Spirited Away as Social Criticism
Spirited Away is a vibrant coming-of-age story rich with the imagery of Japanese fantasy. It tells the story of the protagonist Chihiro’s disappearance from the human world, and her maturation as she starts working at a demonic bathhouse. While the movie was a huge hit, both in Japan and abroad, there has been hardly any detailed analysis of it.
Broadly speaking, Spirited Away is a movie about coming of age in a time when the world is becoming less caring. The facts presented to the viewer about Chihiro’s world are that she was forced to leave her friends behind, presumably because her already comfortable parents found a better economic opportunity. It’s also a time of environmental loss: development in Japan has annihilated the Kohaku River whose spirit once saved a drowning Chihiro. Because the human world has largely abandoned her, Chihiro is forced to find comfort in the unlikeliest of places: a demon-run bathhouse. Thematically, the movie deals with the growing cruelty of the human world, but there’s clearly more going on than that: looking at a couple of scenes, like the Stink Spirit or the parents’ transformation, it’s easy to argue that the movie takes a pro-environment or anti-consumerist stance, but what are the underlying mechanics that allow for such social commentary?
Hierarchy of the Bathhouse
Understanding the corporate structure of the bathhouse is an important first step to reading the social commentary of the movie. Noriko Reider acknowledges a hierarchical order to the bathhouse, pointing out that Yubaba literally lives at the top, with the other workers (but specifically Kamaji) living below her. The bathhouse wouldn’t succeed as an enterprise without Yubaba calling the shots: “In Spirited Away, Yubaba is paralleled to the central authority ruling the bathhouse from the top of the building, and Kamaji is likened to tsuchigumo who live in the pit dwelling, or bottom floor” (Reider 15). In her piece on the movie, Reider focuses on how Miyazaki incorporates various supernatural figures from Japanese tradition into the movie’s characters. Kamaji, the gruff spider-like man, is reminiscent of the tsuchigumo, or earth spider. Reider says that the earth spider is historically a representation of people outside of the control of the emperor. Their unwillingness to submit places them at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Reider’s recognition of a clear hierarchical order to the bathhouse is key to the idea that the movie is a parody of Japanese Confucian order: instead of the emperor or some other virtuous leader at the top, it’s demons all the way down.
The actual order of the bathhouse exists somewhere at the crossroads of two concepts: the first, the place that demons take in the world of the people who believed in them, and the second, the idea of what is needed to maintain or tear down the proper Confucian order. Regarding the first, Mori Masato writes, “That which we call ‘demon’ is the concrete manifestation of the chaos which was conceived of as being outside order” (Mori 157). Furthermore, he writes:
“Demons were … invisible, and lived in an invisible dimension. By ‘invisible dimension,’ I mean a dimension of chaos which was not illuminated by the light of human civilization, a world of confusion that human consciousness could not encompass.”(Mori 157)
While Mori is talking in terms of the Konjaku Monogatarishū, an anthology of mostly moralistic Buddhist tales written about a thousand years ago, it’s fair to say that the mindset he is describing fits with the portrayal of demons in Spirited Away. The bathhouse exists on the periphery of the human realm, on the grounds of an abandoned amusement park that Chihiro’s family crosses into through a long, dark tunnel. When they stop their car, the family really does reach the far limits of human society.
The Rectification of Names
But if demons exist outside of the Confucian order, then what exactly is the order they are in opposition to? Loy Hui-Chieh defines one aspect of Confucian order, the Rectification of Names, which given Yubaba’s tendency to steal names from her would-be employees, seems particularly relevant:
“As it is, the teaching of 13.3 can be stated simply: there are forms of incorrect naming and speaking that can lead directly to socio-political disorder, such that any attempt to reinstate order in the socio-political realm must begin with the imposition of order on the linguistic realm.”(Loy 35)
Yubaba’s name-theft is a direct assault on Rectification of Names, changing “Chihiro” into “Sen” and “the Spirit of the Kohaku River” into “Haku.” Visually speaking, Yubaba transforms the physical shape of their names, contractually binding them to servitude. In doing so, she clearly goes against the Confucian doctrine, which being a demon, is her nature. But something interesting happens here: by taking apart their names, she actually is creating laborers under her command, reemphasizing her centralized authority over the bathhouse. The destructive act becomes a creative one. Here is the crossroads, where the circle of two seemingly contradictory concepts is squared.
Parents to Pigs
But the robbing of names is not the first major transformation of the movie, and focusing first on it risks overlooking a different episode, the metamorphosis of Chihiro’s parents into pigs. Upon entering the theme park, the family stops at a seemingly abandoned food stand with all sorts of meats waiting to be feasted on. Chihiro leaves her parents to their gluttony. When she comes back, she finds that where her parents once sat are now disgusting pigs. How does this scene exemplify this destruction and reassertion of authority? At once, the chaotic act of transforming Chihiro’s parents into pigs is the corrective act of showing them as they really are, small-minded consumers. They slide right into the bottom rung of the bathhouse’s socio-political hierarchy, becoming the source of sustenance on which the rest of the order depends.
Using the structure of Loy’s definition of Rectification of Names, there exists in Spirited Away forms of correct shaping that can lead directly to socio-political order. This order is often temporary and done without planning, but its spur-of-the-moment nature is simply reflective of the dispositions of the enforcers of that order, the demons themselves. And so, in Spirited Away, Miyazaki creates a kind of order where there ought not be one, an order that could be called the Rectification of Shapes, or the idea that order comes from everything being shaped like their nature would have it. This new doctrine establishes a parody of Confucian order that is inherently demonic because it is subject to the chaotic, unpredictable whims of the demons that construct it.
