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Shinto Perspectives in "Spirited Away"
March 6, 2011 3:36 PM   Subscribe

Among the anime films by Hayao Miyazaki made available in English translation, Spirited Away contains the most folk and Shrine Shinto motifs. The central locale of the film is a bathhouse where a great variety of creatures, including kami, come to bathe and be refreshed. This feature, plus the portrayal of various other folk beliefs and Shrine Shinto perspectives, suggests that Miyazaki is affirming some basic Japanese cultural values which can be a source of confidence and renewal for contemporary viewers.
posted by hippybear (56 comments total) 52 users marked this as a favorite

 
I was mystified by this movie when I saw it, and was certain I was missing a lot of the references because I lack the cultural background. This article illuminated a lot for me.
posted by hippybear at 3:36 PM on March 6, 2011


Ive always said if I teach a Religious Studies class on Shinto some day, one of the exams will be watching this movie and writing down references.
posted by strixus at 4:01 PM on March 6, 2011


Thanks for that. A Japanese friend said he always wondered what foreigners (non-Japanese) thought about the characters and settings in Miyazaki/Studio Ghibli movies. The characters speak Japanese, but the culture the stories take place in are fantasy worlds, but if anything, mostly use Western-type locations and characters. Kiki's Delivery Service and Porco Rosso are good examples of this.

Spirited Away, he said, was Miyazaki kind of responding to that with a "Ok, folks, make no mistake, this is a Japanese movie, set in Japan, with Japanese characters!"
posted by zardoz at 4:02 PM on March 6, 2011


This is very interesting. I'd be curious about the cultural references sprinkled through My Neighbor Totoro.

I have it to understand from a friend of mine that Totoro is about the death of a neice?
posted by Severian at 4:15 PM on March 6, 2011


This is one of the reasons why Spirited Away is one of my family's favorite Mayazaki movies.

Both of my kids took Japanese as their foreign language in HS and college and understood more of the cultural symbolism and subtle references in the movie. Thanks for posting this. It's good to see it all explained.
posted by garnetgirl at 4:21 PM on March 6, 2011


I have it to understand from a friend of mine that Totoro is about the death of a neice?

In Totoro, the mother of the two girls has been hospitalized for tuberculosis; Totoro is a kami who resides in the roots of a large camphor tree neighbouring the girls' new house in the countryside. The word kami can mean "god" or it can mean "spirit", and it's said there are a million of them in Japan. Shinto is both an official and a folk religion, but I'm always wary of people who want to formalize Shinto. It's not a belief system, it's more of a way of life.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:25 PM on March 6, 2011 [8 favorites]


Miyazaki had Japanese-set films before Spirited Away -- Tototo and Princess Mononoke. As well, his fellow Studio Ghibli director Isao Takahata had already made Grave of the Fireflies and Pom poko, both with Japanese settings, as well as Only Yesterday (one of my favorites - an animated film for adults about childhood nostalgia, and organic farming).

Pom poko actually has a lot of interesting Japanese mythology - from the raccoons/tanuki themselves to the ghost walk filled with yokai.

Spirited Away is still my favorite. I didn't understand most of the references at first, but that didn't bother me -- I guess I just assumed they had come from Miyazaki's imagination like the Ohmu of Nausicaa. I look forward to reading and learning more about the various figures -- but at the same time, I think most children watching these films (Japanese and not) will be learning about the kami and other beings from Miyazaki.
posted by jb at 4:41 PM on March 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


fantasy (& SF) literature and films in general - with all of their just-created mythologies - do prepare one to go with it and pick up mythological clues on the way. A great deal of Japanese SF&F animation just throws one in the deep end; figuring out what is going on in Cowboy Bebop or Ghost in the Shell is similar to following Spirited Away with little knowledge of Japanese mythology, as is figuring out the world of Lord of the Rings or the Diamond Age.
posted by jb at 4:47 PM on March 6, 2011


Here is a more extensive examination of the film and its symbolism. (pdf link)
posted by hippybear at 4:48 PM on March 6, 2011 [4 favorites]


but at the same time, I think most children watching these films (Japanese and not) will be learning about the kami and other beings from Miyazaki.

