Spirited Away and Westernization: Is It All Disney?

The film Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki is the coming of age story about a girl named Chihiro and her magical journey through a land of spirits, demons and monsters.  This is thought to be a quintessential Japanese story of determination and strength through what is to most a very exotic and foreign land but upon closer inspection one can see that this film has deeper Western influence within it than at first glance despite this being Miyazaki-senpai’s fabled “return to Japan”.

Westernization as defined by the dictionary is “the influence of Western culture on non-Western cultures”. This can also be called the imposing of Western ideals on non-Western cultures.  Westernization in Japan began in the Meiji Era in the late 17th to 18th century when American traders forced the Japanese to open their ports and flourished again during and shortly after World War II and has since gained speed with globalization. Westernization can be seen not just in the culture and language but in various films and publications from Japan. Everywhere from McDonald’s to hearing more and more people in Japan speaking English, Western influence has been the battle we seem to be losing as we struggle to preserve cultures outside of our own.

I’ve watched this film countless times and never gave it any thought, I always assumed it was just to appease American audiences and must have had something to do with the Disney influence but further investigation revealed that it is not only intentional but original to the film.  It all started with a moment of watching the film with friends and keying in on one key line. “Don’t worry, Daddy’s got credit cards.” Chihiro’s father went on in the key scene at the café for the spirits with Chihiro’s parents who up until then I never considered to be overly Westernized but that sort of flaunting of wealth and money and then the overly pluralized capitalist remark from her father just sealed the deal, this film has more Western influence in it than I think anyone knew.

The first place this is apparent is in Chihiro herself. She spends most of her time in the film yelling, whining or complaining.  These are very non-typical traits of a Japanese character of firstly her age being that of ten years old and of her gender, being female. The typical Japanese girl is even in this modern era meant to be quiet and respectful, polite, considerate and respect her parents. Even with the slight influence the West has provided in modern Japan, Japanese children even up until young adulthood maintain a level of respect that is uniquely Eastern.  Chihiro was unlike any character I had seen in a Japanese film before.  This is meant to show the duality of characterization and she was meant to provide a foil to the traditional background of the film but she seemed to be a more basic example of Western influence than a mere foil to the tradition of the film.
The second place is in the main setting itself, the Bath House of the Spirits. The Bath House is run by the witch Yubaba, who is a greedy, sinister and selfish character who runs her bathhouse strictly and with an iron fist. Firstly the bathhouse in Japanese culture is a mostly male dominated realm not to be owned by a female. And a female with such strong Western ideals. Though this is one of the more traditional parts of the story, most often in Japanese myths women that as wicked and greedy are shown as grotesque as Yubaba and are often the villain of the story as with Yubaba.  She is also dressed surprisingly in a Victorian outfit that seems to be a nod to 19th century England; her clothes are tight-fitting and show off her large broad body which shows strength and ferocity, traits that are uncommon for even villains of Japanese myth. Such capitalistic greed and concern for money and self-preservation as Yubaba shows are surprisingly common for Japanese myth but her clothing, style of speech are distinctly Western. But there is one key that does tie her back to tradition, she takes Chihiro’s name, this is a very Eastern concern, the tie between the soul and the name. But in a moment of Western concern Yubaba takes Chihiro’s first name and not her family name which even for girls is of more concern than their first. Between her pipe smoking and over-concern with her gold stash she reminded me more of a female brothel owner in the South than a Japanese villain.

Within the bathhouse’s work structure we also see another shout back to Victorian England and to factory life of the Industrial Revolution. The workers at the bathhouse seem to be of a lower class and cannot afford to actually enjoy the bathhouse’s luxury but are resistant to change when the human girl Chihiro is offered a job. Each department refuses to take her and such specialization within the workplace seems more at home in a factory in London than a bathhouse in Japan. Also the poor treatment in which they are treated, and conditions they work are of poor standard, crowded and very busy. Not serene at all or zen-like similar to how we believe and have record of most bathhouses being run.
The foremen are cruel and make harsh comments to the female workers, the female workers often girls and young women have to work very hard. In traditional bathhouses women were only allowed to work as geisha and could not even do any of the actual work of the bathhouse and that was relegated to the workers of the bathhouse who were usually male and they worked in what were considered to be normally very equal and fair conditions. These factory conditions did not appear in Japan until well after the Meiji era and the beginning of World War II and is by no means traditional.

The third distinction made was with the boiler man and the overall industrial feel of the film. Despite the film’s backdrop being a very traditional Japanese bathhouse that could have been plucked out of a Meiji Era picture book, the boiler room is a testament to steam era technology that seemed to bypass Japan and seemed to come more from Victorian England than late Tokugawa Japan. Coal power is distinctly Western and the more traditional form used to power bathhouses came from manpower or natural geothermic reactions.  The skyline also in the film is very modern and Western, though it does seem to seamlessly meld with East and West, skylines and dragons, myth and reality, old and new.

Another place we see a near overly Western influence comes with some of the items dotting the landscape in the film. A New Orleans-style paddle-boat brings weary spirit guests to the bathhouse a one-way San Francisco-style trolley car rolls along the stops of the spirit world. These things are almost never seen in Japan outside of theme restaurants and in pictures from the United States. What are they doing playing background image to a traditional bathhouse?

The interpersonal relationships of the film are another mark of Westernization. It is not just Chihiro’s pessimistic and disrespectful attitude but also her forwardness with other authority figures. Her parents are near oblivious to their daughter’s needs and shoo her needs away and her growing concerns about entering the terrifying abandoned amusement park. Her parents are not as attentive as we are accustomed to seeing Japanese parents especially ones that have a young daughter.  We are quick to shove that to the side and assume it is a plot device; if they had listened to her more intently the plot would have never moved forward. Yubaba’s relationship with her foremen and workers is more like that of a factory owner than the traditional respect of an Eastern bathhouse.

