Spirited Away (2001)

Spirited Away: The Real-life Mythology and References Explained

By: Domonique Cox-Salberg

A beautiful piece of cinema, the copious world of Spirited Away is the kind of story that lingers in mind and compels discussion and search for meaning in almost every frame. The level of imagination alone is astounding, and rightfully, much has been made of the attention to detail in the visual art and its mythic quality. Miyazaki’s inspiration for pre-existing mythology and culture is attributed to the film’s look, but his choice to use them overtly makes them challenging to uncover.

And since its release Miyazaki has only hinted at the legends, never confirming. Nonetheless, compelling connections can be made and bring us closer to uncovering some of the magic and brilliance of Miyazaki’s masterpiece, Spirited Away.

Torii Gates

Chihiro and her family are introduced, driving through the countryside and passing several iconic Japanese structures where they first pass a wooden gate called a Torii. It is a symbolic gateway marking the entrance to the Shinto religion’s sacred shrine and the transition from the mundane to the sacred realm of gods. An appropriate link to Chihiro’s transition from our familiar world into the spirit realm.

Hokora & Dōsojin

Then, below the shrine, Chihiro notices little stone houses called “Hokora,” which are meant to house mini Kami and guardian spirits called Dōsojin. But we can see the Dōsojin also represented in other forms like the roadside statues Chihiro notices in the forests and the one that forces her family to stop. These statues are used to mark boundaries to protect travelers and those in a “transitional phase.” Something Chihiro happens to be experiencing at that moment.

The Bathhouse & Haku

The grandiose Aburaya bathhouse or onsen (hot water spring) that we first see is said to be based on the Dogo onsen in Matsuyama, supposedly the oldest onsen in Japan. Onsens or as some refer to them as Sento, are a staple of Japanese culture and have been prevalent for millennia. Soon after Chihiro discovers the bathhouse, she comes across the first Kami (spirit), Haku, who later in the film is revealed to be a river spirit, and thus he also takes the form of a dragon.

But before Chihiro helps him remember who he is, Haku casts a distraction spell during their first meeting, blowing Sakura-like petals toward the onsen. This spell and others he performs resemble the magical practices Onmyōdō: a form of astrology and divination based on Shinto along with Chinese Taoism and wuxing.

Shadow Kami

Following after, Chihiro notices transparent shadow Kami, who traditionally do not take a visible form to the human eye. Nonetheless, Miyazaki gives them a form that closely resembles a Japanese Yokai or spirit called Umi-Bozu.

Chihiro’s Parents Becoming Pigs

Then there is that time Chihiro’s parents turned into pigs right before her eyes. It turns out it refers to Japanese folklore, where it includes various animal transformations and a representation of the greed that took place during the Japanese recession of the 80s.

Masked Kami

The masked Kami, called “Kasuga-Sama,” wear “Sokutai” or traditional Japanese court clothing and paper masks called “Zoumen” worn by Bugaku human dancers. Though Miyazaki draws these human dancers in their traditional form externally, when Bugaku dancers disrobe, they become mythical.

“Unless You Eat Something From This World, You’ll Disappear”

When Haku gives Chihiro a berry to eat, it keeps her from disappearing from the spirit world. This fairy lore belief is likely influenced by Japanese mythology and Shinto. In the Japanese creation myth, Izanami, the Japanese goddess of creation and death, is banished to the realm of the dead after giving birth to the god of fire “Kagutsuchi.” Her brother Izanagi travels to the realm of the dead to retrieve her. But she explains haven ate the food of the land of the dead; she cannot leave. Similarly, Chihiro must eat the food of the Kami world to stay there.

No-Face

Recognized as No-Face, “Kaonashi,” or “faceless” as he is called in Japanese, is first introduced when Chihiro is holding her breath to cross successfully into the spirit realm. And just like many of the characters in Spirited Away, No-face is an original character of Miyazaki. Still, his origins, in particular his mask, may reference Japanese theater called “Noh.” None of the masks used in the art look like No-Face, but they are meant to depict spirits or ghosts.  

