Hiyao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away is one among several of his films that has won a space in westerners’ hearts. Everyone outside of the Radical Traditionalist community whom I’ve talked to about Miyazaki films love his movies because they are whimsical, fantastic, have adorable little girls, and are wonderful stories about triumph against all odds (but only when it isn’t a tragic warning a la Grave of the Fireflies). Miyazaki’s movies can be very hard for westerners to understand because of how radically and fundamentally different our contemporary values system is. We don’t need to flounder in confusion about what Miyazaki’s movies mean, because he leaves bread crumbs for us to follow. He’s also the only authentic Traditionalist film maker that I’ve ever heard of (feel free to let me know in the comments section if I’m wrong…)
There are several tropes that Miyazaki regularly uses in his films. He regularly uses young ladies or girls as the lead character and then pairs her with a young adult male or male teen figure prominently in the plot. Men are important in Miyazaki’s world, but it’s decidedly the women who are more valuable. Most of Miyazaki’s films also pass the Bechdel Test, so it’s a wonder why the feminist community doesn’t appreciate him more. This hasn’t seemed to diminish the number of men who like Miyazaki’s films, but more on that later. The “two places” trope is also very common with Miyazaki. The two places he sets up usually contrast with each other, presenting extremes on a spectrum or mutually exclusive things of some kind. However, don’t think that there is only ever a single instance of the two-places trope, because it’s common to see multiple instances of it in the film. His latest movie The Wind Rises is an exception to this rule, and
I’ll give a review of that, too, if there’s any demand, (my review of The Wind Rises) but after reading this one I think everyone will be smart enough to figure it out on their own.
The movie opens with Chihiro moving to a new place. She’s not happy, she’s not looking forward to the new home, and she doesn’t feel appreciated or loved. She’s also extremely timid, shy, and just wants to hide away from the world. But, all of that is about to change. The fact that she’s “moving to a new place” and that the movie is titled “spirited away” should indicate as much. Her parents are trying to find the new place to live, which sits atop a hill. After her father misses the turn to their house up on top of the hill he tries to take a shortcut and ends up at the entrance to an abandoned theme park where things go horribly wrong. This is one example of the two-places trope that frequently comes up in Miyazaki films, and you wouldn’t be wrong to read it literally: there are no shortcuts in life.Chihiro’s parents end up at a restaurant and indulge themselves in a buffet which they have not been given permission to eat, against Chihiro’s warnings. They gorge themselves on this otherworldly food saying they’ll use their credit cards and cash to cover it. They’re not worried about the price, they’ll pay for it later, so they say, and they do end up paying for it in the end. Their indulgent and self-pleasing behavior turns them into pigs, literal pigs! Meanwhile Chihiro is learning the lay of the land. While exploring she runs into Haku, a servant to the cruel and heavy handed Yubaba. More on her in a minute. Chihiro tries to escape and is then horrified and confused to find that her parents are pigs. In a flight of panic she then finds that it’s impossible for her to escape because the return path has been flooded and replaced with an endless ocean. Not only that, but unless she eats something from that world she will disappear.
This other world that Chihiro is trapped in is one of bourgeois decadence. It’s a place where the spirits come to cleanse themselves and to feel rejuvenated, and the only thing she can do to survive there is to make herself a part of it. If she didn’t partake of the world she would have simply vanished and disappeared, presumably dying. Haku works his magic and makes it so that she won’t disappear, but then tells her that the only way she can stay is if she gets a job working in Yubaba’s bath house. To this ends, Chihiro is sent to the lowest floor of the bath house, the boiler room, to see a man and demand to see Yubaba for a job. She doesn’t just stroll down the very long, very steep, and very dangerous path, she ends up involuntarily running and screaming down the stairs and descending into the lowest and harshest place of all after faltering on a broken step. Her fall into forced subservience is swift, fast, and terrifying. The man who works the boiler, Kamaji, puts in a good word for her and helps her find assistance to visit Yubaba. Kamaji was the man who “bought her ticket” into the system– remember this, it will be important later.
