In America, cartoons are generally considered a form of art geared towards children. As someone who watches anime, however, it’s very apparent that there are boundless art forms that animation can utilize in order to tell stories. Anime is Japanese style animation. Its media ranges from shows targeted towards children to breathtaking films. One of these films that falls into the broad category of “anime” is Hayao Miyazaki’s film Spirited Away.
Some time ago, I had a conversation with one of my high school teachers about the film. He told me that he wasn’t a fan of Spirited Away because the symbolism was too esoteric for the viewer. He understood it to be symbolism that didn’t make any sense for the sake of not making sense.
In many ways, I can sympathize my teacher’s frustration with this kind of symbolism. Vladmir Nabokov says “The notion of symbol…has always been abhorrent to me…The symbolism racket in schools…destroys plain intelligence as well as poetical sense, It bleaches the soul. It numbs all capacity to enjoy the fun and enchantment of art.” The symbolism that I’m critiquing is of a certain kind, not all symbolism itself. Nabokov feels that symbolism has become rampant in academia. The discipline of understanding symbolism has taken away from the beauty of the story itself. Too often does symbolism become about the person’s ability to decipher the symbol, rather than understanding and appreciating what the symbol is demonstrating. At that point, symbolism has little to do with art and story telling. Rather, it becomes about the person’s intellectual ego. The symbol then has little to do with what it’s symbolizing, but instead, the person’s capability of speculating its meaning.
When I think of a film that uses this kind of symbolism, Spirited Away doesn’t come to mind. What does come to mind is the film Upstream Color. This indie film has beautiful lighting and aesthetic, but if you asked someone what the movie was about, she couldn’t tell you. In the movie, there is a couple that is affected by a parasite. Everything, including their conversations, is fragmented. There are three colors that are emphasized: white, yellow and blue. There is a cycle that has to do with orchids, people and pigs. And there are characters who sample things. But what does this all mean? I could not tell you, nor could my classmates, nor could my film professor. And after reading some interviews of the director of the film, I dare say that he could not tell you what his film is about either. Even after an analysis of the film and writing my final film essay on the movie, at best, all I could do was speculate.
I’m not saying that mystery and symbolism can’t go hand in hand. Moments of symbolic mystery are beautiful. They point to a greater and overarching story: Something bigger than what we understand is at work. And that’s the beauty of mysterious symbolism. The problem with the symbolism in Upstream Color, is that the symbolism isn’t quite pointing to anything, leaving the viewer wildly guessing what it all means when it appears that there’s no intended meaning at all. Thus, creating an intellectual contest between those who can speculate their own theories on its symbolic intentions, and the poor unfortunate people who simply don’t get it.
I’m not a fan of this kind of art, but there are those who love it, and that’s fine too. Perhaps there is a way of understanding this film that could open my eyes up to its beauty. But from my understanding, the symbolism in Upstream Color simply leads to intellectual pride and ego, rather than the art of storytelling.
And now we come back to Spirited Away. I want to explain precisely why this strange film does not fall into the category of bad symbolism. Spirited Away is a film about a 10-year-old girl named Chihiro who is moving with her family to a new home. On their way to their new home, they accidentally stumble into the spirit world where her parents are turned into pigs and Chihiro must now work at the bathhouse for the callous Yubaba.
I once read an interview of Hayao Miyazaki where he explained the meaning of one of the first scenes in the movie: Chihiro finds herself in the spirit world, her parents are gone, and she shuts her eyes in a fit of panic. She then very quickly snaps her eyes back open to find that she is slowly disappearing. A boy named Haku finds her and tells her that she must eat something from this world or she will disappear. She doesn’t want to, at first, but she then agrees and becomes solid again.
What does this moment symbolize? Miyazaki explains that Chihiro had to eat food from the spirit world in order to become a part of that world herself. If she didn’t, she would disappear. This scene shows the terror of being tossed into a completely different environment. There is no turning back, and the only choice that you have is to become a part of this new environment or disappear. When Chihiro accepts the food, she accepts her new life in this new world.
The symbolism in Spirited Away is much like understanding the dreams you have while sleeping. Your intuitive understanding of the emotional state that is occurring often reveals a great deal about what is happening in the scene. In the scene where Chihiro will disappear unless she eats food from the spirit world, you understand that she is panicked and afraid of this new place. Because she is scared, she begins to literally fade. This is because when you’re scared, you feel small and lose a sense of self. What is internally happening is also what is physically and visually happening. Chihiro physically fading symbolizes her internal-self fading as well.
At first, the symbolism in the film might seem too esoteric, but once it's understood as intuitive and dreamlike, watching the rest of film becomes a beautiful journey. Just as understanding your dreams can reveal much about yourself and allow you to grow, understanding Spirited Away has helped many people grow too.
Miyazaki specifically made the movie for young girls. In an interview he said, “I felt that this country only offered such things as crushes and romance to 10-year old girls, and looking at my young friends, I felt that this was not what they held dear in their hearts, not what they wanted. And so I wondered if I could make a movie in which they could be heroines…”
There are many themes throughout this film directed toward young girls that other modern stories fail to address. The film deals with the shock of the working world and a certain kind of apathy that isn’t quite teenage angst, but is an attitude that can only be found in a kind of pre-adolescence. These are all very important themes to deal with, but perhaps one of the most important themes of this film is to not look back.
As we mentioned, in the beginning of the film, Chihiro finds herself in the spirit world. She is panicked and frazzled and whether she likes it or not, she cannot turn back. Throughout the film, we see a development in Chihiro. She turns into a person who is calm and trusts herself. This development becomes concrete when we see Chihiro board the one-way train to find Zeneba, Yubaba’s twin sister. Chihiro boldly goes off into the unknown. Strange figures leave the train until Chihiro is the only passenger left. There is no one else to ask for help. She is independent.
At one stop, she sees a girl standing outside the train station. She appears to be looking intently at Chihiro. And then, the train continues on, as if leaving the mysterious girl behind. This is the end of Chihiro’s childhood. Chihiro no longer wishes to simply run away or shut her eyes. She understands what she must do. She has made her choice. She does not look back.
This kind of message is so important for young girls to hear. I’ve read articles on the topic of how many women continuously and needlessly say, “Sorry.” It is very common for there to be women who second-guess themselves. I’ve experienced this phenomenon first hand. So many women, including myself, grow up insecure, apologetic and unsure of themselves. But this film lets girls know at a young age: you have the strength to do what you need to do. It lets young girls know that once you make a decision, you can’t look back, but you can look forward. And when you look forward, trust in yourself. Trust that you have the means to deal with whatever is ahead of you. It’s a powerful message for anyone to hear. But for young girls, it's revolutionary.
Spirited Away is a breathtaking animated film. While watching it for the first time can be confusing, it is not to be mistaken for meaningless symbolism that simply points to intellectual ego. It is a beautiful piece of art that has helped many. But perhaps more staggeringly, it has given an empowering message to young girls who are too often overlooked. As a 9-year-old, I had the privilege of enjoying this film in its beautiful art and mystery. As a teenager, it helped me deal with the shock of the working world when I got my first job. And as 21-year-old, who is in the constant process of making major life decisions, I remember not to look back. Thank you, Hayao Miyazaki.