Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Satan is Literally a Dark Wizard

When you grow up reading a lot of genre fiction, especially young adult and high fantasy, a major turning point in your emotional growth is realizing that “the dark lord”, as you have come to know this all-too-common character archetype, doesn’t really exist. In reality, evil as an ideal is never made manifest in a single adversary whose sole objective is to destroy and corrupt the goodness in the world. Sure, there are people who are “bad” from your own perspective, and bad qualities like selfishness, prejudice, and lack of empathy are generally culturally agreed upon, but even the worst people are generally heroes in their own minds, people who have not yet been shown the error of their ways. No one sets out to be Sauron or the White Witch or Voldemort, and no matter how much power and influence bad people achieve, I know of no instance where anyone has claimed that their ultimate goal was the advancement of the cause of evil.

Most frameworks of morality grasp this concept pretty well: that good and evil are not absolutes, and that humans inherently have the capacity for both positive and negative behaviors. The major exception seems to be in certain camps of modern Christianity, which assigns a motive and influence to Satan that is very much comparable to the fictional and largely metaphorical presence of Sauron and other prototypical “dark lords”. While in Tolkien’s case, Sauron was a metaphor for industrialization, and in the case of children’s books, morality is artificially externalized and simplified for the sake of young readers, the Christian reading of Satan is—as far as many active faith communities are concerned—neither metaphorical nor exaggerated. Satan is literally a dark wizard.

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Manga Mondays: Spirited Away

You know who I love? Miyazaki Hayao! Or Hayao Miyazaki, depending on whichever one you prefer. His works have been a part of me since as long as I can remember. Seriously, at this point in my life, I could probably recite the whole script of Totoro in both English and Japanese, as well as sing the songs. The opening song Tsunderin and I like to sing to each other when hiking down the street, if only because the lyrics fit in with our current actions.

Hey, let’s go! Hey, let’s go!

I’m happy as can be!

Let’s go walking, you and me.

Ready, set, come on, let’s go!

Yes, we’re nerds, and the oddest things entertain us. I realize this. Welcome to my life.

Anyway, not all of Miyazaki’s works have that big an impact on me, but some of them do get very close, and all of them have some underlying theme or message that may be hard for westerners to pick up on easily. This leads me into Spirited Away, a fantasy adventure film that came out in 2001 and was originally titled 千と千尋の神隠し, which translates to The Spiriting Away of Sen and Chihiro. The original title is interesting to me, because it implies that Sen and Tihiro are two different people, and in some ways they are.

Before we go on any further, I take this time to apologize for my weird Romanization of Japanese words. I was not trained on the Hepburn system—which I know means nothing to most of you—but I honestly cannot read it, and it kills my soul. You have no idea how much it pains me to write Tsunderin’s name as Tsunderin, so I will do my best to not confuse the hell out of you guys.

So our main protagonist for the film is Tihiro (Hepburn: Chihiro), a young girl who is moving to a new home with her parents. They get lost and find themselves in the Spirit World. Tihiro’s parents are turned into pigs by Yubaba, the owner of a large bathhouse within the Spirit World. Thus, Tihiro eventually finds herself under Yubaba’s employ while she works for a way to save her parents before they’re slaughtered.

Due to the setting, Spirited Away expresses many Sintou (Hepburn: Shinto—I’m not sorry I’m doing this to you, damn it!) beliefs. And it does this through the loss of its characters’ identities, or even just the loss of something they used to have but need to gain back. Here are just a few examples of characters that lose themselves.

  • Tihiro’s parents turn into pigs because they eat the food in the Spirit World
  • No Face transforms into a monster
  • Yubaba’s baby, Bou, becomes a mouse
  • Kohaku-gawa, the god of Kohaku River, loses his home when it dries up and apartment complexes are built where it used to be, so he takes on the name Haku under Yubaba’s employ

In a sense, Spirited Away is a magical tale based on Sintou beliefs about the struggles of regaining oneself. One Sintou belief is a concern with cleanliness, something Bou represents in his fear of germs, but what the Stink Spirit emphasizes even more through its pollution. Water itself plays a major role in the movie—hence the bathhouse—and commonly recurs throughout all this loss.

Probably the most obvious display of loss comes from Tihiro herself. Spirited Away begins with Tihiro in the backseat of her parents’ car, sitting alone and clutching a bouquet her old classmates have given her as a farewell gift. She is sad because she’s moving out to the country and leaving behind her old life. Once she and her parents accidentally end up in the Spirit World, she has to watch in horror as both her mother and father are turned into pigs. Until she manages to save them and when she applies for work under Yubaba at the bathhouse, she must also take on the name of Sen.

Unfortunately, throughout the course of the movie, her memories of her real name and old self slowly dissipate overtime, and all she has to hold onto who she used to be is the farewell card from her old classmates on her bouquet.

So not only does Tihiro have to remember who she is in order to gain her freedom, she has to remember who her parents are, or she’ll lose everything forever. In a way, Tihiro is what we would call a Mizuko, translated to ‘water child.’ Let me explain.