Most adults too. Every Miyzaki film I watch is an education in ways of seeing that I wish I'd been given when I was a kid. For instance, Princess Mononoke could be required viewing as an introduction to an Anthropology course.

Thanks for the post. I use these films in my high school classes and this will help a lot.
posted by kneecapped at 4:52 PM on March 6, 2011


This alternate interpretation just made its way across my twitter feed today.
posted by juv3nal at 5:06 PM on March 6, 2011 [4 favorites]


Miyazaki himself refers to this idea: "In my grandparents' time," he says, "it was believed that spirits [kami] existed everywhere -- in trees, rivers, insects, wells, anything. My generation does not believe this, but I like the idea that we should all treasure everything because spirits might exist there, and we should treasure everything because there is a kind of life to everything."

I think this is probably why I love Miyazaki films so much, that he puts forth the idea that, no, really, there spirits in everything, and that there is more than what we can see. More than anything, his films are able to return me, as a viewer, to a much less sceptical time in my life, one where I could sit and watch a film and be filled with wonder at the world I'd been invited to see, if only for a short time.

Thanks for posting this.
posted by Ghidorah at 5:09 PM on March 6, 2011 [5 favorites]


juv3nal: you know, I came across this while I was looking into this topic, and was nearly halfway convinced, until I read this comment, which sort of diffused the whole topic.
posted by hippybear at 5:11 PM on March 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


A Japanese friend said he always wondered what foreigners (non-Japanese) thought about the characters and settings in Miyazaki/Studio Ghibli movies.

And upon that question, the entire subject of Film Studies was founded. Or so was the claim of my Japanese Literature professor. He wrote a book on Kurosawa and his impact on Film Criticism, I read the preface as a preprint. It was one of the most stunning things I ever read. He claimed that the arrival of postwar Japanese films like "Rashomon" raised that question. Can an international audience interpret the movie without being a native Japanese with deep understanding of the cultural references? Or can we interpret the film solely in the "language of film?" He asserted that Film Studies divided into two ideologies around this question, which provided endless opportunities for debate, academic advancement, and institutionalized theories. Then he went on to question these fundamental issues of Film Studies as misguided, and pretty much makes thay whole realm of academic study futile. I've never seen a scholar destroy the subject of his scholarship before the preface of his book is over. For this, of course, he became a cause celebre in Film Studies. He moved the debate to another realm, giving new life to sad old Film Studies scholars who needed something new to debate, to go Meta.

But this intercultural film crit is tricky, a good postmodernist or semiotician can use it to make a film mean whatever he wants. I once argued with some anime otaku that the film "Grave of the Fireflies" was not a tragedy to the Japanese audience, it was a patriotic triumph. The little boy and girl sacrificed themselves gloriously for the Emperor, starving to death, and "dying like shattered diamonds" (one of the Japanese propaganda slogans of the WWII endgame). There is academic evidence to support this view, for example, in WWII, the US created psy ops propaganda films and dropped them all over Japan by parachute. They showed grisly, mass deaths of Japanese soldiers. The film was intended to make the citizens uneasy, showing the futility of fighting on. But quite the contrary, these films were widely reproduced and people paid to see them as short films at the cinemas. They loved seeing the patriotic sacrifices of their soldiers.
This view of "Fireflies" might be more likely in an audience of people who were at least old enough to be a child before WWII, the glorious sacrifice wouldn't be apparent to younger postwar audiences that didn't grow up in that cultural environment. But certainly it would have been on the minds of the films creators, who were old enough to be influenced.

You know, I almost had those otaku believing my ridiculous argument. I almost believed it myself.
posted by charlie don't surf at 5:11 PM on March 6, 2011 [10 favorites]


Honestly, this is the first I've heard of that interpretation, and I find it a little baffling. Does anyone have a link to the article (it was mentioned that it was in the Japanese version of Premiere), where Miyazaki said this? I mean, if he actually said that, I guess it's a different story, but I tend to agree with the viewpoint in the second link hippy bear provides.

