Spirited Away Analysis

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If you’re into anime at all, or even into film in general, then there’s a good chance you’re familiar with Spirited Away, otherwise known as Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi, and the wealth of awards and critical acclaim which the film has garnered over the years. Its release in 2003 elevated Studio Ghibli and director Hayao Miyazaki to godlike status in the world of animation, and it remains arguably the best-known anime film ever made.

Oddly enough, in spite of it having been reviewed and analyzed countless times over the past decade, nothing which I’ve read about this film cuts to the heart of what it’s really about, or why it resonates so strongly with people. It’s a film which leaves itself impressively open to interpretation while presenting enough fantastical flair and straightforward drama to keep audiences engaged even before they stop to think about it. While there may be quite a number of readings into the themes, characters, and symbols of this film, it doesn’t sit right with me that after twelve years of praise, I’ve never seen one cohesive, all-encompassing rundown of the film which tries to pin down what makes it so special once and for all. If such a thing has bothered you as well, then I invite you to join me in attempting to provide just that.

Most of the analytical writing on this film which I’ve found attempts to paint it as one big allusion to some kind of greater historical or mythological context, with varying degrees of success. To me, there’s a fundamental problem with the idea of reading this film as allusion–but in order to make my point I’m going to break down one of the theories which I’ve seen making the rounds on various websites.

A popular reading which seems to have originated from someone’s tumblr post, is that Spirited Away is one big allusion to the sex trade in Edo era Japan. This theory centers around the fact that in that time period, bathhouses similar to the one in this film were often fronts for brothels, and the terminology used to describe the girls running the baths in the film is the same which was used to describe the prostitutes running the baths back in that era. Yubaba highly resembles the kind of queen courtesan who would run a brothel like this, and the general way that her workers are treated as semi-slaves is very similar to how these brothels were run. Chihiro essentially working to pay of her parents’ debt reflects the most common reason that young girls would be sold into prostitution back then, and the fact that the customer base seems to be mostly male, whereas the main working staff seems to be mostly female, is suggestive of a brothel atmosphere. Not to mention there’s that brief scene in which the Radish dude stops the elevator on one floor for just a few seconds, and it kinda looks exactly like how an old-school brothel is portrayed in pretty much every anime to ever feature one.

Every article which presents this reading of the story cites a supposed quote from Hayao Miyazaki, in which he states that the best way to represent modern Japan is with the sex trade, because modern Japan resembles the sex trade. However, when trying to find the source for this quote, I kept getting led back to other articles which quoted him, and never to where the quote may have actually come from. Every article just sources another article on the subject, as if assuming that no one was ever going to check.

Now, I’m not saying it’s impossible that all of this was intentional, or even that the Hayao Miyazaki quote is real. However, my problem with looking at the film this way is that Spirited Away is obviously not ABOUT the sex trade. Nothing in the film seems to comment on the sex trade specifically, and plenty of the scenes lack any context within that allusion. For example, what does the River God scene have to do with the sex trade? What does Yubaba’s feud with Zeniba, or the character arc of Yubaba’s baby have to do with the sex trade? How does Chihiro’s compassion and determination to help others tie in with the sex trade metaphor? What does this film have to say about prostitution?

Nothing, really. The fact is that all of these tropes–the powerful matriarch who runs things with an iron fist, the young girl who has to work through a desperate situation due to the folly of her parents, the difficult workplace where everyone is looking out for themselves, the crazy and irate customers that she has to put up with–all of these could be applied to virtually any workplace scenario; including, even, a regular bathhouse! Hell, the plot of Hanasaku Iroha was basically the same thing, but in a more literal, down-to-earth context.

Does Spirited Away use imagery and tropes which tie into classic stereotypes about the sex trade in order to build it’s setting? Possibly. Does it heavily utilize symbols and characters related to Shintoism and classical Japanese mythology to represent its thematic goals? Definitely, and we’ll get back to that in a bit. Is it a commentary on the dangers of polluting the environment in which we live? Well, it’s from the same guy who made Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and Princess Mononoke, so it’d be scarier if that theme didn’t show up in the movie. Is it a criticism of modern capitalist society and all of its corruption? Maybe, but what I think the film really focuses on is not any of these issues themselves, but on the basic human element which lies at the heart of all of them.

Yubaba’s Bathhouse isn’t so much a commentary on capitalism as it is a commentary on greed–the basic element lying underneath the corruption of modern capitalism. It’s not about Japanese mythology or environmental pollution, so much as it uses those motifs to inform its central message of personal cleansing, which we’ll talk about more in a bit. It’s not using Chihiro’s bad situation to comment on the sex trade, but is using the motif of the sex trade to convey the kind of bad situation that Chihiro is in.

The thing about great art, and especially about all of Hayao Miyazaki’s work, is that it rarely comes from just one place. Miyazaki is known to integrate elements of his past experiences, the people around him, his own personality, his beliefs, and all of the motifs which interest him into his work; and then to weave all of it into a story which incorporates those elements service of a more central point. In the mostly-terrible Art of Spirited Away featurette which comes on the DVD, Miyazaki talks briefly about how Chihiro is based on the real children of some of his friends, and his belief in a child’s resolve to push forward and to find strength in a world which at first seems scary or boring to them. He describes how the River God scene was based on his own experiences cleaning a river, in which he really did tie a rope around a bike handle and pull it out with the aid of a bunch of other people. He talks about his reverence for the attitude of his grandfather’s generation, that everything had a spirit or god living inside of it, and that man was meant to respect and honor the world around them.

