Fantastic World of Spirited Away: Japanese Folklore and Symbolism
Released in 2001, Hayao Miyazaki's animation film entitled "Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi" (Spirited Away) is the highest-grossing film of all time in Japan. It won a number of awards including a 2003 Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film and a Golden Bear at the Berlin International Festival in 2002. Derek Elley, a reviewer, writes, "It's almost impossible to do justice in words either to the visual richness of the movie, which mélanges traditional Japanese clothes and architecture with both Victorian and modern-day artifacts, or to the character-filled storyline with human figures, harpies and grotesque creatures." Many critics compared "Spirited Away" with western stories such as "Alice in Wonderland", "The Wizard of Oz" or even "Harry Potter". While the influence of western stories, art and architecture is evident, as Miyazaki himself expressed, "Spirited Away" is replete with Japanese folklore, tradition and symbolism. Indeed, the title, "kamikakushi" (hidden by the kami/spirit[s]), itself indicates Japanese folk belief. The film's major characters such as Yubaba (a descendent of "yamauba" or mountain witch) and Kamajii (reminiscent of "tsuchigumo" or earth spider) within the architecture of a bath house are symbolic not only as a representation of yamauba and earth spider respectively but also as a reflection of Japan's vertical society. To this point, situating the film as an exemplary work of the fantastic, I will examine both covert and overt Japanese folk beliefs, imagery, and symbolism of the film as a text which expresses voices of Japanese past and present.
Keywords: Fantastic, Spirited Away, film, Japanese folklore, imagery, symbolism.
Dr. Noriko Reider
Associate Professor, Department of German, Russian and East Asian Languages, Miami University