Real Stories is an ongoing column about the stories behind movies and TV shows. It’s that simple. This installment will focus on the folklore behind Spirited Away.
Studio Ghibli has produced several perfect films since its inception in 1985, but Spirited Away is arguably the most universally acclaimed. Hayao Miyazaki’s celebration of Japanese culture and folklore explores coming-of-age themes through fantastical concepts. In doing so, the film tells a story that’s both profoundly human and utterly spellbinding. Furthermore, it’s all brought to life courtesy of some of the most enchanting hand-drawn animation you’re ever likely to see.
Spirited Away tells the story of Chihiro, a young girl who stumbles upon a seemingly abandoned amusement park. But this isn’t your ordinary vacation destination, more like a holiday resort for supernatural beings. After her parents turn into pigs, Chihiro finds herself trapped in a world of spirits and grotesque creatures. In order to get by in the new realm, she must find a job and prove that she isn’t lazy.
The premise of Spirited Away is similar to Western fairy tales like Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz, both of which are also coming-of-age tales about young girls who wind up in magical realms. Those influences are evident throughout the movie, but Spirited Away‘s references to Japanese traditions are what makes it fascinating.
Miyazaki has discussed how he was inspired by superstitions and stories about spirits hiding everywhere. This belief is less common in the modern age, but the filmmaker has a fondness for the old ways. He finds beauty in them, as people from that period cherished things more. Reintroducing these ideas to contemporary popular culture was one of his intentions with Spirited Away.
“In my grandparents’ time, it was believed that 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.”
Spirited Away delves into the concept of kamikakushi. This entails humans abducted by the gods and taken to the spirit world. Some superstitious folks have even cited this legend as the reason why so many children have disappeared throughout the years. In some cases, it helps families cope with loss and grief that stems from such incidents. The notion of a god taking their loved ones is less grim than the more realistic alternatives.
That said, kamikakushi isn’t always associated with negativity. While many folktales detail how people returned years later, often dead or changed for the worse, some of them feature humans becoming social beings in the spirit world. It’s possible for people to enter on their own accord because they need an escape for whatever reason.
Spirited Away is a more positive take on the spirit world. It’s key to the protagonist’s self-discovery. The lessons she learns there help her forge an identity and come to terms with her problems. She’s an example of someone who enters the other realm because she fears change and comes out better for it. Stories like this do make up some of the kamikakushi lore, but the unhappy ones are more common.
In the movie, Chihiro enters the other world through a tunnel. This is also based on traditional beliefs. Tunnels, bridges, mountains, and crossroads are often viewed as gateways between this world and the spirit realm. It’s this type of attention to detail that goes a long way in the movie.
Spirited Away’s bathhouse setting also has ties to Japan’s spiritual and religious history. In old Shinto solstice rituals, villagers invited their guardian spirits to bathe with them. The reason behind this was to ward off more nefarious supernatural beings. The bathhouse in the movie boasts an assortment of mystical characters, which is a nice ode to the gods and ghosts who have entered these locales in the past.
Most of the deities and other entities in the bathhouse are based on real gods and creatures. The most interesting character, however, is Yubaba, who is reminiscent of a yamauba mountain witch. She’s just a more toned-down version, though. In the movie, Yubaba is depicted as an unflattering old woman who can turn humans into animals. She also dotes over a giant baby, indicating that she has a nurturing nature as well. This is pretty accurate.
According to the legend, these old hags turn people into animals and eat them. But they’re also prominent birth givers with motherly instincts. The witches are said to give birth up to twelve times per year, subsequently raising their kids to become great warriors with super strength. Despite their monstrous tendencies, the witches are very kind to their families and those who deserve to be rewarded.
In the movie, Miyazaki reimagines most of the traditional lore for the sake of family-friendly entertainment. At the end of the day, Spirited Away is a work of wholly original imagination that deserves to be acknowledged as such. But the film wears its cultural influences on its sleeve, inviting viewers to learn more about them in the process.