In presenting his Shinto ideals and his opinion that today’s youth could benefit from adopting a Shinto perspective though a film of the fantasy genre, Miyazaki is able to convey them better than had he chosen a different genre; especially considering the target audience. The fantasy elements serve twofold purposes; to captivate the audience and to assist in portraying the Shinto ideals.
Shinto can be loosely defined as a religion; however it does not have a specific scripture, or an organized religious hierarchy, and is predominately Japanese. (Källner) The fundamental idea of Shinto is that everything in nature whether it be us humans, animals, trees, rivers, e.t.c are full of kami; a divine spirit. One of Shinto’s main focuses is maintaining a good relationship with all other kami. In order to experience the kami you must be in a in between state, neither here nor there; a limbo where a pure heart can experience kami. The central story of Spirited Away revolves around a Shinto ritual of bathing, not just for hygienic purposes, but to also cleanse your mind and attitude-your kami of anything negative. (Boyd, Nishimura)
The fantasy elements of the film that help portray the Shinto perspective are; the central bath theme, Haku’s dual human/dragon identity, the No Face character as a whole, the “Alice in Wonderland” journey to another realm, and the film’s disassociation of good versus evil.
The theme of cleansing yourself and emerging better both physically and mentally is quite evident in the film, both literal and metaphorically. The fantasy element of the spirits coming to cleanse themselves at the bath house depicts the Shinto perspective in two ways. First it sets up the literal representation of the Shinto bath ritual of cleansing yourself mentally and physically and emerging better for it, and it also introduces the core belief of Shinto; Kami spirits that exist in everything in nature; animate or inanimate.
Haku’s dual identity is another important element in presenting the Shinto perspective. Haku is a river spirit; however he has two forms; a human form and a dragon form. Giving an inanimate object a human form, allows Haku to interact with Chihiro on equal footing (i.e.; human to human), but also helps the audience connect and relate to him. This dual identity subtly reveals the Shinto ideal that the spirits (kami) are not specifically human spirits but that other things in nature have equally intelligent/powerful spirits; like rivers. Giving him a powerful dragon form helps push the idea that nature and elements of nature are to be respected and perhaps cherished more.
The film’s disassociation from good versus evil shows the Shinto belief that people are inherently good, and that there aren’t any evil people, just people whose kami have become polluted and are hindering their ability to function in society. No Face represents someone who is introspective and self centered. Shinto strongly promotes an open kindness and a do for others mentality and the introspective ambitious perspective is frowned upon. Take No Face for an example; he has to eat someone in order to gain a voice; and attempts to buy Chihiro’s friendship with gold. When Chihiro declines the gold he starts to eat people in anger and to try and force Chihiro to come back. Chihiro eventually cleanses him by feeding him the medicine which makes him spit out the people he eaten. Thus cleansed of the people he has trampled on to attain his goals No Face becomes more friendly and functional (in society) than before, and he befriends Chihiro the right way by accompanying her on her quest to Zeniba’s. Thus people with clean kami are more harmonious and can function and help society rather than impede it.
The “Alice in Wonderland” realm; a confusing sudden journey to another place in which the characters aren’t even sure if they have truly gone anywhere, because some elements of the setting seem familiar yet other things are extraordinarily different. This is evident in Spirited Away, in the beginning when Chihiro and her family take the wrong turn and begin their traverse into the spirit world. First they see all the spirit houses, which is a hint of things to come. Then when they go to investigate the “abandoned amusement park” their walk through the tunnel is akin to Alice’s “fall down the rabbit hole”, unknowingly entering a different, confusing realm that seems to be reality. This kind of journey is also somewhat used again when Chihiro and her friends travel to confer with Zeniba, though the journey is more apparent (they get on a mode of transportation; a train), they arrive at a place that contrasts sharply with the bathhouse, instead of a flurry of people predominately focused on business and their jobs it is a warm inviting helpful environment. These kind of transitions are reminiscent of the in between state necessary to experience kami in Shinto. Thus the confusing disorientation is a necessary part of a film, as those kind of emotions preclude the realization; the interaction with kami.
It is clear Miyazaki chose the fantasy genre for a reason; it was best suited to promote Shinto ideals and perspectives to the younger generation of modern Japan, where Shinto is slowly being eroded and forgotten. Fantasy was the perfect choice as it allowed the central bathhouse theme to be a crystal clear reference to Shinto, while the other fantasy elements expanded on the Shinto perspective in support of the spirit cleansing bath theme.
Boyd, James W., and Tetsuya Nishimura. "Shinto Perspectives in Miyazaki's Anime Film "Spirited Away"" The Journal of Religion and Film 08.03 (2004). Web. 06 Oct. 2010. <http://www.unomaha.edu/jrf/Vol8No2/boydShinto.htm/23/2008%2011:03:45%20AM>.
Källner, Oskar. "Shinto in Anime." Örebro Theological Seminary (2002). Print.