JAPAN: Spirited Away (千と千尋の神隠し, 2001)

Shinto/Spirited Away/Japan

by Andriana Gregovic

Most directors would cite real life people or circumstances as inspiration for their films. For Hayao Miyazaki, these real-life circumstances are exhibited in his film Spirited Away through Shinto. The Shinto religion originates in ancient Japan, and focuses on humans’ relationship with nature, involving a multitude of practices to show respect to the nature spirits known as kami. The practice of Shinto is extremely important to the Japanese people, and its influence stretches far and wide – wide enough, apparently, to become a major inspiration for Spirited Away. Miyazaki explicitly cites the religion as a major influence for his characters and settings in the film. He acknowledges the practice has a special place in his heart, and as one becomes more familiar with the religion and its rituals, it’s clear Miyazaki incorporated Shinto into almost every corner of the film. The spirits featured in the film range in appearance from oversized ducks, to a lumbering radish creature, to a river spirit with a body of water. The uniting factor of these characters is the inspiration their appearance has taken from the natural word, referencing the abundant nature spirits present within the Shinto religion.

Shinto’s emphasis on respect towards nature, and humans’ need to live in harmony with it, is an obvious message in the film. Chihiro, the protagonist, helps clean a river spirit that’s become so polluted its body transforms into a sticky, smelly blob, and the other river spirit Haku is unable to ever return home after his river was paved over for apartments. The spirits mentioned, and many more, are all found in the movie’s Bathhouse, the main setting of the film. While communal baths, called sento, are a long-standing tradition in Japan, the inspiration for the film’s Bathhouse lies in the Shinto ritual of inviting local kami to come and bathe in the villagers’ baths. This highlights the Shinto value of literal cleanliness, and hints at the metaphorical cleanliness emphasized in the religion as well. In Shintoism, it’s important that mankind “purifies” themselves of the pollution they’ve caused, both in the environment (seen through the cleaning of the river spirit), and the “pollution” of negative attitudes and hearts within oneself (Boyd). This message is consistent throughout the film, as it follows Chihiro’s journey from a whiny, insecure young girl to a more self-assured version of herself.

Shintoism is important to Miyazaki, and this is made evident through his film and the inspiration he drew from the religion. However, there is one important character that is devoid of Shinto inspiration. No Face. He lacks the resemblance of nature his fellow spirits carry and, unlike them, isn’t welcome into the Bathhouse initially. While many audience members from outside Japan aren’t familiar with Shintoism, it’s so integrated into Japanese culture that many of the elements within the film, from the Bathhouse to the kami, would feel familiar to its Japanese audience. However, No Face is a unique character created almost completely from Miyazaki’s mind, and therefore would be unknown to audiences worldwide. This mysteriousness surrounding the character is important. It allows each individual audience member to see No Face through their own interpretation of him, without any preconceived perceptions, and therefore enable a greater capacity to relate to the character and understand his message. It’s No Face’s lack of a Shinto past that gives him the ability to act as a blank canvas for human emotion, and enables the audience to connect with the character on the level that they do.

Works Cited

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