And charlie don't surf, that's a good example, at least until you talk to Japanese people about it. Even the thought of rewatching the movie makes my wife depressed. Even bringing up the film in discussion essentially ends conversations, and brings everyone down. The only ones I can imagine seeing it in that light would be the uyoku, the jackasses in the black soundtrucks. Then again, they seem to think that they're doing their patriotic duty by being annoying.
posted by Ghidorah at 5:25 PM on March 6, 2011


juv3nal: you know, I came across this while I was looking into this topic, and was nearly halfway convinced, until I read this comment, which sort of diffused the whole topic.

hmm. WE NEED TO GO DEEPER.
posted by juv3nal at 5:34 PM on March 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


I have a hard time imagining that Miyazaki would consciously put in the themes of prostitution, etc. that some claim for the film. That's so far from his core audience, children, that even if was layered deep in the film, it just seems like something he'd never do.
posted by gen at 5:56 PM on March 6, 2011


Spirited Away's location was inspired by Miyazaki's travels around Jiufen in Taiwan. If you have a chance to travel there, you probably would like to stop at the Ah Mei Teahouse. I'm sure you find it looks familiar. :)
posted by spec80 at 6:12 PM on March 6, 2011 [6 favorites]


I'm not a fan of anime, or Japanese culture in general. So when a friend of mine suggested we watch "Spirited Away", I did so with as close to a blank-slate mind as it's probably possible to have. And I must say that, bottom line, the story worked for me - despite some cultural references that I specifically noticed I didn't "get", plus probably quite a few non-obvious ones I wasn't even aware of that therefore ended up striking me as purely bizarre or random choices of animation or narrative style (to say nothing of language cues such as the one juv3nal pointed out, rightly or wrongly). The fact that the story nevertheless spoke to me and moved as a Westerner, even without the requisite knowledge of the underlying culture, says a lot about both Miyazaki as a master storyteller AND the universality of human experience and of folk tales.
posted by Greg_Ace at 6:17 PM on March 6, 2011 [3 favorites]


moved ME as a Westerner...where's that edit window??
posted by Greg_Ace at 6:18 PM on March 6, 2011


Spirited Away's location was inspired by Miyazaki's travels around Jiufen in Taiwan.

I hadn't heard that part, but I knew about the specific location that the main bath house in the movie was modeled after: It's called Dogo Onsen (which has some of it's own folklore), in the rural smaller Japanese Island, Shikoku.

I had assumed that the surrounding area in the movie was also modeled after the surrounding area in Shikoku, but it's interesting to see that he just sort of meshed it together with Taiwanese inspired environments too to create his own Miyazaki-an landscape.
posted by p3t3 at 6:47 PM on March 6, 2011


Miyazaki himself refers to this idea: "In my grandparents' time," he says, "it was believed that spirits [kami] existed everywhere -- in trees, rivers, insects, wells, anything.

I think that if you spend time in the countryside you'll still encounter these folk beliefs. When I arrived in the Noto Peninsula in the mid-90s, it was basically like something out of Totoro. Most houses did not have a sewer hookup. Many farmwomen wore a white kerchief to keep off the sun, and most women wore a white apron while working at home.

I ended up living in a small town in Fukui prefecture for most of my time in Japan. My mother-in-law still lives within 2 blocks of where she was born. She leaves water and other offerings, not only on the kamidana, but in specific spots around the house for other, less-defined kami that exist in those particular locations.

She's in her mid-70s, and I doubt people of my wife's generation in the countryside will preserve those beliefs.

Early on I was warned to never touch the kamidana in a house we rented for about 5 years. To do so would mean awakening the good, and once awakened, a god must be cared for.


http://www.kyotojournal.org/kjback/kjback41.html
posted by KokuRyu at 6:52 PM on March 6, 2011 [4 favorites]


Wow, hadn't realized Jiufen had anything to do with Spirited Away. Now I'll have to watch the movie again. (And get back to Jiufen, too. I only ever went there once. Beautiful place.)

There's a fair amount of Buddhist imagery in Spirited Away as well, isn't there? I know the bounding heads were Daruma references, for example.
posted by jiawen at 7:40 PM on March 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


For me the most convincing detail that Miyazaki does intend some reference to prostitution is in the characters on the red lanterns on the small restaurants in the "spirit town" toward the beginning of Chihiro's time there.

Some of them read "otona" which means "adult," which has the very same connotation in this context as "adult entertainment." These are the kanji that appeared on lanterns outside brothels in the Edo period.

