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Spirited Away, Hayao Miyazaki’s take on the modern world

The longing for your childhood life, of goodness and simplicity, stays within you as you grow into adolescence and life morphs into something more complicated. This desire for simplicity and the nostalgia for the past is seemingly fulfilled by the genius of Miyazaki and the Studio Ghibli films. As Hayao Miyazaki once said ‘we get strength and encouragement from watching children’ and this mindset has clearly manifested into his works of art. Despite this, Miyazaki is not exclusively influenced by childhood nostalgia and his works also explore more complex and mature themes. Inspired by his own pacifism and environmentalism, Miyazaki shines a light upon the conflicts of the modern world while offering his own optimism for a better future.

Spirited Away, one of Miyazaki’s most famous films, was the first Studio Ghibli I remember watching. I recall my dad renting it from our local shop and my sister and I watching it on repeat for the next few weeks. The plot itself follows a ten-year-old girl named ‘Chihiro’ who is transported to a mystical world of Kami (spirits of Japanese Shinto folklore) after her parents are turned into pigs by a witch. The film follows Chihiro as she tries to free her parents from their curse and return back to the human world.  

Not only does Miyazaki highlight the childhood fear of abandonment and loss, but he explores this as it translates into adulthood. As the film begins, Chihiro loses her parents and her whole life as she knows it. The film follows her as she learns to cope with this loss while trying to reverse it. Miyazaki perfectly highlights the denial that – I for one – definitely felt within adolescence, it’s almost as if you cannot wait to get older but at the same time you still long for your child-like self. It is therefore unsurprising that Miyazaki was inspired to make the film based on the daughter of a friend (associate producer Seiji Okuda). I believe the connection I personally felt to Spirited Away as a young girl can be attributed to Miyazaki’s real attention to detail in this sense. The familiarity of Chihiro to young girls is what makes the film feel so alive and tangible.  

The realness of Spirited Away also translates into Miyazaki’s presentation of more mature, political themes. The film provides a commentary on western consumerism and its impact on Japan both socially and politically. As Chihiro enters the spirit world she is advised to work at a bathhouse by a boy named Haku. Chihiro soon realises that the bathhouse is run by a witch named Yu-baaba, who – dressed in western clothing – embodies western culture in its deepest form. From their initial meeting, Yu-baaba transforms Chihiro’s name into ‘Sen’ which translates – into English – into ‘a thousand’ and she is tasked to remember her old name in order to gain her old life back. As mentioned, Chihiro’s name translates into ‘a thousand’ but contains a double meaning, also meaning ‘searching/seeking’. Yu-baaba’s removal of this double meaning is intended by Miyazaki to strip her of her personality and transform her into a mere numerical figure. Chihiro – removed of her entire self – becomes a mere commodity in Yu-baaba’s workplace and she is forced to work in order to gain what she desires: the reversal of her parent’s curse. As viewers we can perhaps assume, Miyazaki is commenting on the exploitative nature of western capitalism which has been historically instrumental in Japan. The Meiji period in Japan, which occurred towards the end of the 19th century and extended into the 20th century seems to heavily parallel Miyazaki’s commentary on western power. The period itself saw Japan transform into a nation state, influenced by the newfound technological advances of the west.   

Miyazaki’s ability to capture the lighter theme of childhood while exploring heavier, political connotations is what makes Spirited Away so worthwhile and meaningful. Exploring Miyazaki’s own words as mentioned earlier, ‘we get strength and encouragement from watching children’ and I believe Miyazaki is able to unveil the true fragility of money and power by comparing it with the strength Chihiro is able to cultivate due to her age.   

Second year undergraduate studying BA History at UCL.
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