The Stink Spirit
The bathhouse itself is a setting ripe for the concept of “Rectification of Shapes,” because, in a sense, that is its function. The bathhouse is a place where demons cleanse and heal themselves. Nowhere is this more evident than in the case of the Stink Spirit. After failing to deny it entry, Yubaba tasks Sen with taking care of the towering mass of junk and grime. With the help of everyone at the bathhouse, Sen manages to remove all of the debris stuck in the spirit, revealing its true form. Using the ideas of human and demonic spaces, it’s noteworthy that humans performed the demonic act of transforming a powerful river spirit into the Stink Spirit, and it was only in the human-style demonic space of the bathhouse that order was restored through the rectification of the spirit’s shape.
Regarding this scene, Susan Napier writes:
“Initially Chihiro herself is the invader with her ‘human stench’ but, by acquiescing to the dictates of the group, she begins to be accepted and ultimately integrates into her new collectivity. The Stink God also appears as an invader at the beginning, its filth and odor threatening everything the bathhouse represents. Its successful cleansing becomes not only a rite of purification but an exercise in recognition and correct identification.”(Napier 302)
The encounter Napier describes, of “Japaneseness” coming into contact with the “other,” is different from the one described in this article. Nonetheless, the direct parallel she draws between the corresponding “invasions” of Chihiro and the Stink Spirit seems flawed when looking at the movie through the concept of human and demonic spaces. Chihiro’s invasion is that of a human entering a demonic space, while the Stink Spirit fundamentally never transgresses into a world that is not its own. The disruption that the Stink Spirit brings is only considered a disruption at all because Yubaba fails to recognize the Stink Spirit as a rich and powerful river spirit, a paying customer that ought to be exactly the clientele Yubaba is marketing to. Furthermore, Napier’s characterization of the “filth and odor” being at odds with “everything the bathhouse represents” seems mistaken: the bathhouse can’t perform its function as a place of purification without anything to purify. So while Napier and this article both recognize the Stink Spirit episode as being an example of rectification, the reading of the movie presented here actually goes a step further and argues that the “rite of purification” and “exercise in recognition and correct identification” are not two separate results but in fact one and the same. For the Stink Spirit, the act of purification is the rectification of its shape.
To make better sense of the dynamics of Rectification of Shapes, it’s necessary to look at work that Noriko Reider has done separate from the movie. In her career studying the history of oni (Japanese demons), Reider has implemented Mikhail Bakhtin’s ideas of the “carnivalesque,” particularly in the case of Shuten Doji, a tale of the emperor’s strongest warriors defeating an evil demon king who has been kidnapping women from the capital. Reider writes:
“Taking its name from the raucous medieval celebration of Carnival, carnivalesque literature inverts power structures, demystifying and lampooning that which a particular culture holds serious or sacred. The carnivalesque upsets the structures of everyday life by its flagrant violations of class, gender, and religious boundaries.”(Japanese Demon Lore 31)
The inversion of power structures that Reider notes is immediately applicable to Spirited Away, in which the bathhouse is presided over by the demonic Yubaba. Yubaba’s irreverence for the Rectification of Names puts her in violation of Japanese Confucianism. The power of the carnivalesque is that it’s subversive. It allows for the environmentalist criticism of the Stink Spirit episode, in which humans transformed the spirit into a disgusting monster. It allows for the critique of consumerism, with Chihiro’s father’s memorable line, “Don’t worry, you’ve got daddy here. He’s got credit cards and cash,” presaging his transformation into a pig.
The Problem of No-Face
In a way, No-Face is the movie’s only true demon. As Mori describes demons, No-Face comes from a seemingly invisible dimension, appearing at the boundary that is the bridge to the bathhouse. To analyze No-Face, we have to understand the rest of the movie’s demons as, for all intents and purposes, not particularly demonic. Perhaps they are scarier looking or have more exaggerated features than humans, but they fulfill the normally human roles of bathhouse guest and employee. No-Face is neither. No-Face has no enumerated intentions or personality. It’s conceivable that Yubaba fails to bring order to the devastation wreaked by No-Face precisely because No-Face is entirely amorphous. No-Face’s only inherent quality is a lack of its own identity, and Yubaba’s grasp over others relies on her ability to change their identities. No-Face is only stopped by Sen, whose gift from the river spirit causes No-Face to purge out everything it has consumed, returning No-Face to what is presumably its “proper” shape. After its rampage is quelled, No-Face is sent back deep into the wilderness to live with Yubaba’s sister Zeniba, suggesting that No-Face simply cannot coexist with a human-style establishment.
Does reading Spirited Away through the carnivalesque actually affect how we interpret No-Face? By equating the demons with humans, we’ve already taken a step in that direction. No-Face exposes the weakness of the central authority of the movie, whose only options are to appease it with banquets, and ultimately to sacrifice Sen to its consumption. In the carnivalesque space, no assumptions are made about the demonic nature of Yubaba’s authority. That is to say, Miyazaki is demonstrating the failure of a central authority to stop the threat of this ravenous monster. That the central authority is in the demonic realm doesn’t actually matter. What No-Face actually symbolizes is beyond the scope of this article, but it’s still obviously subversive to see a leader brought to their knees by the threat posed by something unknown and growing.
No-Face is really an intriguing character, and exploring what No-Face might mean to Miyazaki would be an interesting next step in understanding what exactly this movie is. Meanwhile, this article has tried to show that Miyazaki creates a parody of proper Confucian order by inhabiting it with a bunch of demons, an example of Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of the “carnivalesque” in action. In doing so, it has coined the term “Rectification of Shapes,” a short-hand name for how order exists in the carnivalesque setting. With this article, it is my hope that people return to this classic with fresh and stimulating ideas, and more thoroughly enjoy a great film.
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