I have also read some parts of a book called something like "Chihiro to Sen no Fushigimono.". Something like that. In any case, the book referred specifically to the reference to "heaven" in the context of a Japanese brothel -- it is the place in which the actual sex takes place. This is the character written on the door of the elevator that takes Sen up to the top of the house
posted by jfwlucy at 7:52 PM on March 6, 2011


This view of "Fireflies" might be more likely in an audience of people who were at least old enough to be a child before WWII, the glorious sacrifice wouldn't be apparent to younger postwar audiences that didn't grow up in that cultural environment.

I'd have to disagree with this statement. As I've probably mentioned before, my father-in-law watched his younger sister burn to death in the family home during an air raid, and, needless to say, he wasn't the only person of his generation with such memories. I do not think that most of the population, at least towards the end of the war, were in the least bit interested in throwing away their lives as part of some glorious sacrifice. Everyone was caught up in the terror and the horror of war, and probably felt pretty helpless to do anything about it.

That said, I do think Grave of the Fireflies is intended to be a challenging movie for Japanese audiences, as opposed to the typical wartime drama that reinforces the prevailing belief that the Japanese were victims of some sort of natural calamity called "war" that was outside of their control.

Instead, the children starve to death in Grave of the Fireflies largely because of the neglect and enmity of relatives and other people who could have helped save them from a slow and terrible death.

What happened to those two kids was probably a pretty common story at that time, as cityfolk escaped to the countryside in search of food and safety from the air raids. However, I doubt there is much knowledge or discussion in popular culture - apart from the movie - about the struggle for survival and the utter callousness of certain parts of the population towards refugees. It's supposed to be a challenging movie, and it is challenging to watch, and not a celebration.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:54 PM on March 6, 2011 [4 favorites]


You know... it could just read "otona" because it's a bildungsroman.

Also, I'd be interested to know how much of the Western image of Shinto was created by these Miyazaki movies (they don't reflect much of the reality in Japan).
posted by shii at 7:54 PM on March 6, 2011


Sorry, got cut off. It is also inside this elevator that Sen encounters the giant daikon spirit who eyes her and about whom the fox spirit girl/ally has warned her. Finally, according to the book, Miyazaki himself said that the shadows Sen sees on the paper doors while she is walking down the hall of "heaven" are meant to be suggestively ambiguous.

In any case, I found the case convincing that there is some suggestion of prostitution at the bathhouse, but that since Chihiro knows nothing about it and it is her story, that nothing is made overt.
posted by jfwlucy at 7:59 PM on March 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


As a westerner who watched the movie without much of a background in Japanese myths I just associated all the kami with the inexplicable small gods and fairies that make up the less formalized side of western religious beliefs. I thought it translated very well, and things like the pig transformation was something straight off Circe's island, as far as my cultural awareness. It didn't occur to me to ask "what the hell are those creatures" because I'd read enough myths to figure out the phenomena of what was causing them, if not the name of the individual bath house customer.

The only part that I found didn't fit was her inexplicable previous encounter with one of the characters prior to the events of the movie, that was never really explained until the end.

I definitely didn't get "prostitution" as the subject matter, rather it was a case of falling down the rabbit hole into a historical past where you were expected to work as an apprentice. I knew at that age that reality of bath girls was probably sex work too (still is, with soap lands and the like) but it didn't seem essential to the story and in that context the kami floating around really did seem to want a bath more than anything else. Whatever they were, they didn't seem into little girls and a lot more into medical treatments.
posted by Phalene at 8:05 PM on March 6, 2011


Sometimes a bicycle handlebar stuck in a stink spirit is just a bicycle handlebar.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 8:13 PM on March 6, 2011 [8 favorites]


Spirited Away may contain the most motifs but for outright kami content, you can't beat Princess Mononoke and my favorite little kodamas.
posted by Purposeful Grimace at 8:20 PM on March 6, 2011 [4 favorites]


KokuRyu, of course your view is correct. I was just joking with of some gullible otaku. Seeing their cognitive dissonance was funny.
posted by charlie don't surf at 8:21 PM on March 6, 2011


KokuRyu, of course your view is correct

Nah, my point of view isn't necessarily correct, it's just another point of view.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:25 PM on March 6, 2011


I loved Spirited Away and I've been extremely interested in reading all the perspectives in this thread as well as the original post. (And on a recent spin through Wikipedia to see whether there were any Miyazaki or Ghibli films I needed to add to my queue, I saw Grave of the Fireflies and had already decided I didn't need to see it, but thanks for the warning anyway.)
posted by immlass at 8:38 PM on March 6, 2011


Thanks for this! Very interesting discussion.