Kamajī, The Boiler Man

Another original character by Miyazaki, Kamajī, still resembled a “Tsuchiguo,” another Yokai of Japanese folklore. These massive spider-like creatures are often depicted with the face of an Oni (demon/ogre) and the body of a tiger. They have been known to change their appearance to human-like to deceive their prey or alter their size, similar to how Kamajī can elongate his arms. The Tsuchiguo flourished in folklore until they were exterminated by emperor Jimmu, which may be why Kamajī seems like the only one left of his kind.

The Radish Spirit

The Japanese radish spirit is called “Oshira-Sama” and is a real Shinto deity. Though, the common representation of Oshira-sama in Shinto is bamboo sticks embellished in cloth, rather than a cute, giant, and fat radish creature created by Miyazaki.

Misogi

Misogi is the ritual practice in Shinto of purification through bathing, and this concept also applies to the gods of the Shinto religion. After Lzanagi escapes the underworld and his sister in the Japanese creation myth, he bathes in a river to purify himself. The Kami we see likely visit the bath house for purification as well.

Yubaba

When Chihiro meets the Aburaya onsen owner, hey name Yubaba, literally translates as “old hot water woman” or “hot witch woman.” The closest reference to this character in Japanese folklore is “Yamauba” or “Onibaba,” a mountain witch thought to use magic and trickery to trap and eat her victims. However, in some cases, Yamauba is thought of as a more benevolent guardian of the mountains. The word “baba” in general means “old woman” or “Midwife” in Old-Russian. So, possibly Miyazaki was also inspired by the forest witch of Slavic folklore, “Baba-Yaga.”

A neat fact, Baba-Yaga was a character in Miyazaki’s 2010 short film, “Mr. Dough and the Egg Princess,” in the upper right photo. Furthermore, when Yubbaba is in her bird form, she resembles another creature from Slavic folklore, the Gamayun (upper left photo), or possibly a Harpy from Greek mythology.

The Three Heads

Yubaba’s three pet heads are called “Kashira,” meaning head. They are similar to the Yokai in Japanese folklore called “Tsurube-otoshi,” where they resemble giant disembodied heads. These Yokai are known to attack humans by dropping from a tree then eating their prey. Or due to their small size, their influence may come from the Buddhist talismans called “Daruma dolls.”

The Power of a Name

When Chihiro finally is employed, Yubaba steals her name and thus gains power over her, which we learn later happened to Haku when Chihiro utters his real name and frees him.

So, now giving her the name “Sen,” meaning “One Thousand” in English, could be a metaphor for what Chihiro is to Yubaba, a money source, rather than a person. On the other hand, the kanji (Chinese characters used in the Japanese writing system) for “Chihiro” can be interpreted as meaning “1000 questions.” And since the number never changed in the picture above, it could mean Chihiro loss the ability to question. Additionally, all over the world, in folklore, names and words have mythical power. But in Japanese folklore, this belief is referred to as “Kotodama,” a component of Shinto.

The Stink Spirit

Remember, the foul spirit that causes a commotion in the bathhouse, which later becomes clean, is revealed to be a river spirit. His true form and, most importantly, his face resembles another mask from Noh theater, specifically an Okina Mask, which depicts a wise old man. The detail of the spirit’s lower jaw is tied to his upper jaw with string, much like the Noh mask of this type. The River Spirit then flies away from the onsen as a Dragon.

Paper Dolls

The paper dolls used by Yubaba’s sister Zeniba to attack Haku are called “Shikigami” in Japanese folklore. They are spirits conjured through the art of Onmyodo to serve their master.

Gigantic Baby

Yubaba’s Baby Bo, which means “Boy,” refers to the legendary folk hero “Kintarō, the golden boy.” The tale features a beefy young toddler raised by the mountain witch Yamauba. He possesses superhuman strength, great courage, and the ability to communicate with animals. The bib Bo wears in Spirited Away is also very similar to the bib Kintaro wears in many depictions.

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