The reason the scenarios and characters presented in Spirited Away can be put into so many different analytical contexts is that they are highly applicable to many real-life situations. They are built in such a way that we can see elements of ourselves, or of the world around us, or of our own ideas and ideals, reflected in what happens on-screen.

A lot of the power in this film comes from how little dialog it has. Long stretches consist of only visuals and music; and while Chihiro is given general directions by the other characters from time to time, the majority of what happens is either unexplained, or unfolds naturally by way of the characters’ personalities. It’s a film which rarely tells you what it’s really about, what’s really going on, or how you’re supposed to feel about anything. It scarcely moralizes at the viewer, and even leaves us to come to our own conclusions about most of the characters. We can see this best reflected in No Face, whose intentions and true nature are never fully explained, and whose character arc is largely left open to interpretation. Because of this loose, natural flow, people can read their own meanings into the film and apply it to their own ideas with relative ease.

But none of this is to say that Spirited Away lacks a central focus or theme which it attempts to portray. While it leaves itself applicable to a wide variety of situations, it still manages to tie all of its motifs and characters into a general theme; which is, if anything, what the film is really about. That theme might best be described as, “self-betterment,” or, “cleansing,” though taken literally, either of these is a bit too restrictive. Suffice it to say that the core of this film is about how we can bring out the best in ourselves and in our environment by being the best that we can be in our moment-to-moment lives–and we can accomplish this by acting out of respect for ourselves and our surroundings, and by working hard at our own goals without selfishly ignoring the needs of others.

Almost every character in Spirited Away is introduced at their worst. Chihiro starts off bitter over moving houses, and acts somewhat bratty and sour towards her parents. Said parents, meanwhile, are presented as astonishingly daft, totally ignoring their daughter to wander some unexplained location and eating a bunch of food which doesn’t belong to them. The spirit world seems scary and uncaring towards Chihiro, and while Haku at first seems like the one thing which she can trust in this world, he later shows an icy and questionably good side as well. Kamaji is a grumpy old man, Lin is demanding and aggressive, most of the workers make fun of Chihiro behind her back, and Yubaba reigns high as queen meanie of the bunch. Zeniba threatens to kill Haku, Yubaba’s baby is a spoiled brat, and her minions are mindlessly aggressive. The River god and Radish man, while not confrontational towards Chihiro, are presented as off-putting or gross, and No Face is always somewhere between creepy and terrifying in all of his early scenes.

However, one by one, each of these characters eventually turns around to show their good side by way of interacting with Chihiro. For No Face, and for Yubaba’s baby and familiar, this is a presented as a linear change from someone with a bad personality to someone inspired to be better; whereas for the others, it’s more that we see their inherent good-naturedness come out from beneath their hardened veneer. The only character who arguably never turns around to show her good side is Yubaba–but we’ll talk more about her in a bit.

My brother pointed out while we were watching this movie together that a lot of the time, the characters seem to be at their worst when they’re in the work mentality. Kamaji is mean up until the point where he stops to eat lunch; Lin, while clearly helpful, acts standoffish towards Chihiro until they get together away from everyone else, and she shows more enthusiasm and care towards her as a person; Haku is nice when not on duty, but icy when under Yubaba’s command; and Zeniba is cutthroat in matters pertaining to magic, but in her off time acts like a kindly old grandma.

I don’t think that it’s specifically work which puts these characters into a harsh mindset, so much as the need to keep up appearances, and to protect themselves mentally. Each of these characters knows that Chihiro is stepping into a harsh world, and that Yubaba could chew her up and spit her out. However, through her good-natured attitude and work ethic, Chihiro earns the respect of everyone that she comes across quickly, and brings out their underlying desire to go against Yubaba’s oppressive system and to help this little girl find happiness. It’s not so much that work itself brings out the worst in others, but that Yubaba brings out the worst in others.

Yubaba is the representation of greed and selfishness. She only cares about others insofar as those people relate to herself, and is so concerned with the material aspect of her life that she doesn’t even notice when her own son is replaced with a fake. She steals the names of her workers to take ownership over them, lusts after her twin sister’s powers, and demand that things be run her way with no exceptions. Even though she appears to love her son, she treats him as the prize jewel of her collection more than as a human being.

Late into the film, Zeniba explains that Yubaba is her other half. Whereas Yubaba lives in an opulent bathhouse and possesses both lives and wealth, Zeniba lives alone in a humble cottage, with only her necessary personal belongings; and she eventually takes No Face into her home for their mutual benefit. She offers protection to Chihiro and advice on how to achieve her goals, and all-around shows a level of compassion which her sister seems incapable of.

It’s not necessarily the case that Yubaba is evil and that Zeniba is good, so much as that Yubaba is greedy and Zeniba is humble. Yubaba could potentially be made good, especially through the effort of raising her now-enlightened son, and Zeniba shows capacity for evil in her attempt to murder Haku and Chihiro. However, what the film suggests with each of these characters is that the avarice of a person like Yubaba will bring out the worst in those around her, whereas the humble and respectful attitude of someone like Zeniba will bring out the best in those around her.

