BySunny Bay, writer at Creators.co

As can be seen in the way Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away references the Gods which inhabit various bodies in nature, this work holds a strong connection with Japanese indigenous faith, Shintoism. Using these Shinto values as a base, this film aims to present audiences with the negative aspects of human desire. It also suggests that anyone could be possessed by desire and be rendered unable to control it.

Hence, Spirited Away urges audiences to obtain a higher degree of morality with regards to their carnal desires. However, the film does not merely suggest to audiences that human nature is either only good or evil. It also describes the way society functions, and how people ought to negotiate with one another to satisfy their desires.

Spirits and gods
Spirits and gods

In Shintoism, nature is revered to be sacred while in contrast, humankind as chaotic and polluted. According to Boyd and Nishimura, in Shintoism it is believed that the human heart or, “kokoro” in Japanese, is prone to becoming clouded and polluted by desire, which results in people behaving irrationally. Hence the bathhouse portrayed in the film can be interpreted as a place for the gods of nature to purify themselves from human desire. The Shinto gods are guests of the bathhouse and humans are portrayed as dirty abominations which taint the world and give cause for the gods to visit the bathhouse, portraying the belief that humans are carnal. The contrast with human greed, the presence of the gods in the bathhouse leads audiences to conclude that humans mistakenly, endlessly seek to fill their desires.

At the very beginning of the story, the film portrays the negative side of humankind’s desire for sustenance when the ten-year-old Chihiro and her parents wander into a deserted theme park. Bewildered and afraid in the eerie, new environment, Chihiro demands to return home. However, her parents, tempted into an arcade by the delicious smell of freshly prepared food, start eating at an unmanned vendor. Unable to convince her parents to return home, Chihiro begins to wander the arcade and grounds of the neighboring bathhouse. The sun sets and the arcade begins to liven up when human shaped shadows begin to appear. They are the various gods who visit the arcade and bathhouse. Chihiro frantically struggles to find the unmanned vendor. When she arrives, she discovers that in consequence for eating the food which was designated for the Gods, Chihiro’s parents have been put under a spell and have become pigs. The pigs are illustrated in a way which gives a greedy, messy, and grubby impression to viewers. They literally “pig out” and the pig as a symbol imply that human nature is inherently carnal.

Chihiro's parents become pigs
Chihiro's parents become pigs

Additionally, the negative aspect of humankind’s desire for money is also portrayed in the movie when the bathhouse is infiltrated by the enigmatic No-Face. Appearing as a menacing, dark figure, No-Face has a black body and a mask covering its face, giving No-Face a frightening impression. After flaunting gold at the bathhouse’s employees, the employees serve No-Face a feast and prepare a bath with the highest degree of hospitality. Upon which No-Face begins to reveal its true nature and starts swallowing the bathhouse staff. They flee and regret having assumed No-Face was trustworthy because of its ability to conjure gold. The scene illustrates how blinded people can become by the pursuit of money.

No-Face offering Chihiro gold
No-Face offering Chihiro gold

In reality, people need to work to make a living as well as earn money. According to the “Citizenship Rights and Responsibilities,” of the United States of America, the Constitution declares that citizens’ responsibility to work to pay taxes is performed in an exchange for the guarantee of freedom and rights. The situation is the same in Japan where the film was made. The Japanese Constitution provides three obligations which are to be honored by all Japanese citizens. Among these obligations is taught that all hold the responsibility to work. Likewise, Chihiro is compelled to work for the bathhouse because she would not be able to live in that world without a job. She has to pay off her parents’ debt by her work. That was the rule in the world where Chihiro lived. Otherwise, she could save neither herself nor her parents.

Unfortunately, some people place primarily value on gaining money. According to the film, this can make them blind to what is truly important. In the film, a couple employees are swallowed by No-Face because they didn’t carefully think about who and what No-Face was. They merely accepted No-Face for its gold-nuggets. On the other hand, Chihiro didn’t fall for No-Face’s scheme. When No-Face presented the gold to her, Chihiro’s ignored and continued in her pursuit to save her friend, Haku. This example portrayed by the young Chihiro carries great meaning. Although children are commonly considered more innocent and ill-tempered than adults, this film portrays children as individuals who can tend to the needs of their family and friends over money. Hence this story reminds audiences of what is truly important.

Haku and Chihiro
Haku and Chihiro

Additionally, through No-Face’s character, the film portrays the negative side of humankind’s desire for companionship. Throughout most people’s lives, they develop relationships with family, friends, co-workers, and significant others. This usually involves various forms of communication, interaction, accepting and helping with one another to various degrees. Likewise, No-Face is looking to create a bond with someone. However, he engages in this activity by attempting to attract others with gold. In the film, No-Face doesn’t have any relationships with others and is searching for either a place or a person to belong. No-Face suddenly appears without description or details. Initially, little is known of No-Face, but as the story continues, its appearance gradually changes and No-Face becomes scarier and stranger. He insists on seeing Chihiro and begins to stalk and rage after her. This side of No-Face’s character represents the dark side of the desire to belong. Eventually, forced to confront loneliness by itself, at the end of the movie, No-Face finally finds a place to stay with an old witch who accepts No-Face.

No-Face helping Zeniiba Knitting
No-Face helping Zeniiba Knitting

The transformation of its appearance and personality might have be caused from his acceptance of self. Initially, people thought favorably of No-Face because he had a lot of gold-nuggets, but it didn’t last long. Eventually they grew scared of him and abandon him. They didn’t know each other well and sought out each other to benefit themselves. However, the witch whom No-Face decides to live with doesn’t judge it by appearance or status. As she accepts No-Face, who gradually becomes able to relax and smile, diminishing his threatening side. No-Face represents both the negative and the positive sides of attachment by the change of his body expression from spooky looking to happy and relaxed looking. The story tells the audience not only how scary the desire for sociality can be but also how important it is.

While the film portrays a negative image of human desire, it also encourages us to live more ethical lives as we engage in coexisting with our desires for food, property, and relationships. In Shintoism it suggested that people can acquire a purified “kokoro” by “cultivating” their hearts as Boyd and Nishimura state in their article. Based on Shinto ideas, Miyazaki urges people to be careful about their behaviors and attitudes towards others in the process of cultivating their hearts. Boyd and Nishimura also believe that Chihiro plays a crucial role in the story as she acts thoughtfully “toward others and the world” despite her challenging situation. The fact enables her to save her parents and her friend, Haku, at the end. Resisting egoism and acting as master of our minds it’s critical for people to work, eat and live. People must take care of each other since we cannot live by ourselves. Through a variety of perspectives, the film shows us how the society works and how people satisfy their desires. The concept of Shintoism also helps the audience understand the importance of growing a tender heart, “kokoro,” since people are living in relationships and reciprocate with each other.