There are a lot of character archetypes that have been passed down to us almost since the beginning of storytelling. The Hero, the Hooker with a Heart of Gold, the Lovable Rogue, and many more are all archetypes we see often. One of the archetypes we see the most is that of the Wise Old Man. In other words, the magical guy of some sort that helps lead our Hero on their path to do the right thing. Though I understand the point of this archetype, it’s often one that annoys me.
Although the idea of a contract in real life is ostensibly meant to protect both parties’ interests and hold both parties accountable, this is almost never the case in fiction. When a contract shows up, you know it’s bad news, and if it’s a magical contract, just, like, don’t even read it. Instead of reading it, run.
In day to day life, dealing with the fine print of agreements ranges from irrelevant to frustrating—maybe the paid membership you signed up for auto-renews and you didn’t realize it, or you agreed to an EULA that said you promised not to use that software to create nuclear weapons. Generally a bummer, but nothing life-altering. This mild sort of badness isn’t always the worst case, and plenty of historical examples of people passing off misleading or unfair contract terms exist. History is full of corporations and other people (#zing) who use their power to manipulate. That’s why we have laws about things like monopolies, and Native Americans are still fighting to make the U.S. honor its agreements regarding tribal lands.
Stories based on contract-signings or otherwise magically binding agreements are often reflective of power differences and discrimination in real life. In fiction, people who write contracts are evil, and want you to sign off on that shitty contract they wrote without ever reading the fine print. Then later, when you protest that you didn’t sign up for this, they can pull it out and say yes, you literally signed up for exactly this. The contract’s author is usually a wealthy villain—whether that wealth is financial or some other sort (magical ability, political power) is irrelevant. The point is, they have ultimate control over an ability or commodity, and they can dictate the terms by which that commodity is distributed. And since these contracts have magic behind them, breaking them isn’t as easy as just going back on your word.
Usually I’m an easygoing person, but one thing that gets under my skin is “kitchen jokes”. Partly because someone actually thinks they’re being clever, and in my opinion, they’re ironic. As a woman who has been working in food service for seven years now, I’m not blind to “men only” kitchens in restaurants. The general reason for this seems to be “because women can’t handle the pressure and the workload”. I know that that excuse is complete malarkey, but I don’t understand why it seems to be a continuing trend, especially in the media. Women are portrayed as home cooks, and not as professional chefs. On television there are many examples of serious female chefs. There’s Cat Cora, who’s still the only female Iron Chef in America. Julia Child, one of the first chefs ever televised in America, is famous for her influence in culinary arts. If we have women on TV who can be professional chefs, why can’t this be more common in fictional mediums?
Call me old fashioned, but I love fairy tale tropes. And after reading Luce’s post on the evolution of Sleeping Beauty’s narrative, it got me thinking about a certain trope that’s been a part of many of my favorite stories. When we speak of names, we tend to make only the base association between the word and the object. People think of me when they say my name, and Beyoncé when they think of her name, but neither of us would lose any of our intrinsic value if we happened to be named something different. Even one of the most famous lines concerning names—“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”—seems to deny the importance of names altogether. Yet fairy tales have argued that names are indeed important, and now even modern day fiction has joined in the crusade.
Haruki was by and large a blameless man and had not done anything to deserve his new assignment. His only transgression was that he was not indispensable. And it had been explained to him three or four times that this was not a punishment, as far as that went. Not for him. Still, it smarted to be called before the board of directors and reassigned to a woman with a reputation as odd as Mrs. Nakamura’s. She had no friends in the company.
She was a normal kind of woman: her eyes were dark brown and always moving; her hair was tucked back into a bun. She was shortish and neither slender nor fat, with a face just too long to be pretty. She was well spoken and dutiful, polite – ‘To a fault,’ they would say. ‘Polite to a fault.’ Mrs. Nakamura was so polite that she could freeze a man’s blood in his veins at ten paces.
But there was no reason that she should be followed by a reputation for oddness and unreliability, a very vague reputation, because there were never specific charges. It could only be agreed that she was strange, and the exact manner of that strangeness had not been quantified yet to anyone’s satisfaction.
—from A Strange Adventure with Mrs. Nakamura the Safety Consultant by shiplizard
Most Spirited Away fanfics which are set post-movie tend to focus on the burgeoning love story between Chihiro and Haku. I can certainly see the reason why—we had come so close to a romantic coda, just for Chihiro to be sent back to the real world with only Haku’s promise that they’d meet again. Who wouldn’t want to see that play out?
But on the other hand, there are so many things in the world of Spirited Away to explore that I can’t help but wish they got equal time alongside the romance. So A Strange Adventure with Mrs. Nakamura the Safety Consultant by shiplizard was a delightful find. It stars a hapless company employee, Haruki, who’s forced to accompany Mrs. Nakamura, otherwise known as our Chihiro, and report back on any strange events. Haruki’s an adorable original character whose narration is pretty much spot-on what you’d expect from a newbie suddenly thrust into the spirit world. The imagery, in particular, is beautifully descriptive—shiplizard’s poetic description of every little detail renders the new version of old characters completely believable.
Okay, so let’s all talk about how I’ve been listening to the Spirited Away soundtrack for the last two days straight. It’s no wonder (to me) that the movie won a Japanese Academy award for best song (“Always with Me”) in 2002. In addition, the “Day of the River” piece received the 56th Mainichi Film Competition Award for Best Music, the Tokyo International Anime Fair 2001 Best Music Award in the Theater Movie category, and the 16th Japan Gold Disk Award for Animation Album of the Year. The music was composed by Joe Hiyashi and performed by the Japanese Philharmonic Orchestra with Hiyashi conducting.
Here is the best song. Sound quality isn’t bowling anyone over…. Props to you if you understand what is being said/can read the subtitles.
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.