The scene in which Chihiro first encounters Kamaji and his soot buddies towards the beginning of the film can almost be taken as a microcosm for everything that it stands for. Chihiro wanders in confused, under orders that she doesn’t really understand, and is forced to deal with an obstinate force in her way. She confronts this obstacle as respectfully as she can, but without backing down on getting her goals accomplished. When one of the soot creatures is crushed by a piece of coal, she instinctively goes to help it; and when told to finish what she started, she follows through without complaint.

The soot creatures are greedy and want Chihiro to take care of their work too, but Kamaji scolds them, while being impressed enough with Chihiro’s kindness and work ethic to recommend her for a job once Lin enters the room. All throughout this film, Chihiro is put into situations like this, wherein she doesn’t really know what to do, or what the result of her actions will be; but because she tries her best and works diligently, things end up working out for her. We can see this again when she cleans up the river spirit, or when she heals the wounded Haku, or even just when she’s working random jobs at the bathhouse.

In the quiet moments of the film, we see how all of this confusion and mental strain is effecting Chihiro, as she privately cries in front of Lin at the end of the first day, and in front of Haku after eating with him in the field of flowers. But in spite of how taxing her experiences may be, Chihiro never loses her good-natured will and powerful work ethic which inspires everyone around her.

A few of my favorite moments in Spirited Away come when Chihiro’s actions seem to cause something to click in the heads of those around her. For instance, during the scene wherein she’s cleaning the River God, at first everyone is making fun of her from a distance; but the moment she finds the thorn in its side, Yubaba snaps everyone into action, and we see a bathhouse full of what sometimes seem like complacent, greedy assholes, suddenly working in concert to accomplish something good (even if Yubaba’s reason for action might be greedy).

The moment when Chihiro really starts to embody selfless compassion is when she feeds the water god’s medicine to Haku, and holds onto him as tightly as she can until he swallows it. This display of love inspires Kamaji enough to give her the train tickets, and impresses Yubaba’s baby in such a way that he starts to evolve as a character from this point forward. It’s as though Chihiro is constantly reminding everyone around her of what it looks and feels like to be a good person, and to not give in to the avarice and bad-naturedness which Yubaba brings out of them.

Yubaba’s baby, Boh, and No Face are the ones who are changed the most by Chihiro’s inspiration, because neither of them have really been exposed to that kind of good-natured attitude before. Boh starts off bratty and entitled, and has Yubaba’s familiar carry him around everywhere after being turned into a mouse. He quickly clings to Chihiro as the only friendly-seeming person around in his confused state, and is impressed by her awesome actions as she saves Haku and stomps out the curse.

Boh reaches a turning point when Chihiro encounters Yubaba again, and his own mother doesn’t even recognize him. We see him go from sad to angry, and he decides to stick with Chihiro, having become disillusioned to his mother’s personality. While travelling with Chihiro, Boh becomes humbled and starts to take after her, even deciding that he’s going to walk on his own legs from now on without anyone’s help. At Zeniba’s house, he deliberately remains in mouse form and helps her to spool her threads in a totally selfless act. By the end of the film, Boh tells off his own mother for not being as nice a person as Chihiro is.

No Face, meanwhile, is a lonely spirit searching for somewhere to belong. Chihiro lets him into the bathhouse, but doesn’t offer him guidance on how to behave, other than inspiring him to help her by giving her something which she desires in return. As No Face learns from the bathhouse staff and starts to take on their personalities and desires by eating them, he is quickly corrupted, and becomes obsessed with the material things which all those working under Yubaba’s mindset crave. He expects Chihiro to share the desires that everyone else does, but is ultimately reduced back to a confused and wandering state as he follows her around once more.

It’s not clear if No Face ever completely understands Chihiro’s selflessness; but in the end, he manages to find a home with Zeniba, working alongside her. If anything, it seems that No Face’s main purpose is to show us just how corruptive the power of greed can be, and how quickly someone with no personality would be turned into a monster if they were only exposed to that side of human nature, without knowing the power of selflessness.

Early into this video, I mentioned that this film borrows a lot of symbolism and ideas from Shintoism, and that these symbols feed into the nature of the central themes. There is an excellent article by James W. Boyd and Tetsuya Nishimura on the Journal of Religion and Film, which dives deep into the film’s Shinto references and delivers a broad analysis of the film in that context. I won’t be rehashing all of their ideas here, but only pointing out how these symbols tie into the themes which I’ve presented until now.

The article explains how, according to traditional Shintoist belief, there is a godliness to every phenomenon in nature–and this godliness must be maintained through what the article describes as, “an aesthetically pure and cheerful heart and mind.” If not maintained, the godliness of things becomes muddied and impure, and finds itself in need of cleansing. Just as shrine Shintoism would involve purification of the spirit in order to maintain the beauty of all phenomena, Chihiro herself is purified through her experiences, while cleansing the souls of those around her with her actions. It certainly is no accident that this story is set in a bathhouse, where people go to literally cleanse their bodies–and that the symbolism of traditional spiritual cleansing forms the backbone of its fantastical setting.

