Spirited Away: Coexistence between Nature and Modernity

Hayao Miyazaki’s animated film Spirited Away follows a story of a young girl named Chihiro who unknowingly enters a spiritual realm with her parents, and suddenly finding herself in the position to save her parents who transforms into pigs and find her way back to reality. Upon entering this unknown spiritual world, Chihiro, determined to save them, assumes a different identity (as Sen) when she signs Yubaba’s, the head of the bathhouse, working contract in order to stay in their world. As she embarks on her journey and meets different individuals, she too grows as an individual eventually leading her to the conclusion of her journey and returns to the other side of the world. In this animation, Miyazaki illustrates the bathhouse as a structured hierarchy in the labor force work as a result of a modernizing Japan, contrasting them from each other. Miyazaki points out the problematic result that can occur in a country that is modernizing rather quickly but also points out that it is finding the balance that will create a harmony between advancements and nature.

When Japan opened its doors to the West, it resulted to foreign ideas, food, technology, clothes and other goods to enter Japan’s lifestyle. Japan started to demand more labor to keep up with the industrialized West and to modernize itself.  Kamaji’s boiler room represents Japan’s labor force that is rapidly growing due to the demand of consumer goods. To keep up with the demand means creating mass production while reducing the required physical labor. This resulted in the use of assembly lines, a process in which different parts of products are created and assembled much faster by machines. Kamaji is very similar to these assembly line machines because with his six arms, he operates the boiler room of the bathhouse on his own. Kamaji as the machine in the labor force is able to provide and meet the demands of the bathhouse, hence when Chihiro first asked for a job, he denies her because he has all the help he needs – the soots and himself.

Kamaji operating the boiler room, keeping the bathhouse running

Kamaji operating the boiler room, keeping the bathhouse running

In comparison, Yubaba’s office found at the very top of the bathhouse is the complete opposite of the boiler room which draws a distinction on the levels of the hierarchical labor force. Yubaba’s office in comparison to the rest of the bathhouse has a very Western influence to it. The halls are grand and tall, the walls and furniture are very ornate, items such as pillows has a lot of embroidery – overall it is very Westernized. Even Yubaba’s clothes compared to the workers is Western. Yubaba’s office being located on the very top of this hierarchy in a way associates the West with luxury and the better economic status. Yubaba runs the bathhouse and has control over everyone that works there. The difference between the boiler room and Yubaba’s office suggests that the accumulation of material goods can establish one’s status.

A view of Yubaba’s ornate office

A view of Yubaba’s ornate office

Miyazaki illustrates this as one side of industrialized Japan, where the people itself are so caught up to the luxurious lifestyle associated with the West that in the end it hurts them. For example when the filthy river god, who Yubaba thought was a stink spirit, enters the bathhouse it turns out he had consumed all these materials. It was not until Chihiro helps him that he is able to cleanse himself away from the filth that was dragging him down. This suggests the idea that filth can come along with consumerism when it gets out of hand. After Chihiro helps the river god, he gives her a healing cake which she uses later on to help Haku and No-Face. This herb-like healing cake she uses for No-Face to vomit everything he consumed suggests that a balance between nature and the growing industrialization in society is needed for sustainability.

The river god spews out various objects with the help of Chihiro

The river god spews out various objects with the help of Chihiro

However, Miyazaki also includes that industrialized Japan is not always a bad thing. Nature and industries can coexist harmoniously if people control their consumption of consumer goods. For instance, Yubaba’s twin sister Zeniba also lives in a Western-influenced place but it is much more simple and humble. Zeniba’s humble home paints the idea that adopting Western influence does not automatically means it will end in a disaster. It really depends on the people how they will balance both sides, and how to control their desire for materials. Zeniba’s home is a depiction of this balance, with her Western furniture that are not over the top, and her house not containing a superfluous of items. Furthermore, the plants she has hints on nature coexisting with modernity.

Chihiro and friends entering Zeniba’s humble home

Chihiro and friends entering Zeniba’s humble home

Miyazaki carefully highlights the problem and consequences that arise from a growing industrial country like Japan, and the rise of consumerism. As seen in the cases of the spirit god and no-face who over consumed, lost their true identity and it was not until they were cleansed that they gain their true identities back. Some may lose their sense of self because of their desire for wealth. However, it is also depicted in the animation that such coexistence between the two is possible as long balance is sought.


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