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Spirited Away: Connections to Asian Mythology

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 2011 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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This paper will be discussing Spirited Away and its connections to Japanese Shinto Mythology and its recurring themes. More specifically, the story of Izanami and Izanagi as well as the themes of good and evil and its amalgamation.

Spirited Away follows the story about a young girl by the name of Chihiro, who is moving to a new place with her parents. They encounter a large tunnel that leads to an abandoned theme park. Chihiro’s parents decide to explore the park and come across a food stall that is open but unattended and begin to devour the food that is on the counter. Chihiro refuses to join them, and so she decides to explore the park further and comes across a large bathhouse, where she meets Haku. This meeting is where the movie takes a drastic turn. Haku tells Chihiro that she should not be there and asks her to leave at once when she goes to inform her parents; she bears witness to a horrible reality that they have become pigs. Chihiro then has to overcome her fears and work for Yubaba in hopes that she can save her parents and return to her old life.

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The film is heavily influenced by Shinto mythology with certain aspects such as the setting of the bathhouse and the presence of different spirits and Yōkai (supernatural monsters, ghosts, demons in Japanese myth). The reason for the setting being a bathhouse is because, in Japanese folklore, bathhouses are where Kami and other Japanese folklore spirits came to bathe. The relation is Miyazaki’s way of acknowledging how vital his tradition was to him. He refers, for example, to his “very warm appreciation for the various, very humble rural Shinto rituals that continue to this day throughout rural Japan and cites the solstice rituals when villagers call forth all the local kami and invite them to bathe in their baths.”[1] Spirited Away is one movie which strives to blurs the line between the concepts of Western and Eastern tradition; he does not represent either as good or bad, but rather it suggests that Japan can gain a new form of identity from assimilating western culture.  Unfortunately, any contemporary reactions of the movie have been directed towards the artistic and storytelling ability of Miyazaki Hayao as the connections to Japanese myth and culture are subtle and have not been brought to the forefront. This means that even though Spirited Away was influenced by Japanese myth and Japanese mythology and contemporary Japanese culture, it was not expressed enough for the audience to notice. The Japanese’s concept that religion has to be practiced and not preached as it refers to the practicing of religion in Japan and how most of the youth ignores it. [2]This is further emphasized by Chihiro’s mom’s dialogue in the movie when Chihiro does not recognize some of the Shinto shrines, and she replies, “some people think little spirits live there.”[3]

After watching the movie, it could be inferred that there is one significant allusion to the story of Izanami and Izanagi. The story is mainly depicted with the scene of the Chihiro’s parents eating at the food stall in the abandoned amusement park. The way this relates to the story of Izanami and Izanagi is because Izanami, the female creator of Japan, dies while giving birth to a fire deity. “Izanagi, her brother, husband as well as the male counterpart, missed her so much that he goes to the nether land to retrieve her. However, Izanami says that she has already eaten the food from that realm, implying that it would be difficult for her to return easily to this one. The food produced in the other world has the power to make one stay in that world.”[4]   The connection is also in the scene where Chihiro is seen to be disappearing when she is in the spirit world; this is until Haku provides here with a candy-like substance that allows her to stay in the world.

The context is in more of a modern-day setting with characters who are from to the modern age rather than ancient. However, the myth is told from the perspective of Chihiro, who plays the role of Izanagi, while both of her parents play the role of Izanami as they eat the food of the spirit world. The main differences from the original story of Izanami and Izanagi are the fact that it represents in a more modern context and the roles for the characters reversed. Meaning that Chihiro, who represents Izanagi in this story, is a female, while her parents represent Izanami. Furthermore, rather than becoming decaying corpses, to which thunder-kami were attached, they became pigs.

The story of Spirited Away tells us about the different themes such as the renewal of life and do not look. The story reflects in the myth of Izanami and Izanagi as when Izanagi received an opportunity to release Izanami from the constraints of the world of the dead, and he was told not to look at her; however, he breaks this taboo when he looked at her. He saw that her body was already decaying and he was because of this, he left the underworld and sealed the door to the world of the dead with boulders. A large part of the story of Izanami and Izanagi was the ultimatum of creation and destruction. When Izanagi blocked the entrance to Yomi with a boulder, Izanami became furious and said, “O my beloved husband, if you do this, I shall each day strangle to death one thousand of the populace of your country.”[5]  Izanami replied by stating, “O my beloved spouse, if you do this, I will each day build one thousand five hundred parturition huts.”[6]  This story seems similar to the concept of creation and destruction in Hindu mythology, which believes that there can be no creation without destruction and that both creation and destruction are a part of a cyclical process. That concludes the connections between Spirited Away and Izanami and Izanagi.