What Spirited Away tries to teach us is that by being at our best, and by helping others to be at their best, we can all inspire and help one-another to achieve happiness. It doesn’t only include humans in this equation, but the entire world surrounding us; as it supposes, just as Shinto belief does, that there is a spirit and godliness in everything. When we let our world be polluted, both literally and figuratively, we become corrupt–but if we try to purify ourselves and our surroundings, then we will improve the quality of life for everyone.

Miyazaki has stated in a number of interviews that Spirited Away was aimed squarely at the demographic which Chihiro represents, and that the character was based on the girls of that age whom he was familiar with. He compared the bathhouse to his own Studio Ghibli, noting how places like that could seem incomprehensible and terrifying to young outsiders. However, he wanted to show those scared or disenfranchised youths that there was still hope and a future for them, as long as they were willing to put the work in to reach it. He seems at once to regard this generation as spoiled and entitled, yet also seems to believe in their underlying goodness and ability to persevere, which is what he wanted to present on the screen. I could probably go on analyzing Miyazaki’s relationship with the younger generations, and maybe even wring some laughs out of comparing him to Yubaba, but my point in bringing up Miyazaki’s interviews is simply to tie everything together. Miyazaki saw this film as a message of hope to young girls, and the film itself instructs that this hope is born from dutifulness, and from respect for the world around them.

Beyond the film’s feel-good thematic message, and characters who are made memorable by the ways in which we learn about their underlying good nature, it also succeeds on the technical level about as well as it imaginably could. Studio Ghibli films are so known for featuring top-of-the-line animation and art design that it’s taken as a given by now; and since I don’t really have the chops to analyze every aspect of its animation in-depth, I won’t dive too deeply into it. I’ll simply talk about some of the broad and specific things which impressed me about this film in particular, which stand out as things that I can’t necessarily get elsewhere.

Perhaps the single most impressive aspect of Spirited Away is the setting design, which feels so specifically detailed and alive that when you take a step back to consider that this bathhouse is not a real place, and that Ghibli totally had to invent this whole thing for the sake of this movie, it becomes kind of mind-blowing. Not to say that there wasn’t probably plenty of reference material, but the ways in which the characters naturally navigate this environment are the kind of stuff that you just don’t get a ton of in animation.

Take for instance the first scene in the boiler room. We’ve got a concrete part of the floor where the soot creatures travel from their holes to throw coal into the fire, as well as the elevated wooden section beyond which characters no longer need shoes, and which both leads into the bathhouse, and is where Lin walks to deliver the team their lunch. There are tons of cabinets running up the walls, which Kamaji can deftly navigate with his extendable arms, and a little crawl-through door leading into the bathhouse. The moment which impressed me the most in this scene, is when Chihiro is avoiding the dust mites, and she tucks herself into the corner between the elevated part of the floor, and the dust mite holes. To put a moment like this into the movie, the creative team would have needed a firm grasp of the layout of this room before they even started writing the scene and planning out how Chihiro would interact with the elements of this setting. Whereas most films would base the setting around what the script calls for, this film instead bends the script around the nature of the setting. This is probably only possible because Miyazaki claims that he starts working on each of his films before a script even exists.

In spite of Miyazaki’s reputation for auteurism and personally correcting the majority of the animation frames in his films, I think it’s interesting as well how, like with most Japanese animation, you can really see the individuality of certain animators and staff members in some of the scenes that they work on. For instance, it’s not hard to notice the dramatic change in animation style in the cuts wherein Chihiro reaches the bottom of the stairs and enters the boiler room. Everything suddenly looks more wavy and expressive, in contrast with the more solid animation of the rest of the film. That’s because these cuts were animated by Shinya Ohira, and this is his unique style of animation.

Atsuko Tanaka’s cuts tend to involve a large amount of detail moving on screen all at once in various scenes with Yubaba, which helps to convey the opulence and abundance which the character surrounds herself with. She also might be responsible for one of my favorite cuts, wherein Yubaba’s fingers crawling up Chihiro’s arm and neck are obviously modeled after the movement of a spider’s legs. Similarly, Mariko Matsuo’s cuts convey a bustling, busy frame as the bathhouse goes into chaotic overdrive in reaction to No Face’s antics.

Outside of the animators whose names I could find, there are no shortage of little moments that stand out for their interesting art style across the film; and this melting pot of subtle style changes helps it to feel even more vibrant and varied than it might have otherwise. If anything, the mastery of Miyazaki is less about how he bends everything to perfectly fit his vision, and more about how he can make all of these different styles feel cohesive and natural within the same film.

Much of the so-called “magic” which so many reviewers claim this film to have can be attributed to the specific details of its setting and workmanship. Miyazaki notes in the Art of Spirited Away featurette that a lot of the oddly specific rules in the story are used to make the magical aspects of the film feel more real to children; and you don’t have to ask a lot of fantasy fans to find that this rule applies to magic in any story. Spirited Away is careful to use rules which are just vague and arbitrary enough so as not to limit what can be done with the setting, yet which still ground everything in enough context that we understand the existence of limits to its fantasy. This little trick is enough to give Miyazaki license to invent whatever he wants, while creating the illusion that there is a sense of logic holding his universe together.

