ByEvan Cameron, writer at

In the last few decades Japan has become one of the biggest economies in the world. We have seen a surge in the boom of electronics that has swept us into the future. One interesting thing is the increase in popularity of more and more Japanese media in the west. When you watch a movie, whether it be an action film or a mystery film there are some that have a tendency to stand out from others. One such movie is Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away. But this is not the only film that stands out. This sort of thing is not limited by Miyazaki or other movies from Studio Ghibli which has a reputation for being one of the best animation studios in Japan.

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There are other kinds of Japanese media that take on a unique aspect that sets it apart from other types of media in the west. There are two articles that go into this aspect of Japanese media. One is titled "Shinto Perspectives in Miyazaki's Anime Film "Spirited Away"" and the other is titled "The Magical, Spiritual Side of Anime and Manga." In the first article it describes the elements of Shintoism found within the movie Spirited away. The other takes on a much broader approach to anime and manga and the elements of Shintoism found within. In either case you can see there are a lot of things that we in the west may fine trivial. But in both cases there are cultural traditions steeped in the Shinto religion.

Both of these articles talk about elements of Shintoism in Japanese media. They provide an insight as to why a western viewer may be more drawn into the story in either case that is presented. Whether it be the many spirits that roam freely in the world of Spirited Away or the everyday lives of characters portrayed in anime and manga. In either case any westerner viewing this kind of media can still enjoy it without feeling the need to convert to the Shinto religion. This may explain why some people get into Japanese culture through anime and manga and this includes movies done by Studio Ghibli. As you explore deeper into the meaning of these shows and movies you can see clearly just how much of it is influenced by the Japanese culture.

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In the article “Shinto Perspectives in Miyazaki’s Anime Film “Spirited Away”” James W. Boyd and Tetsuya Nishimura make the claim that Shintoism had an influence in the style of Hayao Miyazaki. They talk about the symbolism behind the major themes of Spirited Away as well as the symbolism of the characters you encounter in the movie. As they make a run down of the movie they point out the different elements of the movie that share the same meaning of certain parts of the Shinto religion. The article points out that many of the main themes in the movie are a reflection of Japanese culture. As they put it, perhaps Miyazaki is affirming to contemporary viewers [...] some important insights in the Shinto Japanese tradition that can be helpful in these modern times. If you analyze the film enough anyone can gain an appreciation for the subtle but present symbolism contained within the movie.

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Shinto symbolism can be seen in other forms of Japanese media as well. The article “The Magical, Spiritual Side of Anime and Manga” Danica Davidson talks about how Shintoism is viewed in anime and manga (other forms of Japanese media) in general. She talks about how these things are subtle but present in any given show. Davidson describes some of the characters from various shows like Lollipop or Bleach. She talks about the subtle things they do that relate to Shintoism. One of the main points she makes is how this is taken by an American audience (or any western audience for that matter). She mentions that most of our mainstream media makes a point to sidestep religion or other spiritual matters. This can present some challenges when this kind of audience sees anything religious in Japanese media. Davidson mentions that people can be picky about spiritual matters, and it’s easy to offend. However because of the subtle nature of the scenes that have spiritual matters they are seen as part of the Japanese culture rather that an invitation to join a religion. She mentions that in Japan, spirituality is not always similar to Western-brand creeds. People don’t have to feel conflicted when science or other things get in the way because the Japanese people have learned to embrace them both. This may be why a western audience is more accepting of these references in Japanese media.

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With all of these references to Shintoism present in Ghibli films and other forms of Japanese media you can understand why it is easy to become so indulged by the spiritual aspects found within. You get to experience the mysterious things that are present in Shintoism without feeling that you have to convert. People may even be able to relate to some of these references through their own religion. This is perhaps why Miyazaki has been so successful in captivating his western viewers.

As you begin to familiarize yourself with these references you can really appreciate the references that Miyazaki put into his movies. Hopefully you will learn something as you watch the movie. Whether it be the way we must cleanse ourselves whenever we become dirty (one of the main points in Boyd and Nishimura’s article) or the importance of keeping the world around us clean in order to keep things in harmony. These references give us a better understanding of the Japanese culture and give the story of these movies substance that make them entertaining to watch.

As entertaining as these references are they are still religious in nature. This does not matter because as long as they can be seen as lessons that anyone can learn without the need to be converted to their religion, it is not so hard to swallow. One can see the same kind of references in western media such as the need to watch what you eat as observed in Spirited Away when Chihiro’s parents are turned into pigs. They might not be Shinto but they are present. We just don't see them as religious because of the way western media has covered up the religious parts. Because of the nature of these references in Japanese media they are seen more as a way to take us through the movie or episode and learn something along the way. As you read these articles you can begin to see why Miyazaki was so successful.

When he makes a religious reference in a film he does it in a way that progresses the story but does not try to convert you to anything. No matter how many times our media tries to cover up religion, watching Japanese media with an understanding of Shinto symbolism makes it easier to see the subtle religious assumptions that inhabit Western ideas. They give the story substance that the viewer can understand as they watch the movie. These things will hopefully help the viewer to understand Japanese culture better if you really pay attention. Then you will hopefully see them the way Miyazaki or other Japanese filmmakers intend.

Whenever you watch a movie or anime in general, try to recognize these references. When you do see them their meaning will become clear. Japanese culture can be hard to understand but as you pay attention to these movies you will begin to understand it. Hopefully you can better appreciate the work artists like Miyazaki has done. You can then in turn use these things in your own life.

Works Cited

Boyd, James W. and Nishimura, Tetsuya "Shinto Perspectives in Miyazaki's Anime Film "Spirited Away"

Davidson, Danica. "The Magickal, Spiritual Side of Anime and Manga."


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