Moving on, a significant theme that is pertinent in Japanese Shinto mythology is the concept of good and evil, which shows with the two characters Zeniba and Yubaba, who are sisters. Zeniba and Yubaba are necessarily two sides of a similar coin and share similarities in their appearance but in only that specific aspect. Yubaba, who is the owner and runs the bathhouse, is seen as a particularly malicious woman, as she is seen ordering Haku (her apprentice) to do unethical tasks including theft. Yubaba is shown as someone who is overcome with greed, as seen with her collection of diamonds, jewels, and her obsession for the gold that No Face throws during his visit to the bathhouse. On the other side of the spectrum, Zeniba seems to be a very content being, who enjoys living in a quiet place and finds interest in routine tasks such as sewing and reading. It is interesting to understand how despite having being birthed by the same person, their personalities and goals vary greatly.

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 The use of these two characters bears a striking similarity to stories from both Japanese Shinto mythology as well as Confucian mythology. From Confucian mythology, Zeniba and Yubaba are similar to the Yin Yang. Although the Yin Yang recognizes Yin as female and Yang as male, it infers that Zeniba and Yubaba emphasize the aspect of negative and positive charge as Zeniba is seen to a positive influence to Chihiro, while Yubaba a negative influence to Chihiro. Another story that bears a resemblance from Shinto mythology is the story of Amaterasu and Susa-no-o; Although having being born from the same being, Izanagi, Amaterasu came to be known as Heaven’s shining and Susa-no-o as the Raging rushing man. The story reflects the theme of good and evil that is prevalent in Shinto mythology. It is also worth noting that Amaterasu banished Susa-no-o as punishment for his actions; it infers that this is similar to Zeniba’s actions after Yubaba had Haku steal the golden seal from her.

Although the movie depicts good and evil as two respective sides as seen above, there are scenes in the movie where Miyazaki blurs the lines between them. “It is a well-known fact that there is no clear boundary between good and evil in Miyazaki or Studio Ghibli films.”[7] This is seen with Yubaba’s character change throughout the movie. Initially, Yubaba was antagonistic towards Chihiro when she first asked to work; however, when the river spirit, or Kawa no Kami, came and visited the bathhouse, Yubaba encouraged the rest of the employees to help Chihiro to remove the trash that contaminated the Kami. After the Kami left, she sang Chihiro’s praises and told every employee to be like Chihiro. This grey area is also shown in the last scene where Yubaba offers to let Chihiro go free if she can tell which pigs her parents are. “This reflects the typical Eastern philosophy, that of Vedas or Yin Yang.”[8]  In the image of the Yin Yang, the Yin and Yang sides are seen to have a small amount of each other. The imagery means that means that even with the concepts of good, there is some evil and vice versa.

Overall, the film Spirited Away maintains underlying connections with contemporary Japanese mythology through its allusion to the story of Izanami and Izanagi as well as its inclusion of the theme of good and evil with its amalgamation in Miyazaki’s films. It emphasizes these stories from myth while also maintaining strong storytelling and animation.

Works Cited

  1. Boyd, James W. and Nishimura, Tetsuya (2016) “Shinto Perspectives in Miyazaki’s Anime Film “Spirited Away”,” Journal of Religion & Film: Vol. 8 : Iss. 3 , Article 4. 
    Available at: https://digitalcommons.unomaha.edu/jrf/vol8/iss3/4
  2. “Traditional Japan In Spirited Away.” UKEssays.com. 11 2013. All Answers Ltd. 12 2018 <https://www.ukessays.com/essays/film-studies/reflections-of-traditional-japan-in-spirited-away-film-studies-essay.php?vref=1>.
  3. Chihiro’s mom says, “some people think little spirits live there” (Spirited Away)
  4. Reider, Noriko T. “‘Spirited Away’: Film of the Fantastic and Evolving Japanese Folk Symbols.” Film Criticism, vol. 29, no. 3, 2005, pp. 4–27. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/44019178.
  5. Heldt, Gustav. and Ō, Yasumaro.  The Kojiki : an account of ancient matters / [compiled by] Ō no Yasumaro ; translated by Gustav Heldt  Columbia University Press New York  2014 Page 16
  6. Heldt, Gustav. and Ō, Yasumaro.  The Kojiki : an account of ancient matters / [compiled by] Ō no Yasumaro ; translated by Gustav Heldt  Columbia University Press New York  2014 Page 16
  7. Naskar, Deep. “SPIRITED AWAY : A Study of the Symbolical Significances in Hayao Miyazaki’s Surreal Masterpiece.” Academia.edu – Share Research, IJELLH, Dec. 2017, www.academia.edu/35519666/SPIRITED_AWAY_A_Study_of_the_Symbolical_Significances_in_Hayao_Miyazaki_s_Surreal_Masterpiece.
  8. Naskar, Deep. “SPIRITED AWAY : A Study of the Symbolical Significances in Hayao Miyazaki’s Surreal Masterpiece.” Academia.edu – Share Research, IJELLH, Dec. 2017, www.academia.edu/35519666/SPIRITED_AWAY_A_Study_of_the_Symbolical_Significances_in_Hayao_Miyazaki_s_Surreal_Masterpiece.


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