Hayao Miyazaki’s film, ‘Spirited Away’, enjoys a cult classic status all over the world and is perhaps the most well-known of the popular Studio Ghibli brand. However, there is much more to the film than meets the eye. An analysis of ‘Spirited Away’ reveals

‘Spirited Away’ is the story of Chihiro, a young Japanese Girl who gets lost while exploring an old bath house with her parents, only to become trapped in a spirit world in which her name is taken from her. She embarks on a journey with the help of her newfound friend, Huku, to retrieve her name and return to her parents. During this time she undergoes a ‘coming of age’ cause by the challenges that face her. In the conclusion of the film, Chihiro is reunited with her parents and is seen as having matured in love, kindness and sincerity.

Essentially, Chihiro’s story is about searching for something more. Her name is said to mean “looking deeply” or “inquiring after many things,” revealing the central themes of the film. Chihiro finds what she is looking for in the Characters of the film and the lessons they teach her, resulting in a deeper appreciation for life and a renewed, pure heart and mind.

While not immediately evident to the unaware viewer, “Spirited Away” is seen to draw heavily from Shinto traditions. Miyazaki employs symbolism and folk beliefs to create a fantasy world that portrays many traditional teachings in the form of Chihiro’s lessons. Almost every element of the film holds symbolic value, from names and locations (bath house – cleansing) to characters and relationships.

Shinto is a religion that believes in the interconnected and creative life force of humans, animals and nature. This “generative, immanent force” (kami) exists within everything. In order to experience the presence of any one of these aspects of nature, an individual is required to have a pure and cheerful heart/mind (kokoro). When a person is not of this heart and mind, they are ‘polluted,’ and become hardened, flawed and ungrateful – just as Chihiro is at the start of the film. To return to kokoro, a person must undergo an action of spiritual cleansing, with the intended result to once again act in sincerity towards others.

This Shinto spiritual journey is exemplified in Chihiro, and forms the central theme of the film. However, as a religion which is not widely studied or discussed in Australian culture or the West, Shintoism and it’s presene in ‘Spirited Away’ is unlikely to be understood or picked up in the film by the Australian or Western viewer. While some themes in the film remain internationally relevant, such as coming of age and appreciating ones’ family, other are lost in translation. Boyd and Nishimura note that an understanding of Shinto berings deeper meaning to the film, noting:

“Relating the film to the Shinto perspectives… and looking more closely at the Japanese version, one comes to understand Chihiro’s character development in a relational, rather than individualistic context, and the importance of tradition for Miyazaki comes into focus.”

A second reading of the film, once an understanding of Shinto is obtained, reveals the deeper symbolic meaning of many aspects of the film. Indeed, almost ever character represents a level of morality used as an example of the spiritual stages. To have one’s interpretation of a film shift dramatically with the understanding of a religion is quite astounding, and yet It is likely that millions have not even considered the movie as spiritually influenced. The way we read films often depicts our own dispositions to new concepts of spirituality of the existence of such in our own lives. A person can watch a film for entertainment and not give the underlying message a second thought, whereas another can find deep spiritual significance in the smallest elements of the picture.

It is suggested that, while not a believer in the heavily spritual world, Miyazaki drew on Shinto to promote a deeper connection with the world and those in it. The messages promoted in the movie include environmentalism (pollution of the river), familial appreciation and friendship. By employing symbolism, Miyazaki was able to send a message through the guise of a fantasy genre.

“In my grandparents’ time, it was believed that spirits [kami] existed everywhere — in trees, rivers, insects, wells, anything. My generation does not believe this, but I like the idea that we should all treasure everything because spirits might exist there, and we should treasure everything because there is a kind of life to everything.”11

Miyazaki’s use of symbolism and Shinto can be seen as a tribute to traditionalism and the spiritual lives of generations past. By giving light to the beauty and relevance of Shinto, Miyazaki creates a film that is both entertaining and spiritually meaningful.


James W. Boyd, Tetsuya Nishimura (2004) ‘Shinto Perspectives in Miyaki’s Anime Film “Spirited Away” 8(2) Journal of Religion and Film.

Photo Credit:

Eric The Fish via Flickr.