shinto sense of the term involves an intimate connection with nature. The movie’s message that spiritual development is key to addressing environmental crises therefore would necessarily make sense. If this was the universal definition of spirituality, then I would be more proactive in living a spiritual life!


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