Another key fact that gets the plot moving is Chihiro’s family moving, this is actually fairly uncommon even in modern Japan where jobs are very stable and families have not moved from prefecture to prefecture in years even if they do work in the more industrial regions of the country like the Aichi prefecture where there is a great deal of auto manufacturing. The behavior of the characters cannot be simply chalked up to devices of the plot of slaves to moving the story along, there is a deeper Western influence within that perhaps served the purpose of making them more relatable to a growing American audience.

Now, the film has plenty of traditional elements to it. The idea of a bathhouse for the spirits and Yubaba’s odd concern with respect and maintaining her guests’ happiness. The closeness to the spirits is one that is only seen in the US in regions like New Orleans where voodoo is practiced and there is a closeness and concern for the dead there; that is the only other place outside of Eastern myth that I have found the living and the dead communing so casually together. The theme and concern with mythology is one that is uniquely Eastern. Also the great interjection of mythological characters and creatures of folklore that have survived for thousands of years in Japan like the dragon and water spirits, river spirits, demons and monsters that seem to encompass the landscape of the film.

Spirited Away was as Miyazaki-senpai said his “return to Japan”, the film’s exotic setting, mythical creatures and whimsical spirit was very unique and unlike the average film to the average American movie-goer. What did tie the film back to Japan was something Miyazaki does consistently throughout many of his films and it is doing his best to when he can preserve Japanese culture and the dying way of life that is the traditional Japanese way, in a way the Bushido code provided the guidance for the samurai up until the early Meiji with its brief resurgence during World War II, Miyazaki strives to bring that time back, to a simpler time where man lived and respected nature, and therefore respected others. Where myth and legend lived not just on paper but in the hearts of the people. Where honor was key and the most important thing to a person and not money or socioeconomic status.

These more traditional aspects come from another key scene and that is the stink spirit. We come to find that it is not a stink spirit at all but an old river spirit but due to neglect and pollution he has become gross and dirty. It takes outside help from Chihiro and the other workers at the bathhouse to clean him up and discover his true nature, a clean and healthy river he is grateful and leaves powerful medicine behind. This story is one that we see more commonly in the West but we are beginning to see in Japan as the Japanese become suddenly very concerned with preserving their rich natural habitats and local rivers and streams that were the lifeblood of the ancient Japanese and became neglected shortly after industrialization and pollution came to Japan.

The other key place is within Haku. He is one of the only characters to maintain traditional dress and for the most part formalities and respect for others including authority figures. Despite him being a mythical creature his story is also fairly similar to other Japanese stories. River spirits often communicate with humans and form close bonds with mortals, that being the reason why so many rivers in Japan have human names, they were thought to have real human embodiment that could feel and move just like humans could. Haku’s relationship with Chihiro then isn’t just to be chalked to do plot device, this is something that was seen as rather conventional if this story was being told hundreds of years ago in Japan.

Music and dance are other key places where we see the traditional creep back in, the soundtrack to the film is filled with traditional instruments like the samisen and koto, instruments used most commonly by geisha or Shinto priestesses. Also the various fan dances that happen throughout the film, though this even could be considered more a gesture in some instances. Fans are a highly traditional part of Eastern culture including Japanese, Chinese and Korean. Depending on the occasion they can symbolize elegance and grace or signal death and doom depending on the usage and occasion.

Amid criticism that Disney’s influence had been negative on his films, Miyazaki assured his fans that he worked very closely with translators and made sure they did their best to maintain the integrity of his works. This poses the question further. If it wasn’t Disney’s fault, why are these films so filled with Western ideals and images? It would be easy to just blame Studio Ghibli’s partnership with Disney on the Westernization and say this is just what Disney does to these things but since Miyazaki signs off on each film personally that means he either add these things intentionally or he still isn’t quite catching them before the film’s premiere.

Perhaps it is to widen his audience, for many years Miyazaki’s films had only been known to those who could fluently speak Japanese and had subject matter that was odd to the average American including pigs in WWII Italian planes and a secret society of talking cats. These films geared at young adults were highly sociopolitical with references that not many understood. It was not until some of his middle works like KiKi’s Delivery Service and Nausicaa of the Wind Valley that his works became more easily digestible to American audiences and as American audiences asked for more the more Western the films became and the easier it was to relate to the characters and story lines but at what costs? The end result for a while became a film that began in Japan and that at times was in Japanese but was basically the same as any other American cartoon.

In the end Spirited Away may have been Miyazaki-senpai’s fabled return to Japan and to the untrained eye, it’s easy to get swept up in the exotic location, mysterious plot, mythological creatures and intriguing yet relatable characters. But upon closer inspection one sees that this film is far more influence by the polarizing world around Miyazaki-senpai. One that does not know when to be old or new, when myth and legend are appropriate or when they need to be pushed to the side where contrast isn’t just a comment on the inside of a travel brochure it is a legitimate concern. When fans are concerned about the Japan in the texts books fading away forever as the new building encase old pagodas, where will the films be when the battle is decided as East becomes a growing part of the West.


Works Cited

Napier, Susan. “Matter Out of Place: Carnival, Containment, and Cultural Recovery in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.” Journal of Japanese Studies 32.2 (2006): 287-310. EBSCOhost. Web. 21 Nov. 2011. <blume.stmarytx.edu/ehost/detai…>.

“Westernization of Japan – International Business – a Wikia Wiki.” International Business Wiki. Web. 22 Nov. 2011. <internationalbusiness.wikia.co…>.

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Amanda.Actually

I'm just your everyday human person with a keen eye for what's really happening. Be prepared for wit, humor and Dr. Who references. Loves include anime, writing, eating sweets, art and visits to the park to feed the ducks.

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