Imlass, try and watch Grave of the Fireflies - it's very sad, but very well done, and it's still making me think about a whole bunch of things. And it's a bit of a counterbalance to Miyazaki's occasional sentimental excesses.
posted by sneebler at 8:48 PM on March 6, 2011


I highly recommend Grave of the fireflies (directed by Takahata). It is sad - but if you follow it with My neighbor Totoro, as they were originally presented (a double bill), you will feel better again. Totoro can make anything better. *hugs Totoro stuffy*
posted by jb at 8:55 PM on March 6, 2011 [4 favorites]


Interesting post.

I have an odd relationship with anime in general. A lot of it just doesn't work for me, I think, because too much is simply lost in translation. Much of the time there seems to be too much extraneous stuff that doesn't add to my enjoyment or understanding, which I attribute to this translation gap. Though I do sometimes entertain the notion that Japanese are just freaky that way. The common anime tropes also get grating after a while, too. Some of this may also be cultural mistranslation.

Most of the Miyazaki/Ghibli stuff I find quite enjoyable (Ponyo was just a big "WTF?"), even if I also find a lot of the references to be head scratchers. It's good to get some ideas about what these mysterious (to me) details mean. Helps flesh out the already rich world Miyazaki creates in his movies.
posted by 2N2222 at 9:47 PM on March 6, 2011


2N2222, you're just bumping up against the fact that 90% of anime is garbage, just like 90% of sitcoms and 90% of novels.
posted by DoctorFedora at 11:01 PM on March 6, 2011


Behind The Scenes Of "Spirited Away"
posted by homunculus at 11:05 PM on March 6, 2011


Shinto is both an official and a folk religion, but I'm always wary of people who want to formalize Shinto. It's not a belief system, it's more of a way of life.

Indeed. It might be worth bearing in mind that Shinto is the inspiration for both Spirited Away and the worship by standing Prime Ministers of Class-A Japanese war criminals at Yasukuni.

But yeah, Miyazaki really gets it. His films reflect a primal, folk 神, overflowing with the beauty and power of natural forces. I really wish the uyoku (ultra right wing nationalists) would sit down and watch Totoro some more.

For another nice manga dealing with similar Shinto-inspired spirits, try Urushibara Yuki's Mushishi. The series was also made into a film directed by Akira director Katsuhiro Otomo.
posted by jet_manifesto at 11:11 PM on March 6, 2011


2N2222, you're just bumping up against the fact that 90% of anime is garbage, just like 90% of sitcoms and 90% of novels.

True, but I can't quite write it off so easily. I'm not much of an anime fan, so what I see is generally considered the cream of the crop, the stuff that makes it to the US with good dubbing and promotion. I'm at odds even with some of Myazaki's work. Like I said, some of this stuff is due to poorly translated or untranslatable dialogue/concepts. When I recognize that, I can make allowances. Some, however, is just the extraneous stuff that I can't account for. Stuff that just seems like geek candy, and I just don't possess that kind of sweet tooth.
posted by 2N2222 at 11:37 PM on March 6, 2011


Severian: No, Totoro is a film where nobody dies and everything is okay in the end. That's what Totoro is all about.

There's an urban legend that Totoro is actually a god of death, and that Satsuki and Mei die over the course of the film, but Studio Ghibli have taken the unusual step of officially rejecting this interpretation on their blog. Of course, the whole death-of-the-author thing means that they don't get total control over what their work means to people, but I think it's safe to believe them when they say that it wasn't what they intended, and even stuff like the girls' shadows disappearing halfway through didn't have any meaning deeper than "we decided shadows were more trouble than they were worth."

tl;dr: Your kids are safe with Totoro.
posted by No-sword at 2:20 AM on March 7, 2011 [3 favorites]


I don't have any familiarity with Japanese folklore, but the thing that always struck me about Spirited Away was how authentic it felt. I had a similar experience with Pan's Labyrinth, in that the fantasy aspects didn't feel like Tolkienesque manufactured literary fantasy, but rather like the organic stories of real folklore.

