Spirited Away is not only Hayao Miyazaki’s – and all of Studio Ghibli’s – most famous and acclaimed film; it’s also his most dense and layered. This fairy tale story, inspired by Alice’s Adventured in Wonderland is steeped in so much Japanese mythology and Shinto tradition that it’s impossible not to miss a theme or concept here and there, even after a few viewings.
Miyazaki himself places a lot of importance on the moral and philosophical weight of the lessons taught through Shintoism and passes these lessons onto his audience through his films. Japanese fans, who have grown up with a greater knowledge of Shinto than we in the West have, are going to have a far easier time unpacking the finer details of this film, and for us Westerners, there are these ten to get us started.
10 The Bathhouse was Inspired by Jiufen in Taiwan
This one is more a piece of trivia than anything, but it does demonstrate Miyazaki’s willingness to seek inspiration from other cultures, and not treat his philosophy as a closed Japanese loop. Jiufen is a small village and tourist spot at the northern tip of Taiwan, crowned by an enormous and beautiful old teahouse.
The architecture of this teahouse was used as the aesthetic inspiration for the bathhouse setting of Spirited Away. The fact that Taiwan’s most popular belief system is Taoism mattered not to Miyazaki; the teahouse spoke to him and he used it to design one of the most intricately beautiful set designs in all of animation.
9 Kashira (heads) are Daruma Dolls
You may remember three strange green heads, rolling and grunting around, which follow and obey Yubaba the bathhouse witch. These ‘kashira’ are modeled after Japanese Daruma dolls. Daruma are traditionally wooden dolls the size of a fist, painted red in the image of a man with no arms or legs.
This man was Bodhidharma, the Buddhist monk who began the Zen Buddhist tradition of Japan. He was said to have meditated for nine years until his arms and legs dropped off through atrophy. Daruma dolls are wishing items; when one is purchased, a wish should be made and then an eye of the doll is colored in with a black pen. When that wish comes true, the other eye is filled in.
8 The use of the Japanese concept of ‘ma’ (empty space)
In many forms of traditional Japanese painting, equal importance is placed on the use of unpainted, white, empty space on the canvas. Whereas in typical European art, every inch of the canvas is covered in paint, Japanese art values the empty space (or ma) equally, giving the art a way to breathe and find an equilibrium.
The same is true in Spirited Away. Miyazaki placed several moments of quiet solitude, introspection, or simple peace throughout the film's story as a means of breaking up the action, which can be rather bombastic and intense in many of its scenes. These moments of ma are breathing room inspired by traditional Japanese artists, and they also aid the audience in appreciating the design and artistry of the film.
7 The emphasis on respect for one’s elders
It’s not unreasonable or strange for Western viewers to become frustrated in several of the scenes of Spirited Away, especially in its opening ten minutes, as Chihiro – a savvy, wary, and pragmatic young girl – is forced to keep quiet and obey the will of the adults in the scene. Her parents are greedy, and she warns them of their greed to no avail. They move house despite her fears and upset. The adults in the bathhouse treat her similarly, forcing her to behave as a slave.
Japan places great importance on the hierarchy of age, which is embedded in the nation’s very language: one must obey and show respect for their elders, even if they might believe they know better. It could be argued that Miyazaki is fighting back against this tradition by casting the adults as naïve and foolish characters, while Chihiro is often portrayed as one who finds solutions and sees what others miss.
6 Shinto gods live in everything
The vast menagerie of characters and creatures who make their way through the bathhouse, imaginative and varied in their design, are all kami (Japanese gods) of one sort or another. The kami of Shintoism, much like the pantheon of Greek gods, embody everything – from trees to creatures, water to air, every natural thing on Earth has its own god or guardian spirit.
We get to see these spirits cleansing themselves through the course of Spirited Away’s story (more on that cleansing in a moment). It must have been an incredible amount of fun to take the concept of gods who inhabit all things and designing them to reflect that. The imagination on display in this film is unparalleled.
5 Shinto gods traditionally bathed in village baths
The reason for the bathhouse setting is twofold: one, it is a commentary on the ‘stink’ caused by humanity (covered in the next point); and two, it draws on the traditional practice of villagers in Japan inviting their local guardian spirit to bathe in the village baths.
Bathing has a surprisingly rich history and is of great cultural importance in Japan, with many mountain villages having their own onsen (hot springs). In a show of kindness and hospitality, villagers would typically invite the local gods and spirits to use their baths (gods need to keep clean, too, naturally). The bathhouse here in Spirited Away is an extension of that philosophy.
4 The ‘stink’ of humanity
Here we arrive at the central theme of Spirited Away, which is actually not unique to this film and can be found in many of Miyazaki’s works (most impactfully in Princess Mononoke). As a firm believer in the good and the power of Shinto belief – that of praising, respecting, and living at harmony with the natural world around us – Miyazaki frequently despairs at the state of the modern world: paving over our natural world, poisoning our rivers, depleting our natural resources. Humanity has come to stink, and as a result, stink up the world around us.
This is most clearly expressed in the scene where Chihiro cleanses the river spirit, removing all of the human garbage and waste which has caused it to stink and become corrupted.
3 No-Face embodies Shinto morality
Shinto, like Buddhism and Taoism, is very much unlike the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It places a subtler focus on one’s actions and the outcome/consequences of those actions. In Shintoism, there is far less of an emphasis on the fear of doing bad things – and the hellfire that follows – but instead encourages one to be altruistic on Earth for the sake of the Earth.
No-Face embodies that Shinto morality as it learns, like a child, to be kinder, less avaricious and greedy, more patient and understanding. It learns from Chihiro and becomes more ‘human’ as a result.
2 Torii gates represent the world of Shinto gods
Torii are big red wooden (or clear stone) gates which are placed in front of sacred shrines, temples, or hallowed ground. They serve as a sign that visitors are about to enter the place where the spirits reside, a place where one might give thanks and show respect for the kami of the natural world. Spirited Away uses the motif of the torii gates to clue audiences in on what is about to take place, as Chihiro passes under them on her way to the bathhouse and the world of the spirits.
These red gates might be rather meaningless to Western audiences without an interest in, or knowledge of, Japanese tradition, but understanding what these gates represents means knowing that what happens beyond them is going to be magical.
1 The loss of Shinto guidance in modern life
This follows on from the film’s presentation of the ‘stink’ of humanity. Miyazaki not only shows us here that humanity, through its actions, has left its stink of corruption and toxicity on the natural world, but that also humans themselves have lost their way, which is the root cause of these toxic actions.
He believes that a lack of focus on Shinto discipline and education has led us down a capitalist path of digging up the Earth and poisoning its waters. We see this in spirited away as we learned that Haku was, in fact, the spirit of the Kohaku River, which was dried up and paved over by humans over the last century. With Haku remembering what he is, Miyazaki is making a call to humanity to remember what the natural world does for us, what we owe to it, and how we are failing it.