Because every creature in the film moves and acts in such unique ways, from the lumbering silence of the Radish monster, to the blobby, gross, and erratic movements of the sick No Face, all of these creatures seem distinct and alive. If all of the monsters had the same presence and personality, then they would just blend together as one mass of weirdness, instead of each being memorable and unique as they are.

On the whole, the film is held together by tight pacing, and feels shorter than its 125-minute runtime in spite of many slow and quiet sequences. The opening scene has a long slow build before erupting into a chaotic frenzy as Chihiro transitions from the human world to the spirit world. Chihiro runs around lost for a while before Haku finds her, and guides her in a very linear right-to-left sequence of cuts towards the bathhouse, which gives us our first real sense of direction in the scene. It’s because of this sense of being pulled out of the chaos and into the story that both Chihiro and the viewer immediately sense the importance of Haku to the story.

Chihiro’s right-to-left movement continues until the Boiler Room scene, which cuts the energy back down to the minimum, without failing to keep us engaged by the strange and intimate details of the setting. From here, the story really kicks off, and continues with a long succession of quiet and slow scenes punctuated by more energetic and frantic ones. Every scene in the film has such a unique energy and flow to it that every last one of them is memorable, and only grows more so on repeated viewings. It may be unfair to say this as I’ve seen the film at least five times over twelve years, but I feel like I’ve always been able to remember this film in pretty much its entirety from at least the second time that I saw it.

When you think about just how little dialog there is in this film, and how hard it is to get invested in any of the characters for most of the early scenes before we get to see them open up and show their good sides, it’s kind of amazing that Miyazaki was capable of captivating such a wide audience and keeping their attention. It’s a testament to both the strength of the film’s pacing and to the imaginative and attention-grabbing nature of its setting and characters that this film doesn’t lose its audience. I first saw Spirited Away when I was thirteen, and while I didn’t get much out of it because I was mostly into shows about cool guys fighting other cool guys, I remember not being bored just because there were so many crazy things on-screen at pretty much all times.

Of course, it would be remiss of me not to comment on the film’s excellent music and sound design, though I must admit that I don’t know enough on the subject to provide an in-depth analysis. What I can comment on however is the voice acting, and some of the differences between the Japanese and English audio of the film.

Studio Ghibli films are known to employ TV and film actors as well as non-actors for their voice roles, as opposed to established voice actors, and I’ve always found that the dialog in Miyazaki’s films tends to come off rather stilted and awkward–most likely as a result of how he considers the script almost as an afterthought to the animation. The voice actors who played Chihiro and Haku were only thirteen years old at the time of their performances, and Boh’s actor was only seven or eight. This gives these characters a very natural and young sound, though I wouldn’t say that any of their performances are particularly noteworthy.

The performances only become worth looking into when you compare them against the English dub. Oddly enough, whereas Chihiro is again portrayed by a child actress who gives a very similar performance to her Japanese counterpart, Haku is played by a much older, established voice actor, who isn’t particularly trying to make Haku sound young. This Haku ends up sounding a lot more stern and scary during the film’s opening scene, whereas he originally sounded friendly and soothing. On the one hand, Haku’s English voice better sells the angle that he might be mysterious and dangerous; but it doesn’t sell the angle that Chihiro considers him a super nice guy and is confused when he starts acting more stern when she runs into him again. It also makes it harder to buy into the romantic subtext which Kamaji and Zeniba read into their relationship, since there seems to be a much bigger age gap in the English version.

Similarly, whereas Boh is played by a real kid in Japanese, he’s played by Tara Strong of all people in the English dub; and as soon as you know this, you will never be able to unhear Tara Strong as the voice coming out of that big baby for as long as you live. Whether that’s a good thing or not is up to you.

Another voice which is made to sound a bit more scary and serious in the English dub is No Face, who is given a vocal layering effect to make him sound way creepier than he did originally. This would be fine, except for the fact that No Face’s voice is supposed to come from the frog spirit that he ate, and in Japanese his voice is literally unchanged from all of the spirits that he’s consumed. You can kind of tell that this is supposed to be the idea in the English dub as well, but since their voices are combined with other effects, it gives the impression that there’s more to No Face than just what he’s copied from eating others. In the Japanese dub, you get more of the sense that No Face is a blank slate on which the desires and personalities of the spirits that he consumes are projected onto. I don’t know that the character would be interpreted too differently between both versions of the film, but I think it’s worth pointing out this distinction.

All of that said, I think that Spirited Away is a film which easily holds up no matter which language you watch it in. Neither version is particularly noteworthy for its voice work, and both dubs are perfectly serviceable for the kind of story which the film is trying to tell. The setting and characters exude so much personality even just in the way that they’re drawn that I think the message of the film shines through no matter what, which is why this film has managed to be such a huge success all over the world for so long.

There surely is more to be said about this film, as well more that I haven’t read, and that will continue to be written in the future. Nonetheless, I hope that this analysis has helped to rationalize the success of this film, and to clarify just what about it is so masterful without resorting to a string of vague adjectives like “spellbinding” and “whimsical.” If you’d like to discuss your own interpretations of this film and its success, or to respond to the ideas which I’ve presented in this analysis, then be sure to leave a comment either on the text version of this post over at my blog, myswordisunbelievablydull.wordpress.com, or in the comment field of whatever video site you might be watching this on. If you enjoyed this video, then I encourage you to share it with anyone whom you think might appreciate it; and if you’d like to help support me in making more content like this, then consider donating via patreon or paypal.

