Home > analysis, anime, film, Japan > Creating a New Japanese Past: The Familiar and Strange Kamikakushi of Spirited Away

Creating a New Japanese Past: The Familiar and Strange Kamikakushi of Spirited Away

In 2001, acclaimed Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki released his most successful film yet, Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (Spirited Away). It was arguably his film most attached to Japanese folklore. While other Miyazaki films such as Princess Mononoke and My Neighbor Totoro were set in Japan and contained elements of traditional folklore they didn’t place the same emphasis as Spirited Away did. Spirited Away used traditional Shinto aesthetics, however, at the same time it used entirely new deities and animals made up just for the film. Many of which are based on the more recent periods of Japanese history that Miyazaki admired. Thus, in Spirited Away Miyazaki was synthesizing traditional Japanese folklore aesthetics with his own vision of the Japanese past.

The transitory world of Miyazaki's film

In order for the tone of Spirited Away to work in synthesizing the old Shinto past with the recent past, Miyazaki bridged his world with a similar world understandable to the viewer and the mythical world. In an interview, Miyazaki describes the world he created in Spirited Away, “It wouldn’t be at all interesting if the fantasy world bore no resemblance to ours. But I didn’t mean the film to be an irony or satire of our world” (Miyazaki 263). Miyazaki created a world that the viewer would understand as a means for them to make a bridge to another world. As the protagonist, Chihiro, enters the world of the kamikakushi (the spirits of the ‘other’ world), the focus between the world that is familiar and the world that is strange shifts. At the same time these worlds are linked, as the world of the kamikakushi doesn’t have the same qualities that kamikakushi have in traditional Japanese folklore. Instead, they’re more an extension of a recent past from the world that is familiar to the viewer. As Shiro Yoshioka remarks, “Spirited Away can be called a folktale for the twenty-first century, which teaches the contemporary culture is an extension of, or even a part of, a much larger Japanese tradition” (Yoshioka 258). Yoshioka suggests that there is a large part of traditional Japanese culture and folklore present even in the very modern Japan of the 21st Century. But there’s more than simply comparing the worlds that are visible within the film.

The Radish kamikakushi is a perfect example of the invented spirits in the film

In Spirited Away, as already established, there are two worlds, the one of Chihiro-the human one-and the world she enters of the kamikakushi-the spirit one. This is an aspect Miyazaki borrowed from traditional Japanese folklore, primarily in the form of the Shinto religion, where unique parts of nature were considered sacred. These sacred objects often took the form of the kamikakushi. However, the kamikakushi seen in Spirited Away aren’t taken from Japanese folklore, but rather invented for the film. In 1996, Miyazaki states on his own aesthetics, “…I don’t have the slightest intention to go back all the way to the spirits Shigeru Mizuki draws, and I don’t feel any sympathy towards them at all…” (Yoshioka 264). It is obvious by this statement that Miyazaki deliberately broke off with the direct imagery of the traditional Japanese past. At the same time he utilizes the idea of the separate world strongly present in Japanese folklore, in the form of being ‘spirited away’ to the world of the kamikakushi. While he doesn’t use the same kamikakushi as Japanese folklore he creates a set that matches a more recent aesthetic of Japanese historical past. Miyazaki has stated on multiple occasions that he was strongly influenced by the Meiji and Taisho periods for his framing of the sets of Spirited Away. The similarities between the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum and the town seen in Spirited Away are quite similar. It’s also very likely that Miyazaki used aesthetic icons from these earlier periods and transformed those into the kamikakushi in the film. By doing so Miyazaki is creating a new type of folklore that is more meaningful to himself, but also the viewer who can draw personal connections to these new kamikakushi than they can with those of the traditional folklore. As Yoshioka states, “Spirited Away is an attempt to use fantasy to establish a link between contemporary and traditional Japanese culture” (Yoshioka 257). Like the separate worlds, there is a close connection between the familiar and the strange, even if the difference looks quite stark at a first glance.

The Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum

In Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away there is a synthesis of the familiar and strange both present in a close proximity of one another. The familiar takes on the role of the world we know, but also the kamikakushi that are derived from a recent Japanese past. These same kamikakushi also inhabit a world that is very different from our own, being heavily influenced by the beliefs and aesthetics of traditional Japanese folklore. By doing this Miyazaki is using Spirited Away as an opportunity for combining the elements of both the old and new Japan, one in which the boundary is blurred, just as the boundary is blurred for Chihiro in her journey. In Spirited Away there is nothing wrong with synthesizing the traditional and the modern, but rather, it is championed.


Miyazaki, Hayao. Turning Point (Orikaeshiten). 1997-2008. Tokyo. Iwanami Shoten. 2008. Print.

Yoshioka, Shiro. The Heart of Japaneseness: History and Nostalgia in Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. Japanese Visual Culture. ed. Mark MacWilliams. Print.

  1. April 23, 2012 at 9:30 pm

    Interesting comment about Spirited Away and the relationship between traditional and contemporary Japanese culture. I am reminded of a quote on Miyazaki on Spirited Away as his attempt to “reroot” modern society in the traditions of old:

    “We are often not aware of the richness and uniqueness of our cultural heritage – from stories, traditions, rites, designs and tales of the gods. Surrounded by high technology and its flimsy devices, children are more and more losing their roots. We must inform them of the richness of our traditions.”

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