Dear Readers, Spirited Away was initially released on July 20, 2001. In tribute to my favorite animated film, I offer a bonus post.
Here is a very edited excerpt from my much longer article exploring Japanese cinema through postmodern Japanese philosopher Hiroki Azuma.
Hiroki Azuma’s book Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals takes a philosophical approach to postmodern Japan’s Otaku consumer culture.
Azuma defines Otaku as “a general term referring to those who indulge in forms of subculture strongly linked to anime, video games, computers, science fiction, special-effects films, anime figurines, and so on” (Azuma 3).
In his text, Azuma covers “Narrative Consumption”. He suggests postmodern Japan suffers from a decline of the “grand narrative” consumers create a “grand non-narrative” via “derivative works” (fan fiction) and consume “smaller narratives” (fan products) therefore cultural knowledge is received in a database-type format, leading to unsatisfied desires.
Simply put, one can never know Hello Kitty. All one can do is purchase her products. Yet each purchase leads to dissatisfaction, it does not increase any understanding of the character.
Azuma also suggests mass consumption is akin to Alexandre Kojève’s “return to animality”, the consumer “surrounded by products satisfying the customers (sic) needs alone” (67) he furthers defines being human as “snobbery,” behaving in a manner contrary to our nature.
He closes his book stating he attempted to create a format for discourse “without distinction between high culture versus subculture, academism versus Otaku, for adults versus for children, and art versus entertainment” (117).
Filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki bridges the gap between high and low culture. Studio Ghibli produces feature films, short subjects, toys, other tie-in products, a television channel and an art museum, successfully combining entertainment and art.
Miyazaki, a contemporary of Azuma, shares a common context for his film Spirited Away. The director addresses issues that signify postmodern Japan, including Westernization and consumption. However, Miyazaki’s storytelling illustrates a return to “the grand narrative”.
Miyazaki’s films, including Spirited Away embody the discourse Azuma illustrates, being both high (winning an Academy Award) and low culture (anime), being a work appreciated by the academics and Otaku. Miyazaki creates films for families to enjoy together, with content for both the adults and the children.
Miyazaki’s films, mostly take place in a European or pseudo-European setting, but Spirited Away begins in the countryside of modern day Japan.
Chihiro and her family are moving from the city to the country. They are a Westernized family, Chihiro is petulant, her father drives their Audi like a maniac, and her mother worries about the distance she must travel to shop.
The little houses along the road, tiny Shinto spirit shrines, astound her. Chihiro exhibits a cultural grand narrative disconnect.
On the journey to their new home, they take a detour leading to an abandoned amusement park, according to Chihiro’s father amusement parks were built everywhere. When the economy collapsed, they all went bankrupt.
This amusement park has no rides, only a village filled with empty restaurants. Her parents follow the food’s aroma until they arrive at a massive buffet. They unquestioningly eat the food set at the table. No concern for whom the food may be prepared, as “Daddy has credit cards and cash”.
As her parents eat, their behavior becomes more animal-like. Chihiro wanders off, as the sun sets, she returns to find her parents transformed into pigs. Trapped in the spirit realm, she must find the witch who cursed her parents to break the spell.
According to Azuma, postmodern Japan is a society “at the end of history”. Taking his theories from Alexandre Kojève’s interpretation of Hegel, Azuma describes postmodern Japan’s pursuit of the American way of life, as a return to animality.
“In order for human beings to be human, they must behave in a way that negates their own environment. . . postwar American consumer society—surrounded by products satisfying consumer “needs” alone and whose fashion changes accordion (sic) to the media’s demands alone – is not, humanistic, but rather, animalistic” (Azuma 67).
When viewed through this lens, her parents’ transformation (animalization) is not a punishment for overeating, only their inevitable reunion with nature. By a reunion with nature, I mean a loss of snobbery, satisfying basic needs, only. Chihiro does not eat the food, so she does not become a pig, she disappears. She meets a young boy named Haku, who tells her to stay visible she must eat something from the spirit realm. When Chihiro eats, she does not turn into a pig. If we continue examining the film through Azuma’s critique of postmodern Japan: she maintains her humanity by eating in moderation. Her snobbery facilitates her humanity. As pigs, Chihiro’s parents experience literal animalization.
