Spirited Away: Change as a Positive Force
Hayao Miyazaki’s film, Spirited Away, depicts the journey of a young girl, Chihiro, into the spirit world, the loss of her identity, and the subsequent struggle to escape back into the living world with her parents. In Susan Joliffe Napier’s essay, “Matter Out of Place: Carnival, Containment, and Cultural Recovery in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away,” Napier argues the film is a reaction to globalization and its perceived threat to sustaining Japan’s unique culture and national identity: “Spirited Away is less an upbeat fantasy than a complex exploration of a contemporary Japan that is searching for what might be termed cultural recovery … in a corrupt postindustrial society” (288-89).
Napier’s thesis is certainly probable as evidenced by the spiritual creatures’ stigma against humans, Yubaba’s baby’s fear of the outside, and the act of losing one’s name, which is symbolic of losing one’s identity, to become a cog in the machine. Perhaps the most striking physical manifestation of the outside creating disruption in the daily life at the bathhouse is the presence of No-face—a character who has a mask for a face and whose identity is associated with wealth.
In fact, it is No-face’s ability to use his gold to manipulate the greed of the bathhouse workers, and subsequently feed his own desires, that parallels the idea of globalization’s corrupting effects on the people in postindustrial Japan. While Napier’s thesis views Miyazaki’s film in the context of globalization, I’d like to argue that Spirited Away can be interpreted not as a personal statement against outside threats to Japanese culture and identity, but a film whose message lies in the necessity of change.
Perhaps the most obvious example of change as a positive influence in the film can be observed in Chihiro’s maturation. Prior to entering the spirit realm, Chihiro behaves as a typical, stubborn child unwilling to accept change; this can be observed in the way she responds to seeing her new school as she and her parents drive into town: sticking out her tongue as she says, “It’s gonna stink. I liked my old school.” During the same scene, Chihiro’s responses to her parents even slightly suggest that she is a bit spoiled as she complains how “depressing” it is that this is the first time she has gotten a bouquet of flowers and it’s a “goodbye present.”
When her mother reminds her that her father had gotten a rose for her birthday before, Chihiro responds with, “Yeah, one. Just one rose isn’t a bouquet.” What’s remarkable is that this same ungrateful child is the same one that manages to secure work and a place to eat and sleep soon after, setting aside her personal feelings in order to survive. However, Chihiro receives work and housing at the price of giving up her original name to Yubaba. In Noriko T. Reider’s essay, “Spirited Away: Film of the Fantastic and Evolving Japanese Folk Symbols,” Reider discusses the significance of losing one’s name in the context of Japanese folk symbols: “The act of depriving a person of one’s name has far more reaching consequences and implications than simply affecting how one person addresses another; the very act implies total control over the person whose name is being withheld” (9).
One can view Chihiro’s lack of control over her life as negative, but it is important to consider that while the circumstances Chihiro finds herself in are difficult at first, the long-term effects of Chihiro’s stay at the bathhouse benefit her in terms of personal growth. She learns to appreciate the simple things she is given—whether it is the kindness of Kamaji covering her with a blanket when she’s exhausted, or the big sisterly protection and caring by Lin.
Chihiro also earns respect in the bathhouse by working hard and dealing with the stink spirit that no one else can bear, in addition to resolving the trouble No-face wreaks when no one else can handle him. As a result of Chihiro’s experiences, she changes from being an obstinate, incapable girl to a wiser, more appreciative person.
Some of the most compelling evidence for Chihiro’s transformation is her decision to journey to Zeniba’s home later on in the film despite not knowing what obstacles or frightening creatures she might face along the way; this is in stark contrast with her earlier behavior when she first came to the spirit realm and was incapable of going anywhere on her own.
Had Chihiro remained static in character development, then it is possible that she would have never been able to escape the spirit realm. Therefore, taking into consideration the outcome of Chihiro’s personal growth, the film suggests that change is necessary and beneficial.