There's an aspect of real folklore that doesn't make neat stylistic sense. The forces at play don't follow a neat, almost Biblical narrative. Tolkien's faux Anglo-Saxon epic is too perfectly explained and chronicled, everything is ultimately a struggle between Good and Evil. Any real folk epic (being half Finnish and half Estonian, I have experience with Kalevala and Kalevipoeg) is full of more chaotic antagonists and disjointed scenes that stopped making sense centuries ago. They are not morality plays in their entirety and the motivations of ancient spirits and malevolent forces don't need to mirror those of modern audiences.

Most Western fantasy follows the Tolkien model, and while certainly entertaining and interesting, it always feels artificial in comparison to the work of people like Miyazaki and Del Toro.
posted by unigolyn at 2:42 AM on March 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Yes, I agree with you, Unigolyn. Miyazaki has an amazing knack for throwing in enough extraneous detail to make it feel like his characters are in a genuine living world, not just working through a series of set-pieces. As a worldbuilding style, it's the polar opposite of Tolkein: he gives us a little bit more than the characters, so that we can appreciate the dramatic heft of their actions, but never enough to alienate us from their wonder. In Totoro, we get a better view than the human characters do of what the susuwatari do, but Miyazaki knows better than to weigh us down with an explanation of what they actually are.
posted by No-sword at 3:34 AM on March 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Miyazaki has an amazing knack for throwing in enough extraneous detail to make it feel like his characters are in a genuine living world, not just working through a series of set-pieces.

This. Exactly this. It's why Inception was so disappointing to me - set pieces, and boring hollywood guns-and-chases set pieces. It should have been wonderful and engaging and world-expanding, but it just seemed small, loud, limited and populated by extras, rather than people, things and places. (That and it seems like the director doesn't dream, or pay attention to his dreaming. I've never had dreams like those.)
posted by Slap*Happy at 4:26 AM on March 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


One thing that always resonates with me with Miyazaki's work (and this is most prominent in Porco Rosso which is my favourite) is an unerring air of nostalgia and longing for a time and place that never actually existed. This is very much bolstered by the 'living world' mentioned above.

The magical realism Europe presented in Porco Rosso and Kiki's Delivery Service has this idyllic view of what it should have felt like to live near the Mediterranean in the 20s and 30s even though the reality was far removed from the idyll.

Who wouldn't want to spend a summer near Totoro's forest or go for a drink at Gina's bar?
posted by slimepuppy at 4:46 AM on March 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


This is amazing! I've seen it a few times and love it for a lot of reasons but this aspect has always been a mystery.
posted by Monster_Zero at 7:18 AM on March 7, 2011


With Totoro, the thing that makes the movie more powerful is the fact that, without directly saying it, the mother is essentially in a TB hospital, and people with TB in postwar Japan didn't have the greatest survival rate. There's the wish fulfillment aspect, where Mei gets to believe that the 'magic' ear of corn will heal her mother, and everything will be okay. Having the mom healthy and happy in the ending credits, I don't know that I like it. Obviously, you can't have a funeral in the end credits, people would be slitting their wrists in the theater. Then again, now that I think a little more about it, maybe I am okay with the mom being healed by the good spirit/country magic. It fits the movie, and the movie says everything is going to be okay. (Hint, if you come to Japan, do NOT go to Tokorozawa looking for Totoro. It's a vast suburban wasteland, and there's no forest to be found. A U.N. report on the toxins in the soil rated produce from the area to contain dangerous levles of dioxin.)

There's an aspect of real folklore that doesn't make neat stylistic sense.

I totally agree with this. How many stories and tangents happened in folklore because the hero was a giant idiot? I mean, Arthurian myth? If any of them could have kept it in their pants, everything would have been just fine.
posted by Ghidorah at 7:25 AM on March 7, 2011


Watching Spirited Away in the theatres when it came out, I knew I had no understanding of Japanese culture. So, I watched it in the context of an allegory. It bears repeated viewings this way.