For those of you who have no idea who I am or where to find more of my content; hi, I’m Digibro. You can find most of my analytical writing and videos about anime on my aforementioned blog, and on the youtube channel Digi Does Anime. You can also follow me on Twitter to keep updated on my releases, or just to hear my thoughts on random stuff. Thanks again for watching everyone, and I’ll see you in the next one!

Shintoism article: http://www.unomaha.edu/jrf/Vol8No2/boydShinto.htm
Capitalism article: http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/jc51.2009/SpiritedAway/
One of many prostitution articles: http://moviepilot.com/posts/2014/09/25/there-s-an-incredible-hidden-message-in-spirited-away-and-it-will-shock-you-2297900?lt_source=external,manual
Miyazaki Interview: http://www.nausicaa.net/miyazaki/interviews/sen.html

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23 thoughts on “Spirited Away Analysis

  1. Thank you, because I also definitely feel that this film hasn’t received the level of analysis it could despite all its critical acclaim.

    One thing I would add is the major running theme of identity in the film, and how it depends on, like you said, people treating other people with respect and love. There are three characters who turn transparent in the film, No-Face, Zeniba, and Chihiro. For Zeniba, she was transparent during the time that her name was stolen from her, or more literally, the seal that bore her name. For No-Face, he was transparent when he couldn’t take on the identifying aspects of people he ate. For Chihiro though, it was after her parents turned into pigs. It was the love of Chihiro’s friends – her goodbye card – that preserved her identity, but in the moment after her parents’ transformation, she’s lost all of her friends because she had to move, and she’d just lost the only two people left that she knew, and she started to disappear until Haku recognized her. And later on the train, No-Face is turning transparent before Chihiro invites him to sit with her again, after which he turns solid again.

    It’s important for them to preserve their identities or else it would be easy for more powerful people to control them, in the same way Yubaba controls people by stealing their names. I think it all definitely ties in to what you said about the importance of respecting others as individuals instead of being ruled by avarice.

    The one point where I might disagree is about Yubaba treating Boh as the crown jewel of her collection. She definitely doesn’t pay a lot of attention to him and has lost sight of what her job is as a parent, but I think it was certainly her who put it into Boh’s head that the outside world is full of germs and that he should never leave his room. I think her greed is born from paranoia and her feeling that she can never have too much ability to care for her child. But she stops treating Boh as his own person because she lost respect everyone else’s identity in the process of amassing money and power, and becomes unable to recognize him.

    I don’t think she’s 100% wrong about the outside world either, since her bathhouse is pretty much the only refuge of civilization in the middle of a gigantic ocean that doesn’t have anything in it but other small islands of civilization you can see in the train scene.

    Sorry for the super long comment, but this is my favorite movie of all time and I’m really glad someone else bothered to give it this kind of examination.

    • That stuff about transparency is really interesting! I like your reading of it, and I agree it fits nicely with mine. Will be fun to keep in mind next time I watch it.

  2. Now, I haven’t seen Spirited Away since I was like 11, back when I was into “deep” things like Full Metal Alchemist and Death Note and found the anime that was actually subtle “stupid,” I can say that I do feel a definite admiration for the other Miyazaki and Ghibli films I have seen since. That said, the one scene that really has stuck with me and that I do remember making an impact that I’m surprised you didn’t bring up was the scene near the beginning in which Chihiro crosses the bridge holding her breath. I don’t remember it with any kind of vivid imagery or any of the language used, but I do feel like it had a very explicit connection to the themes you brought up that I think it deserves mention. Consider the implications of breathlessness– death. I’m not going to say anything like “She was dead the whole time” or anything stupid like that, but I think it may imply a certain out-of-place sensation of crossing into a spiritual “afterlife” of sorts, being noticed only when she breathes, bringing the realization to the world that she was a human. I feel like this may imply the continuation of the theme of Shinto’s inherent spirituality in all things by pointing out that Chihiro came of age through direct contact with spiritual forces. I’m not sure what Miyazaki’s stance on religion is, but I think this may mean that the one through path to enlightenment and spiritual cleanliness is through a religious force. This scene also seems to put miracles in the hands of the people rather than the gods because, building on your claims about work ethic, Chihiro did save her parents through her own hard work alongside the bizarre world she encountered. Her failure to cross the bridge without breathing shows that she could not just get an easy way out of this conflict, requiring her to put effort into her goals. I think this was the point in the film that truly brought this to attention, acting as the point of no return and the introduction to the themes of the film. Now, I’m not going to say that any of this is at all a complex analysis of the film, but I am curious as to your thoughts on what this scene in particular may mean when placed in the film’s context. I do think I need to give the film a second look after recently growing to appreciate children’s films in order to properly assess these claims, but I’d like to hear your thoughts.

  3. No Face was not only about showing the greed of bathhouse employees but effect of environment (the people and other things) on a individual. But unlike people he doesn’t retain the behaviours he sees without an example. While No Face would back and forth easily Boh a more realistic progression to changing.
    Not really sure if what I said was any different than your analysis.