A Stagnant Environment
In addition to Chihiro’s internal change, her presence in the bathhouse aids in benefiting other characters’ lives as well. Since the bathhouse is an area where day in and day out, characters go through the same motions again and again, the area is symbolic of a state of stagnancy. An example of how living in such an environment can negatively influence a person can be observed in Yubaba’s baby’s belief that going outside will make him sick. When Chihiro speaks to the baby, “Staying in this room is what will make you sick,” the fact that Chihiro associates a state of “sameness” with sickness reaffirms the film’s message regarding the necessity of change.
One of the aspects of the baby’s character that reinforces the naivety of believing only harm comes from change is the fact that it is a baby that is making such a claim; the implication being that a baby, lacking experience and having remained in ignorance for the brief time of its existence, does not know better. A baby cannot rationalize that change can have positive effects on its life, and because it is only in innocence that it stakes the claim that it makes, viewers are able to see what having such a belief can do to a person: leave them completely useless and dependent on others. Another instance from the film that suggests how harmful of an influence the bathhouse has on characters is with the character of No-face. When No-face arrives at the bathhouse, all he tries to do is prove himself useful to Chihiro.
However, when No-face finds himself incapable of helping her, he settles into a state of inertia and overindulgence, which eventually leads him into a crazed descent where he eats everything and everyone in sight. When Chihiro confronts him, she leads him out of the bathhouse to go on a trip with her: “I think being in the bathhouse makes him crazy, he needs to get out of there.”
Both in the cases of Yubaba’s baby and No-face, Chihiro brings them into the outside world and gives them new insight into themselves: the baby becomes capable of standing on his own and enjoys the outside, “Sen and I had a really good time,” and No-face is provided with a sense of purpose and the approval he always sought from Chihiro by coming to work for Zeniba. While both Yubaba’s baby’s circumstances and No-face’s are fairly different with regards to how they encounter Chihiro and what they achieve as a result of their trip with her, both are prime examples of how remaining in a state of “sameness” prevents the individual from personal growth, and actually harms them in the long-run as well.
During Chihiro’s trip to Zeniba’s home, two images that strike the viewer—albeit brief ones—are of the isolated island the train passes along the way, and the girl that stands at one of the stations unwilling to board. Since Chihiro’s traveling on the train with her friends facilitates both the baby’s and No-face’s experiences with change, the train may be interpreted as a kind of catalyst of change.
Thus, when Chihiro observes the island as they pass it, the fact that the island does not connect to any town or city across the ocean symbolizes a state of isolation and inertia. And the girl that Chihiro observes standing at one of the stations implies the same idea that the island does—that those who refuse to connect to the rest of the world will ultimately be left behind as everyone else moves forward.
While Napier’s essay interprets the film as a statement against the outside world’s influence on Japan and its people, or at least a statement of fear from how globalization will shape postindustrial Japan’s identity in the future, it seems fair to argue that while corruption and globalization may be correlated, correlation does not imply causation. As Chihiro is an agent of change, as well as subject to change, the result of her personal growth and the effects she has on the people she encounters at the bathhouse showcases the impact and necessity of connecting to the outside world.
When Chihiro finally manages to return home, it is only because she has grown as a person. Spirited Away’s depiction of the harmful effects of isolation and stagnancy thereby convey the necessity of change for the sake of personal growth and development, and despite being a film that came out back in 2001, it still proves relevant to our time—if not in the context of globalization, then at least as a coming-of-age story that resonates with countless children and adults.
Napier, Susan Jolliffe. “Matter Out of Place: Carnival, Containment, and Cultural Recovery in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.” The Journal of Japanese Studies 32.2 (2006): 287-310. Web. 26 November 2014.
Reider, Noriko T. “Spirited Away: Film of the Fantastic and Evolving Japanese Folk Symbols.” Film Criticism 29.3 (2005): 4-27. Web. 26 November 2014.
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