When it first came out, I was dealing with some bad situations at work, so I tended to see Chihiro's experiences as an allegory for a young person getting their first job, starting at the bottom (literally, in Chihiro's case), and working their way up, achieving successes with the help of allies within the organization.

Other times, I went back to the movie and saw it as a coming of age story - the abandonment of childhood and the taking up of adult responsibilities. Or as a story of emotional growth turning from inward focus to outward - Chihiro is at first helpless in the spirit world, panicked and frightened, and must accept help from others. She eventually finds her feet and is able to turn her focus from herself and her own survival outward to others, so we see her going from being helped to helping others.

Now that I've read this article, I want to go back and watch it again!
posted by LN at 7:49 AM on March 7, 2011


There's the wish fulfillment aspect, where Mei gets to believe that the 'magic' ear of corn will heal her mother, and everything will be okay.

I think you misunderstand the scene. The corn isn't magic, the kids and to Totoros are - the corn symbolizes they are dutiful in looking out for their sick mother, and the Totoros are dutiful in looking after the kids, so of course she gets better. The wish fulfillment is in meeting the Totoros in the first place.

What's more, it gives the girls agency in what's going on - the decisions and gestures they make, large and small, have consequences, bad and good, which is a large part of the message the movie is trying to get through.

I'm OK with the girls saving their mother.
posted by Slap*Happy at 1:11 PM on March 7, 2011


Spirited Away was the first anime movie I ever saw, and it blew me away.

I had very little knowledge of Japan and zero knowledge of Japanese folklore/mythology when I watched it for the first time. I didn't understand the allusions, but I had a strong sense that what I was watching was based on something ancient and mysterious. I was fine with that, as my interpretation was that that was about all Chihiro would understand as well.

Knowing all the back details is neat, but going into it blind meant that every new thing was really and truly NEW to me. I had no context or referents, and so was truly surprised and amazed. Other than Spirited Away, I haven't felt like that since I was a kid.
posted by arcticwoman at 1:34 PM on March 7, 2011


Slap*Happy, you've got me wrong there. Mei believes the corn is magic. She's told that all the vegetables are magic by the neighboring grandmother. That's the whole reason she heads off to the hospital in the first place. She believes that by taking her mother the corn, it will make her mother better.

All I was saying was that by following through with it, by showing the mother returning home in the credits, Miyazaki made a warm fuzzy fantasy, which is wonderful. By leaving the mother out of the credits, adding that hint of ambiguity that the mother, in all likelihood, would never recover, the movie would have had that whiff of mortality, and perhaps been a bit more profound. As I said, I'm not sure anymore that I would prefer that to what was made, just that it was an idea I had about the film.
posted by Ghidorah at 2:26 PM on March 7, 2011


Yeah, the real hospital that the Totoro hospital was based on (name and all) was apparently a place where terminal patients went to die. This is often cited in the "Totoro = Death" theory. I think that having Mei and Satsuki's mother recover was the right choice, though. Totoro is profound enough, wish-fulfilment and all. Also, as a practical matter, I don't think anyone who caught the hypothetical Grave-of-the-Fireflies/mother-dies Totoro double feature would ever smile again.
posted by No-sword at 3:39 PM on March 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


Totoro is all about life - and how life goes on, even after war. There is sickness and still the deprivation of the post-war world quietly in the background - look how the father has no way to take the kids to the hospital but on his bicycle. But the film is a celebration of life - Tororo himself is an embodiment of the power of life.
posted by jb at 3:48 PM on March 7, 2011


Totoro is actually a god of death...stuff like the girls' shadows disappearing halfway through

o_O

That's the creepiest thing since ICO.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 4:35 PM on March 7, 2011


Ok, this is some seriously fucked up stuff right here.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 4:47 PM on March 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Ok, this is some seriously fucked up stuff right here.

That piece is pretty fucked up. It makes some interesting points, although it's easy enough to see a pattern in almost anything if you try hard enough. Personally, I think people try to find a morbid pattern of death in Totoro because it's such a simple film.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:07 PM on March 7, 2011


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