  4. i would like to know what people think what went on after the ending!
    while the action takes place in just a couple days the car is found to be covered i branches along with other changes.has the family been missing? have the police been searching for them?
    i know the American version has Chihiro say that a new school will be no problem and the one from Japan leaves that out but we see her new hair band so it’s not a dream.
    but what about the lost time factor?

  5. This video has a degree of atmosphere and pacing none of your straightforward analyses have had up to this point, and I think it JUST comes from the full screen footage, and how it fades to black and pauses for a second. While your epic conciseness and speed is admirable, it has made your videos a little hard to follow, so putting in little stops to signal to the brain when you’re shifting to a new topic greatly enhances the flow and impact of the post.

    Now to go into full projecting-my-personal-ideas-into-demands mode; how much thought have you been putting into your narration? Because while your voice has always been so smooth and pleasant, I’ve started to question if there’s a lacking in the way you emphasize words and sentences. The literal way I’d describe it is that you emphasize syllables based on their importance in the sentence, but mostly *not* based on their importance in the post as a whole. I’ll come up with a random thing for demonstration.


    The guy sat down at the table and grabbed the blue cup, thirsty as shit, and took a glug
    However, it was full of extremely hot coffee, so his face was on fire
    He fell backwards in his chair, ran outside, and eyed a hanging icicle from the roof
    He jumped up, wrapped his mouth around the icicle, and was now stuck


    For the sake of this example, let’s say (E) denotes a minimal level of emphasis, (E)(E) denotes a significant degree of emphases, and (E)(E)(E) denotes the greatest amount of emphasis you can do without being obnoxious.

    Here’s how *I* would probably emphasize this passage (clarification to anyone who’s not watched my videos: I’m a lisping retard and Digi sounds literally 20 times better than me regardless, so keep that qualifier in mind)


    The guy sat down at the table and (E)grabbed the blue cup(E), (E)thirsty as shit(E), and took a glug
    (E)However(E), (E)(E)it was full of(E)(E) (E)(E)(E)extremely hot coffee(E)(E)(E), (E)so his face was on fire(E)
    (E)He fell backwards in his chair(E), ran outside, and eyed a hanging icicle from the roof
    He jumped up, wrapped his mouth around the icicle, (E)and was now stuck(E)


    So like, some parts are way more harsh than others. What *I’d* tell a VA to do if I were a director is to keep in mind how important each line and word is in proportion to the core of the post.

    Your narration I think most of the time (though largely *not* in the YAS series) is just read the same way all the time. You’ve said that you rarely re-take anything, so this seems like an accurate conclusion. This isn’t at all a problem, but I am thinking of it as something that could have very slowly created other, unrelated problems.

    In seeing the retarded comments you’ve gotten with my own eyes, I’ve tasked myself with trying to understand where those people are coming from. I’ve never questioned that they have any good points or rational reasoning, but I *have* questioned what is it about your videos–combined with their personalities–that caused them to so fatally misunderstand your writings.

    Every comment section has ignorant dumbs being wrong, but I’ve felt that you have been on the receiving end of a *disproportionate* amount of people outright not comprehending basic statements of your material to a baffling degree. A level of misunderstandings *peculiar* to you; so I felt there must be some elements of your presentation or writing that leads to this.

    So the theory I’m going with right now is that your vocal delivery doesn’t tell my brain when to listen in; when you’re saying a more important thing, or something with more punch. Granted this can derive from your no-digital-ink-wasted writing style, but said writing is obviously not all in the same tone. Some lines are to setup the thesis, some lines are to be a funny little reaction, ext. It’s not that you don’t read these various things differently (I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve thought all this out way more deeply than I have, and already come to conclusions on this front beyond my comprehension), it’s that I feel they’re not different (E)enough(E).

    What got me thinking about this as strongly as I am was how I felt this video had a sort of haughty tone in the beginning and end. That part of my brain that tries to understand and empathize with retarded assholes–which creates various emulated personas in my head, attempting to preemptively discern what they’d think–had these thoughts:

    “Digi’s such an egotistical dick cock. He starts this review by saying no one has ever reviewed Spirited Away the right way, and that he’s some God savior who’s gonna absolve everyone else of their so-called ‘failure to analyze it on a complete level’. And then he ends the review by acting oh-so brilliant for explaining it, and insinuating that everyone else was being intellectually immature by calling it ‘magical’. He’s straight up mad at people for ‘not analyzing hard enough’ in his eyes. Here I was, thinking an extremely positive review of a Miyazaki film was going to have an uplifting, constructive tone; but instead it’s bookended with pretentiousness and hostility towards other people, for the crime of not approaching reviews the same he does. And he wonders why people hate him.”

    I copied this message and had the *rest* of my brain read it, and what the rest of my brain concluded was this:

    “The retarded asshole thought Digi was being a prick, because the way Digi narrated a few lines in the beginning and end kind of sort of sounded prickish. The writing was fine and perfect; but the delivery miscommunicated slightly.”

    I remember in some old podcasts, back when the Digibrony-hates-season-4 shit was in the midst of hitting the fan, that you said,

    “It’s not that an episode being mediocre makes me mad and upset in real life. It’s just that, in a video, I have to communicate and express my opinion of that one episode, so I’m going to put on a persona of being upset.”

