July 2, 2020 in Research
Miyazaki’s Spirited Away

By constructing his highly imaginative and fantastic worlds, renowned Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki is able to critique and comment the contemporary Japan. In Spirited Away, Miyazaki refers to the themes of parental abandonment, consumerist lifestyle, and a loss of traditional values, among the others. The character of Chihiro goes through a transformation from a weak and whiny little girl to the sho-jo able to make decisions and help her friends and family. Chihiro’s family situation shows a dysfunctional family where parents are unable to support and care for their child and in contrast have to accept their daughter’s help because they are preoccupied with extreme consumerism and their own problems. Although a loss of family can be fatal and borders on a loss of identity, Miyazaki shows that recognition, memory, and joint efforts are able to restore one’s identity and help return family.

In his films, Miyazaki creates a richly developed fantastic worlds populated with weird and unusual creatures. Spirited Away contrasts two worlds: a once real yet already abandoned theme park decorated in a traditional style and referred to the recent Japan when a surge in economy allowed a period prosperity; and a picturesque bathhouse which is a traditional Japanese place for meetings and bathing which is a reference to the ancient and traditional Japan. Despite creating phantasmagoric spaces, Miyazaki makes them believable enough for the view to identify with them and see what is wrong in respect to reality. Additionally, the fact that Miyazaki is reluctant to use the modern world as a setting can be seen as an implicit commentary on today’s Japan.

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One of issues Miyazaki tackles in Spirited Away is family and the relationships between parents and children. Chihiro, the protagonist, is a 9-year old girl who represents the sho-jo, the Japanese notion that denotes a teenage female child in the transition period between being a child and a young woman. Chihiro looks fearful, nervous and whiny and does not stir much affection in the viewer at first. However, under the influence of difficult circumstances she will transform into a much stronger character. Chihiro’s parents, in contrast to their traditional function, do not provide the expected love and care. In the car scene, Chihiro shows anxiety at moving to another place and whines about only one rose she got from her parents at her birthday. The parents do not exhibit compassion or affection. Even if the girl’s remark about a single rose can be attributed to Chihiro’s caprices and pamperedness, her mother’s irritated “don’t cling on me” when they walk through the dark passageway is a clear indication of the parents’ aloofness and a lack of care. 

Therefore, Chihiro’s family is represented as having significant flaws. First, they are distant from their daughter and do not give her the necessary time and attention. Seconds, one of the manifestations of their different values is the parents’ excessive consuming when they arrive to the theme park. Chihiro is against it and wants to leave the park immediately but the parents do not even pay slightest attention to their daughter’s protestations and carry on with their intent to stay and have a meal. The parents are ‘poisoned’ with the culture of consumerism and thus they are more like absent parents to Chihiro. They delve into compulsive consuming and forget about their daughter believing that a credit card is able to take care of everything. Thus, Chihiro’s parents are unable to bring up their daughter and give her support. Contrastingly, it is Chihiro who should do her best to help her parents and eliminate the charm of the abandoned theme park. 

Basically it can be said that the story is about a loss of parents. Parents demonstrate a lack of affection and support for their daughter. Then the girl loses them altogether and has to come up with a solution. Thus the parents and the child change their places and Chihiro in the young and tender age has to take up parents’ functions and take care of her caregivers. Chihiro has to mature very quickly in order to help her parents.

Parental abandonment results in various difficulties for a child. First of all, children without parents can perish physically and the reference to physical disappearance is an episode when Chihiro began to disappear. Standing next to a stream Chihiro notices that parts of her body are becoming invisible. Had it not been for Haku who gave Chihito a magic dumpling, she would have disappeared completely. Additionally the fact that Chihito eats a magic dumpling, onigiri, alone is “an implicit critique of the absent parent”. Onigiri is a dish prepared by mother and it should have been Chihito’s mother who treated her with it.

Second, not knowing one’s history can be detrimental for a child’s psyche. Without parents or an immediate caregiver the child, especially in young age, can have troubles with his or her identity. Miyazaki refers to it by making Chihiro forget her name. Evil witch Yubaba gives Chihiro a new name and eventually it can result in the girl forgetting completely about her family. When Chihiro becomes aware of her gradual loss of memory, it “reminds the viewer of her vulnerability to the erasure of identity, a reminder of the more graphic vision of her near vanishing at the beginning of the”. Only memory and recognition are able to correct it. Only when Chihiro passes Yubaba’s recognition test with flying colors and recognizes her parents in the pigs, they can reunite. 

In its turn, the difficulties that come across the protagonist’s way define her identity and Chihiro has to use the disadvantages to her benefit. At the beginning of the film, Chihiro demonstrates a weak character when she whines in the car with her parents and when she fears at the theme part. But a string of hardships helps Chihiro develop her character. Each difficulty is probably an indication of an imminent unsuccessful outcome of weak, unsuccessful behavior. When she is about to disappear, Haku reminds her to grab on traditional values, in the form of onigiri; when she is in the bathhouse, Chihiro has to work hard and rely on communal efforts to pass through it; a forgotten name of Haku reminds her that only recognizing one’s true self it is possible to get free. Eventually the loss of her parents forces Chihito to get her bearings and dig out the better qualities in herself thus defining her identity.

Thus the anime provides a commentary on the natural and unnatural conditions of family relations. Since usually parents take care of their children, Chihiro’s family reveals its flaw in a ghost-like theme park. The dysfunctional nature of Chihiro’s family results in a loss of parents and the girl has to change herself and get stronger in order to get her parents back. Thus, a child has to function as a parent and carry out parents’ functions while her caregivers are busy with over-consumenrism. It is a commentary on the contemporary Japan because people can observe it in their lives when both children and parents are aloof and live their separate lives taking pleasure in goods rather than in interpersonal relations. 

Miyazaki’s Spirited Away demonstrates many problems of the modern world: children are abandoned by their parents, if not physically but morally and psychologically, people are over-consuming, children grow weak and spoiled, traditional values are forgotten for the sake of the modern. However, despite it all, Miyazaki solves these problems by the application of traditional Japanese customs and values. Chihiro gets stronger when she eats the onigiri, a traditional Japanese food and she grasps the slipping memory of her parents when she is eating traditional rice balls in the traditional bathhouse. And the ultimate lesson Miyazaki gives the viewer is to recognize one’s true self and it would define one’s identity and help be in touch with one’s family and history.


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