It is important to note, Miyazaki does not see Westernization as a cultural demise. All Miyazaki’s films embrace multiculturalism, and Miyazaki seeks a balance between Western and traditional Japanese cultures.
Azuma suggests Otaku surround themselves with fan products to escape reality. Miyazaki illustrates a claustrophobic escape from reality in Spirited Away, water surrounds Chihiro, she cannot return to reality. Miyazaki describes himself as a pessimistic person, but he does not exhibit it in his films, in a 2002 interview with Midnight Eye Miyazaki states that he makes films for children because “the single difference between films for children and films for adults is that in films for children, there is always the option to start again, to create a new beginning. In films for adults, there are no ways to change things. What happened, happened.”
Chihiro meets the witch, but must earn her freedom, by working in a bathhouse.
Her journey in the spirit realm includes an encounter No Face, a spirit. No Face is an outsider in the spirit realm and ignored by everyone but Chihiro. No Face wants Chihiro’s friendship and tries to buy her affection with valuable tokens. Chihiro accepts one token. No Face returns with many tokens for Chihiro; she rejects his gift, she only needs one.
Then a stink spirit arrives in a cloud of noxious fumes. Unlike No Face, the staff welcomes the stink spirit, he has money. The stink spirit is a polluted river god; covered with sludge and slime humanity’s refuse engorges him, broken bicycles, old furnishings, and garbage. The garbage once purged from the spirit turns into a pile of gold. The entire bath house celebrates their newly acquired riches.
No Face observes the bathhouse system and quickly learns the gold’s value. When he produces gold, the staff feed him delicacies. The more he consumes, the larger he becomes. The staff sings: “Welcome the rich man, he’s very hard to miss, his butt keeps getting bigger, so there’s more for you to kiss!”
The staff caters to No Face, but he wants Chihiro. The one he cannot buy. No Face demands to see Chihiro. When she won’t accept his gold, No Face attempts to eat her because he is lonely. Before he can eat her, Chihiro gives No Face a charm causing him to purge all the food. No Face, purged of the toxins, joins Chihiro on her journey.
No Face’s rampage exemplifies Azuma’s “unsatisfied desires”. Miyazaki offers consumption demonstrated in Azuma’s book, loneliness motivate both instances.
The Stink Spirit represents consumption’s ecological dangers. The excessive consumption leads to excessive waste, causing pollution. Postmodern Japan is contrary to nature as Azuma states and creates problems contrary to nature. Miyazaki repeats consumption’s ecological theme with Haku. Haku is a young boy, also a dragon and the spirit of the Kohaku River. As the plot unfolds, we discover Haku cannot return home because his river is now a housing development, demonstrating humanity working against nature.
Azuma and Miyazaki both respond to Japan’s consumer culture, both created works at approximately the same time and both respond to Japan’s Bubble Economy crash in 1999.
Spirited Away illuminates only a small portion of Azuma’s text. Miyazaki’s film has many other plot points not covered in Azuma’s text, and Azuma critiques many interrelated issues not demonstrated in Miyazaki’s film.
Azuma’s text examines many postmodern issues. He based his theories on information age technologies; therefore, I believe Azuma’s text has a wider application. Azuma’s text is relevant to postmodern Japan and the postmodern world’s global culture.
Azuma, Hiroki. “Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals.” Trans. Jonathan E. Abel and ShionKono. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009. Print.
Miyazaki, Hayao. The Art of Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. Ed. Alvin Lu. San Francisco: Viz Communications, Inc. 2002. Print.
Miyazaki, Hayao. Interview by Tom Mes. Midnight Eye. Jan 2002. Web. 5 May 2010.
Spirited Away. (Sen to Chihiro Kamikakushi). Dir. Miyazaki Hayao. Studio Ghibli, 2001. Walt Disney Video, 2003. DVD.