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The protagonist of the film, Chihiro, has lived a pampered life in the city and is naive and unprepared for adulthood. Her parents are portrayed as greedy and irresponsible in the symbol of the “credit card wielding father turning into an overindulgent hog.” (Broderick, 2003) The ‘spirit world’ that she unknowingly enters represents the Taisho period of Japanese history (around 1912 to 1926), a popular setting in Anime, but of particular personal significance to Miyazaki. (Yoshioka, 2008) Childhood memories have influenced his use of this time which does not simply create a feeling of nostalgia, but, as Yoshioka says, “merges personal experience into a larger sense of past.” (Yoshioka, 2008: p.257)
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The aspects of traditional Japan displayed in the film vary from the extravagant grandeur of the bathhouse to the simple, yet quaint wooden houses and shops in the spirit town. The bathhouse even includes sliding paper doors and massive ornate ‘Satsuma-ware’ vases all representative of a prosperous location in Japan during the 1920s. It serves to act as an opposition to the modern character of Chihiro upon who the traditional aspects of Japanese society are lost. (Denison, 2007) Denison writes that the bathhouse “holds valuable lessons for modern (Japanese) society,” including, not allowing such a healthy eclectic heritage disappear in a culture obsessed with the furthering of technology as well as keeping the Japanese youth educated about their roots and heritage.
Some of the major characters in the film also incorporate aspects of traditional Japanese folklore. Spirits have been featured as characters in many ancient Japanese folk tales, generally influenced by the two major religions Shinto and Buddhism. The ancient ‘River Spirit’ which Chihiro helps to clean appears to have a face which resembles a Japanese ‘Noh’ theatre mask. Another theatrical mask is also featured on the character of No-Face. The film also alludes to the practicing of religion in Japan and the ignorance of the youth towards it. In a scene at the beginning of the film Chihiro does not recognise some Shinto shrines and her mother explains their role yet it is evident that she does not consider them important saying “some people think little spirits live there.” (Spirited Away, 2001) It is evident from Miyazaki’s films as a whole that the ‘spirituality’ is a common and often prominent theme, particularly, but not exclusively, among his films aimed at children.
Certain themes recur in Miyazakis films. In Spirited Away many of these appear such as childhood, materialism and most notably environmentalism. The story of the spirit Haku links to the arguments mentioned so far about the portrayal of tradition. The disappearance of Haku’s home the ‘Kohaku River’ due to materialism has led to his forgetting of the past and even his name alluding to the real possibility of people in Japan being so focused on the future they forget elements of their past, in this case an ancient river paved over to build apartments. (Osmond, 2008) Other Miyazaki films have also included the relationship between the ‘spirits’ or ‘gods’ and humans, mainly about the difficulty of the two living in harmony. Princess Mononoke (1997), Ponyo (2008) and My Neighbour Totoro (1988) are examples of this with each also carrying the theme of environmentalism.
All of the points mentioned so far have reinforced that the world featured within Spirited Away shows a traditional, typically Japanese culture which aims to critique modern Japanese society as well as educate the films young target audience about the importance of tradition. Thanks to Disney’s worldwide distribution deal with Miyazaki’s production company Studio Ghibli, the market for anime has been expanded so hugely that there’s a now global awareness of not only modern and pseudo-futuristic Japan but also heightened understanding of Japanese tradition; “fans (are) engaged with the cultural origins of anime texts”. (Cubbison, 2005: p.45) This market has been so developed that anime now seems to cater specifically for the international market within its films. The complex identities of Miyazakis characters, such as Haku or Yubaba in Spirited Away are, according to Denison, created to appeal to a Hollywood-saturated world market. These characters employ a number of traits not inherently Japanese. Also, some aspects of the architecture and artwork featured in the film are not typically Japanese but contain elements of Western styles. An example of this can be found in the small thatched cottage owned by Zeniba, the kind twin sister of the unpleasant witch Yubaba, the owner of the aforementioned bathhouse.
The Anime film industry has varying takes on the issue of tradition, but Miyazaki has taken on the issue whole heartedly in his films. Miyazaki’s idea of the identity of the Japanese person, along with his concept of the loss of traditional culture in the technological Mecca of contemporary Japanese society, has proved significant in the visual appeal of his films as well as their artistic value. Not only does he reference parts of culture such as art, architecture and religion, but also references traditional theatre and behaviour (such as the removal of shoes before entering a house). Despite the fact that Miyazakis uses some hybridity with other cultures in his portrayal of tradition, the fundamental “Japaneseness” of Spirited Away is clear and irrefutable.
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Cubbison, L. 2005. Anime Fans, DVDs, and the Authentic Text. The Velvet Light Trap. 56 Autumn, pp.45-57.
Denison, R. 2007. The Global Markets For Anime: Miyazaki Hayao’s Spirited Away. In: Phillips, A. Stringer, J. 2007. Japanese cinema: texts and contexts. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis, pp.308-320.
Napier, S. J. 2001. Why Anime? In: Napier, S. J. 2001. Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke: experiencing contemporary Japanese animation. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp.3-14.
Osmond, A. 2008. Being Spirited Away. In: Osmond, A. 2008. Spirited Away. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp.7-15.
Spirited Away. 2001. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki. London: Optimum [DVD].
Yoshioka, S. 2008. Heart of Japaneseness, History and Nostalgia in Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. In: MacWilliams, M. W. 2008. Japanese Visual Culture: Explorations in the World of Manga and Anime. New York: M.E. Sharpe.
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