In Shintoism—damn it, it hurts!—when children are born, their names are added to a list at a shrine. These children are called Uziko (shrine parishioner), and when they die they become Uzigami (Sintou god or patron god). I’m sorry that I’m just bombarding you with Japanese words here, but you don’t really need to remember these. Just know that they have special names for children who are on the list at Sintou shrines—and you should all probably be informed that if you know any practitioners, your name is probably in a shrine somewhere too. They don’t actually need to ask your permission or tell you about it.

So we all might be Uziko! How does it feel? Yeah, I know that you don’t care….

Anyway, if a child dies before his or her name is added to the list, that child is called a Mizuko, which is what Tihiro is now. Often times, Mizuko are seen as troublemakers filled with great anger or grief and worshiped in hopes of stilling these strong emotions. It’s pretty safe to say that Tihiro isn’t worshipped in Spirited Away, but even though Tihiro’s still alive, albeit sad given her circumstances, she is now called Sen, and she almost forgets her true name, while simultaneously causing trouble for Yubaba—either just by smelling like a human, which upsets the other workers, or by letting No Face into the bathhouse, where he starts eating people. So you can interpret this however you want, but despite Tihiro being technically not dead, I thought the movie was making comparisons to her and the idea of Mizuko.

And keeping in mind that Mizuko means ‘water child’ and that Sintou has a lot to do with cleanliness, this only furthers my belief in this regard. Tihiro has a strong connection to water, and one method of purification is standing underneath a waterfall. At the bathhouse, when Tihiro helps the Stink Spirit, the water pours into the bathtub much like a waterfall would, and as she pulls the trash from the spirit, she stands within the torrent. Even afterward, when the spirit thanks her, water still comes down upon them. Furthermore, near the end of the movie, she takes a train to talk to Yubaba’s sister, Zeniba. The train actually runs through what looks like a very shallow ocean. On top of all this, when Tihiro is younger, she almost drowns in the Kohaku River, but is saved by Kohaku-gawa.

Though water is associated with cleanliness, it does play a part in Tihiro’s loss. When she first tries to escape from the Spirit World, a large river has cut off her way, separating her from the real world. During the train scene, she is surrounded by what look to be real people who might be in the real world, but appear as spirits to her because she’s not. Just about all the train stops are surrounded by water and nothing else, but the other passengers still come and go from them, further emphasizing that that just might be the real world, which she can’t get to.

So I don’t want to make this post just a lesson on religion, but there is a lot of it in this movie; however, because of how easy it is to interpret this film from a more religious perspective, it’s also a little easy to read too much into it. Hell, I’ve probably done that to an extent in this post already, but I know there are some people out there who have even said that Spirited Away deals a lot with Japanese mythology.

For example: at the beginning of the movie, Tihiro and her parents have to walk through a tunnel with a large stone placed in front of it to even get to the Spirit World. At one point in mythology, the sun goddess, Amaterasu, hides herself in a cave and pulls a large rock over the entrance. Yeah, this last point was brought to my attention by a professor Tsunderin and I both had when we studied abroad. As I said, it’s probably not wrong to read too much into this film from a religious perspective, but that doesn’t mean it won’t sound ridiculous. Tsunderin and I aptly named this man The God of All Knowledge.

You see, it is really easy to look for something that isn’t there, because Miyazaki also likes to put his own spin on things. A lot of superstitions appear that have nothing to do with religion. At a scene early on, Haku turns Tihiro invisible, and at one point they have to walk over a bridge. But for whatever reason, the spell won’t work on a bridge unless she holds her breath. This is something Miyazaki made up. Also, I know people out there have wondered what the significance of mythological creatures in his films using lily pads for umbrellas is for. Again, it’s just something he came up with. As a director, he can pull his theme or background from anywhere, but that doesn’t mean he’s creatively bankrupt—unless we’re talking about the Secret World of Arrietty.

Hell, one of the more prominent settings in Spirit Away was based off this room right here:

You can find this room in the Open Air Architectural Museum near Tiba (Hepburn: Chiba). Many of the buildings in Spirited Away are based off the buildings in this museum, and if I remember correctly, none of them are shrines. For instance, the bathhouse was more than likely based off this:

And even the bar where Tihiro’s parents are turned to pigs has a lookalike in this museum; however, I can’t find my photo of it right now.

So it does stand to reason that there would be many things in this movie that have nothing to do with Sintou beliefs. At one point in time, Tihiro needs to get something called the golden seal, and it’s protected by a little black slug thing. She squashes it with her bare foot, and though it leads back to Sintou beliefs when the other characters think she’s defiled and needs cleansed, the cure to this is the equivalent of a Japanese Cootie shot.

But even though I spent most of this post talking about Uziko and Mizuko and whatnot, if only because it’s relevant to the film, you don’t need to know much about Japanese mythology or Sintou beliefs to understand this movie. I know a lot of people growing up in school that simply didn’t understand it, but all in all, this is a great movie. It’s just so colorful and it has such a passion behind it; this is definitely one of Miyazaki’s better films. I would check it out if I were you.

Also, I’m not an expert on Sintou beliefs, so if any of you noticed something I said and think it might be wrong, feel free to correct me.