Yubaba is the kindly looking old lady who runs the bath house like a hard-nosed Maître d’hotel in a snooty over-priced restaurant. A part of the condition that she runs the bath house is that she give a job to anyone who asks. This isn’t too different from how capitalism works in real life. It will take in everybody who comes to it, and it will put everyone to work with a hard taskmaster lording over them at every step. Naturally, Yubaba’s office and living space is at the highest point of the bath house. Her economic and social power is literally over and above everyone. The first thing that happens after Chihiro signs a contract to work is she loses her name and her identity to Yubaba’s magic. This, too, isn’t so far removed from how capitalism works in the real world: we are all interchangeable cogs who will lose control of our identity in the capitalist system.
Chihiro’s new life as a servant in the bath house is a rough adjustment. No surprises there. Her parents raised her as a gentle and carefree little girl, and that life made her soft, weak, and unaware. In spite of this she learns how to apply herself and also to do it so well that she’s rewarded with a gift (a kind of medicine) from one of the spirits she cleaned. She managed to do all of that while being separated from her parents who are living as pigs in a barn far away from the bath house. Now, it’s not like her parents are living in a zoo, but more like an actual pig farm raising pigs for meat. If Chihiro doesn’t save her parents they will be slaughtered and served as food to the spirits. Chihiro’s parents are “asleep” and cannot return to being themselves unless Chihiro saves them. What responsibility! The parents’ fate is the child’s responsibility! The bath house, as a grand abstraction and merciless representation of capitalism, will kill and eat her parents if she doesn’t save them.
It’s about this time that a troublesome spirit shows up, called No Face. It wears a false face to take on some semblance of a person. No Face can’t enter the bath house like any of the other spirits. This should be a glaring red flag and ringing bell that tells us No Face is not one of the Kami worthy of reverence and care. No Face is a spiritual and cultural Other who is alien and foreign to the people it’s trying to dwell among. Unfortunately, Chihiro doesn’t recognize this and invites this dark spirit (literally a dark spirit!) into the bath house.
No Face was not dangerous when it stayed outside of the bath house, and it had no power or control. It simply slinked around in the shadows looking for somebody foolish enough to take care of it. No Face only begins to take control of other staff members in the bath house after realizing that they could be bought with gold, which No Face is able to create “out of thin air.” It throws gold at people forcing them to grovel at his feet and beg for favor in exchange for gold. Does this sound familiar to anyone else? A dark spirit who has no home shows up out of nowhere and promises great wealth if we only make whores of ourselves and grovel at it’s feet. It’s almost as if Miyazaki were hip to the Jewish Question. Miyazaki makes a flagrant and prominent display of the fasces in another of his movies, Porco Rosso, and if you consider his favorable representation of WWII Italy in The Wind Rises, then, well, it’s kind of a dead giveaway. Anyhow, at this point No Face only wants to eat Chihiro. This dark spirit comes wearing the faces and likenesses of the people it ate previously and now it wants to destroy the youth! In any case, it’s all for naught. After a harrowing encounter with the greatly bloated and highly aggressive beast which No Face has become, she feeds him a piece of the medicine she received from the spirit. Remember, the spirits in this movie are not just magical ghosts who sometimes do good things for people, they’re spiritual embodiments of people and ancestors. The medicine Chihiro received from the spirit saves her from No Face. Remember all the gold that No Face went throwing about buying people into his service? Well, after Chihiro lures him out of the bath house all of that gold turns into dirt. The people who groveled and begged for No Face’s favor did it all for dirt– a fiat currency! The spirit medicine also caused No Face to vomit out all the people it ate (still alive) and then revert to it’s powerless and ghostly state from before.
