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Spirited Away: The Japanese Folklore and Mythology That Inspired the Movie

CBR 2/8/2023 Tulisha Srivastava
© Provided by CBR

Spirited Away is still one of the top-grossing Studio Ghibli movies both in Japan and the West. It is an adventure and coming-of-age film in which the main character, a young girl by the name of Chihiro, embarks on a quest to save her family from a supernatural spell. While the influence of Western stories, art and architecture is evident, as Hayao Miyazaki himself expressed, Spirited Away is replete with Japanese folklore, tradition and symbolism.

Indeed, the title Spirited Away, which translates to "kamikakushi," alludes to Japanese folklore and cultural beliefs. The idea behind kamikakushi is that sometimes people are "taken away by spirits," and throughout history, this has been used as a comfort for parents who lose their children. Furthermore, the film's principal characters such as Yubaba -- a descendant of a yamauba, or mountain witch -- and Kamaji, a tsuchigumo or earth spider, are reminiscent of characters found throughout Japanese folklore.

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The Folklore of Kamikakushi

Kamikakushi was the often somewhat consoling belief that a missing family member had not met with a dreadful accident but rather had been taken on a long and interesting journey and might even return someday. In the past, whenever a family member had suddenly disappeared and could not be found for a long time, especially if they were women or children, it was presumed "they had met kamikakushi." Sudden disappearances were often attributed to the spirit realm, as the people believed that spirits took the person to the spirit world.

The protagonist of the movie, Chihiro, was indeed taken to the spirit world, from where she tried to escape before forgetting her name. Chihiro entered and left the spiritual realm through a tunnel. It is a common Japanese superstition that tunnels serve as a gateway between the human and the spirit world. Moreover, the locus of the spirits' recreational place, a bathhouse, is located across a bridge. Conventionally, in Japanese folklore, bridges, tunnels and crossroads are often considered to be a demarcation point between this world and the other.

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The Mountain Witch Yamauba

It is believed that more than eight million deities reside in Japan, and some of these appear in the movie to either take a bath or work at a bathhouse. The most notable deity among them is Yubaba, the witch who owns the bathhouse. She is an avaricious old witch who is always strict toward her workers. The character design of Yubaba is inspired by Yamauba, the mountain witch who devours unsuspecting humans that happen upon her path.

In many ways, she can be considered the Japanese counterpart of the witch in Hansel and Gretel of the Grimm Brothers or the Baba Yaga of Russian folktales. Furthermore, Yamauba is often portrayed in an unflattering manner, but one of Yamauba's redeeming qualities is her nurturing character, often associated with motherhood. In the movie, she is the mother of Boh, who wears a red harakake and is extremely large. Yubaba taking away people’s names is an indication of her ability to practice dark magic, as is her ability to turn herself into a monstrous bird.

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The River Deity Haku

Throughout the movie, Haku helps Chihiro as much as he could, and Chihiro repays him by saving his life and helping him remember his real self. Haku had forgotten his identity as a river deity named Nigihayami Kohakunushi -- the "god of the swift amber river" -- simply called the Kohaku River in the English dub. In Japanese kanji, Haku translates to white. He wears white in his human form throughout the movie and later, reveals his true form as a white dragon after remembering his identity.

Nigihayami Kohaukunushi is likely a reference to the old Japanese tale of Nigiyahahi. In the stories, Nigihayami is an important character who marries the sister of Nagasunehiko, the chief of a powerful native clan. However, Nigihayami leaves Nagasunehiko and swears his loyalty to the emperor. In the movie, Haku is also set up to betray everyone at the beginning of the story, hoping to learn Yubaba's magic for himself at the cost of his friends, especially the trust of Kamaji. Moreover, his act of Haku betraying Yubaba to help Chihiro is similar to the deity's betrayal in the folktales.

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The Spirit of the Spider Kamaji

In the movie, Kamaji is an old man in charge of controlling the boiler room. He has six long arms and two legs, resembling a spider -- or more appropriately, a Japanese spirit called Tsuchigumo. Despite his unusual appearance, Kamaji is a kind man who understands human emotions. It is often considered in the stories that Tsuchigumo refers to less-cultivated indigenous people who had lived before the Heavenly descendants claimed his authority. More specifically, Tsuchigumo is an appellation used derogatorily in ancient Japanese literature for those who defied imperial authority.

In Spirited Away, Yubaba can most likely be paralleled to the central authority ruling the bathhouse from the top of the building, while Kamaji is similar to Tsuchigumo who live in the pit dwelling, or bottom floor. While Kamaji does not openly go against Yubaba, he does not always go along with her either. Sometimes, he outright resists Yubaba's wishes. The most evident example of this occurs when Kamaji protects not only Chihiro but also Haku, abandoned and left for dead by Yubaba. However, despite that, Kamaji works for Yubaba, as some Tsuchigumo did.

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Other Mythological References in Spirited Away

There are certainly more references to Japanese culture and mythology in the movie. A lot of the spirits seen in the bathhouse are based on designs of yokai, a class of supernatural entities and spirits in Japanese folklore. There is also a reference to shikigami, which originated from an older Japanese form of magic called onmyodo. For example, the movie features a swarm of paper birds that are actually spirits, similar to the concept of onmyodo.

Furthermore, the radish spirit Oshirasama has cultural significance as well. Although his appearance is Miyazaki's creation, this figure was actually inspired by oshirasama dolls, which are a popular part of Japanese folklore. These dolls always come in pairs -- one shaped like a horse, the other shaped like a woman. These are inspired by the legend of Tamaya-Gozen and are today considered an agricultural spirit in Japan's Tohoku region.

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