“Once you’ve met someone you never really forget them. It just takes a while for your memories to return” – Zeniba in Spirited Away
Winning the Best Animated Film Oscar in the Academy Awards (USA) 2003, along with 58 other wins, Hayo Miyazaki’s Spirited Away is an unforgettable global success. The Japanese animated film was a symbolic outlet of Miyazaki’s emotions post wartime and the “Bubble Economy” stages of the country in the 1980s, how shameful he felt of his nation. He created a fantastical and culturally nostalgic film of overcoming hardships and finding one’s true identity via the challenges faced. This pioneering film was a transnational phenomenon due to its hybridisation of cultural knowledge and trends as well as its success in overcoming cultural proximity.
WHEN FOREIGN FILMS WERE ‘TRENDING’
Sparking the ignition to the roller coaster of foreign films in television was the nineteen eighties, where Asian themes and styles became a considerable interest in western countries. With the emergence of Chinese martial arts, Japanese horror films and Thai/Korean action scenes (Hunt & Wing-Fai 2008), the geographical divide of North and South boundaries was ruptured. The westernised community took a liking to the eastern Asian cinematic styles and incorporated them in their own Hollywood blockbusters such as The Ring.
This was where cultural hybridisation and appropriation was born.
This form of hybridisation is noticed in the characters of spirited away such as Yubaba, and their social hierarchical position within the setting Chihiro is placed in. Additionally, MacWilliams (2008) articulates how Miyazaki implements westernised structure by how the shops before the bathhouse of the film are facing toward each other which give a western look but are designed as traditional Japanese shops. Miyazaki names this fusion of cultures as “pseudo-western”.
HAYOS DEPICTION OF JAPANESE TRADITIONS IN SPIRITED AWAY
Miyazaki represents this film as his emotional frustrations with japans historical character. As MacWilliams describes, Miyazaki’s anger toward the cruelty preformed by the Japanese nations in wartime in addition to the Bubble Economy, an age of greed and economic destruction are symbolised heavily in the film. The run-down dystopian look of the slumbering spirit world resemble this famine-like age of japan after these historical moments. Miyazaki names the pig as a semiotic (reoccurring symbol) of greed throughout the movie, in addition to the character “no-face”, the pursuer of greed.
Attempting to enlighten the audience of their abandoned traditional values, the setting of the film is placed in an abandoned theme park. Much like chihiro, the essence of the settings abandonment is essential to the cultural equivalent of abandoning traditional memories such as the Shinto religion which is featured throughout the film; a reason to the films focus of spirits and spirituality.
SO… HOW DID WE UNDERSTAND IT?
The success of this film transitionally was largely to do with the overcoming challenges of cultural proximity. Although the setting and practices were quite obviously Japanese, Chihiro herself is key to the western audience understanding the film. Chihiro was coined as our western counterpart, socially, throughout the film. Thanks to the emergence of foreign film, Japanese manners such as bowing in thanks and taking off shoes when entering households were traditions the majority of audiences already understood.
We build a comical relationship with Chihiro as we watch her socially awkward character throughout the beginning of the film as an unfamiliar intruder into this traditional lifestyle. The scene of her falling to the ground whilst trying to copy the other girls cleaning the floors is an example of this. The other characters surrounding her are our guides, just like when Chihiro asks her mother what the “small houses” mean, and her mother tells us a small amount about shrines and spirits to educate us.
Additionally, the dialogue plays a grand part in this succession of cultural proximity. The dubbed version of the film not only syncs quite nicely to the English voices, but inserts strings of dialogue for the western audience to understand certain parts of the film. For example, Chihiro’s father explains the economic decline of the abandoned theme park to explain to audiences why the buildings are abandoned. Chihiro also observes the predominant scene when it is introduced to the film and proclaims “its a bathhouse” for the culturally unfamiliar audiences who wouldn’t grasp the Japanese tradition.
Spirited Away is a global masterpiece, mainly due to its amazing overcoming success to the challenges of cultural proximity. The English’s dubbed version attempts to stay true to its original, so much so as to mimic the original voice actress of Chihiros mother in eating an apple whilst saying a line to keep the authentic vibe!!
It’s truly a favourite among many.
- Hunt L & Wing-Fai L (2008) East Asian Cinemas: exploring transnational connections on film I.B. Tauris pg 1-7 https://books.google.com.au/books?hl=en&lr=&id=pzgBAwAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PP1&dq=spirited+away+cultural+significance&ots=ajltCSdFQe&sig=Iv7_CqzJNJB8z3DFyneRizq5ipI&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false [22nd August 2019
- MacWilliams M W. (2008) Japanese visual culture: explorations in the world of manga and anime Routledge pg 237-256 https://books.google.com.au/books?hl=en&lr=&id=6dDfBQAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PP1&dq=spirited+away+cultural+significance&ots=aoN1K1TyLP&sig=HgIlPAhn-nc53IqTzJAvMRewbVM&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=spirited%20away%20cultural%20significance&f=false [22nd August 2019]