Before we go any further, you have to know what happened with Haku previous to No Face’s departure from the bath house. Yubaba sent Haku on a mission to steal a magic gold monogram from her identical twin sister, Zeniba. I’ll get to her in a moment, but just know that the seal bore a deadly spell for anyone who would attempt to steal it. A monogram is a highly detailed metal stamp used for making impression on sealing wax. This is something that adds a certain amount of authority and authenticity to any document that bears such stamp. Keep this in mind when we get back to Zeniba and her role in the movie. Haku managed to steal the gold monogram for Yubaba, but he ends up being abandoned by Yubaba to bleed to death and die in her suite on the top floor. Chihiro sees this happening and goes to save him. This is the second time that she “makes it to the top,” but after being pushed down a trapdoor with Haku she lands right back in the boiler room. Haku is given the first piece of the spirit medicine, and he promptly vomits the gold seal and a black slug. Chihiro stomps on the slug, destroying it, and tells the boiler man, Kamaji, she needs to return the seal to Zeniba in an effort to bargain for his life. The trouble is that Zeniba lives in “Swamp Bottom” at the opposite end of this spirit world (two-places trope again!) which can only be reached traveling by train. The other trouble is that nobody can board the train without tickets, which are apparently nigh on impossible to obtain. The boiler man gives her four tickets to ride the train. The very man who “bought her ticket” into the bath house is the very one who “bought her ticket” away from the bath house.
Chihiro has also picked up two more friends at this point, one of which is a Yubaba’s child and the other being Yubaba’s lackey. Swamp Bottom and Zeniba’s cottage are exactly what you would imagine if you had to think of what a frozen-in-time European folk community would look like: Oil lanterns, a thatched-roof cottage, a cooking hearth, and all manner of Old World tools. Standing opposite of the bath house, Zeniba’s cottage at swamp bottom is culturally dogmatic. It’s pure folkishness! Can you imagine what the world would be like if capitalist interests could authenticate their soul-killing lifestyle with the stamp of Tradition? Chihiro begs Zeniba to remove the curse from Haku, but there’s no need to. The reason why is that the curse was broken by Chihiro’s “pure love” for Haku. But what about that black slug she stomped on? That was Yubaba’s curse to keep Haku under her control. Once again, the youth save the day and free people from capitalist slavery.
The train that brought her to Swamp Bottom was a one-way trip. There were no more tickets, and she most certainly wasn’t going to walk back with enough time to save her parents from being slaughtered for food to the spirits. At this point Haku arrives to bring Chihiro back for her parents, whom Yubaba is threatening to slice up into bacon. Chihiro’s time with Zeniba was not work or labor as it was with Yubaba, it’s more like meditation. Meanwhile, Zeniba has put No Face and the others to work spinning a blue hair-tie for Chihiro, so she’ll “always remember her friends.” This time she spent meditating, the time she spent dwelling in folkish tradition let her remember the one thing would finally free Haku from Zeniba’s control: His real name, “the Kohaku River,” which, as the movie tells it, was filled in and covered up for a shopping mall.
Chihiro is equally separated from her parents at Swamp Bottom as she was at the bath house. She can’t stay there either. If this means anything at all for us, it should mean that we can’t retreat into dogmatic folkishness. Retreating from the world and living in some fantasy folk land is not realistic a fix for Chihiro because she would be abandoning her parents. So, she returns to the bath house with Haku and finds that Yubaba will only let her and her parents go if Chihiro can correctly identify her parents. The whole set up was a trick, too. Figures that filthy, lying, and manipulative capitalists would do that, right? After a long inspection, she decides that none of the pigs shown are her parents. It was the right choice, too. Finally freed from the contractual curse of capitalism, and the return path now dry and unobstructed, she meets her parents and leaves as a spiritually, culturally, and physically better person no longer afraid of moving to a new home.
If there’s anything that we’re supposed to learn from this movie it’s that there are no shortcuts in life. When our parents indulge in decadent capitalistic and secular lifestyles and practices it will destroy our people (thanks, baby boomers…), steal our identity, and trap the youth in a life of cruel servitude. Neither can we (in regards to the youth here) think that we’re going to fix the world if we run away and lock ourselves up in the world of Tradition. Modernity is a selfish and impatient house guest, and if you don’t find it then it will come and find you, violently forcing you to it’s will. The things we learn from both of those worlds, however, are what help us in life. Hard work, hierarchy, love of our people, and respect of religion is what builds the fire of Tradition. To do otherwise is worshiping ashes or pissing on the place upon which they burned.