    But I’ve always questioned that. If the point of a review is to express your feelings, and your feeling is “I didn’t like it but it doesn’t bother me”, then wouldn’t expressing yourself as “dissapointed but unperturbed” be appropriate? Hell the AVGN himself in recent years has taken on a passive, nonchalant “heh, the game sucks. What a load” approach a lot of times.

    Now to go into acting-like-I-know-exactly-how-you-think-and-operate-and-I-read-your-mind-perfectly mode; I think that you approached the narration of those MLP episode reviews on a sentence-by-sentence basis, thinking, “This sentence is negative. Therefore I will sound negative in this sentence. Rawr! I’m upset!”

    Likewise, I noticed the same (probably delusionally-imagined-by-me) phenomenon in the beginning and end of this Spirited Away analysis.

    “This sentence is me expressing how no one else has made an analysis of this movie that satisfies me. Boo, I’m not satisfied!”
    “This sentence is me saying that this will be the most complete and centrally-focused review yet written. I’M THE BEST, FUCKERS!”

    “This sentence is me expressing how actually getting to the underlying reasons this movie is amazing is more interesting than simply passing it off as ‘magic’. PCHH, you plebeians! You’re all a bunch of hacks, and I’m so much better than ya’ll.”

    • Well, I’m fairly certain you’re not wrong, though you said a ton of things. But ultimately the problem is that I just read my scripts all in one go with almost no retakes, and just interpret what I’m reading as I’m going. I do it that way because frankly, I don’t really know how to do otherwise. Any time I try to put more effort into reading a script, I flub constantly, get frustrated, and give up. Usually it takes me a few tries to do the first couple sentences so I can get into a groove of speaking, and from there I just go until it’s done. I definitely felt like I could’ve read this video better, but I at least added the breathing spaces just to make the whole thing more comprehendable. (btw you may use that effect in the psycho-pass vids if and where you find it appropos).

      • Net-balance probably it’s better to not try hard and sound natural, instead of try to accomplish specific goals and come off awkward. I swear to god everyone, I’m good at communication; and reading aloud and writing and EVERYTHING I’m completely not autistic, I just put myself in certain situations where I had no choice but to sound weird I swear to fuck I have charisma, okay? There was that one video where I had to record it right fucking after getting my braces off and my mouth hurt like shit constantly for 3 days so it was like what choice did I have?

  6. Watched the movie for the first time a few days ago. I enjoyed it on its own, but this analysis has helped me appreciate it’s thematic trappings a lot more. Thanks, Digi!

  7. the story of spirited away reminds me a lot of this one chapter of the joy luck club, “the moon lady”. while i was reading it, i noticed that after the young girl, ying ying, falls into the water, the way she describes the world shifts. the water became red, and then black. ying ying becomes incredibly frightened of everyone and everything because everything and everyone around her looked very scary and twisted. it wasn’t like the world changed when she fell into the water; it was more that being in the water made her realize how frighteningly mortal she really was. she knew she could die because she had not done what she was told. ying ying was a girl who always looked up to her mother, but never noticed her amah, the person who really loved and took care of her. (i think ying ying means shadow, btw.)

    so i think that the story of spirited away is the story of the girl with no name meeting the man with no face. it’s about losing your sense of self, but also learning to save face. it’s about respecting others (and yourself) so you in turn can find peace with yourself.

    that’s all i have to say! thanks for your lovely analysis! i’ve listened to it a lot ever since you posted it here!

  8. Hey, Digibro! Thanks so much for this vid, man – I really love this movie and appreciate the time that must’ve gone into this. I got something to add though – a perspective on a moment in the film that I myself didn’t consider until about six months ago when I watched it last. The moment is that in which Chihiro is eating after visiting her parents-turned-pigs with Haku. It crossed my mind that time that Chihiro may have broken down over what happened to her parents in that moment, and I feel this way for a couple of reasons: First, she’s just been to see them for the first time since everything went down. Second, its the first real quiet moment she’s had to think of everything that had happened up to that point. Also, after she initially bit into the food Haku had given her, she began to gobble the remainder of it – much like the way her parents had done with the spirit food in the beginning. Perhaps this was the first thing to hit her in that moment, and the thoughts just sort of overtook her all at once, (the stress, the fear, more or less losing her parents as she knew them…..everything), causing her to breakdown. This is just my take on the moment, though – maybe I’m just reading to much into it.

  9. I rarely say that I wish I’d written something, but I wish I’d written this. So good, dude. Well done, you totally nail it. Chihiro is amazing because she’s not amazing. She’s not a superhero or a badass like Moana. She doesn’t kill a bunch of dudes with a sword or blow up a Death Star. She simply outworks everyone around her. Chihiro wins over the river spirit — as well as the imperious Yubaba — because she is knee deep in shit and gets the job done. (Granted, Yubaba told her she’d turn her into a pig if she complains, but nevertheless …) In this era when a privileged sense of entitlement and constant, frothing outrage is the norm, Spirited Away sends the message that hard work and generosity of spirit (no pun intended) is the highest form of existence. In fact, I think it’s the most fully realized vision of small c conservatism ever committed to film and you explain it perfectly. Keep it coming.

  10. I was never fan of the brothel interpretation for Spirited Away for some reason, and your post articulated why I wasn’t a fan of it. Thanks for this excellent writeup!

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