In this third part of this Spirited Away cultural walkthrough series, show host Kyota clarifies the mystery of Chihiro’s sudden maturing and the trick Miyazaki plays in the scene where Chihiro signs an employment contract.
Hello world! You are listening to the Metro-classic Japanese. My name is Kyota Ko. And we’re back again in this cultural walkthrough series of Studio Ghibli’s masterpiece Spirited Away.
Last time, we left off where Haku and Chihiro parts in the garden of Aburaya. Haku goes into the building to draw attention while Chihiro sneaks into the boiler room.
The implications of Japanese names
Oh by the way, the characters’ names have meanings in Japanese.
In Japanese, each syllable or set of syllables in your name gets a Chinese character. These characters themselves have meanings, like mountain or loyal or beautiful, and these Chinese characters are put together to make a more complex meaning. So all Japanese names carry some kind of message.
They’re sometimes very profound messages given from parents to their children, but sometimes they are just very descriptive.
For example the first name of Hollywood actor Ken Watanabe: Ken stands for “modesty.” So Ken Watanabe is in effect, Modest Watanabe. His parents probably wanted him to live life with humility.
Marie Kondo is interesting because the Chinese characters used in her name Marie is associated with the words “linen”, “organized” and “bless.” Pretty much what she does professionally.
So anyway, Haku stands for the color “white.” And yes, he is a white dragon.
Yubaba is a very descriptive name. It stands for “hot water old woman.” That’s exactly what she is. She is an old woman who runs a bath house.
Her sister Zeniba stands for “money old woman” which is counterintuitive because it’s Yubaba who is obsessed with money, not Zeniba. So that’s another area we can enjoy pondering what Miyazaki’s intent was.
Kamaji is another descriptive name. It stands for “Boiler old man.” So we can see that these characters are bound by their roles in their world.
Yubaba later takes ownership of Chihiro by stealing her real name, but perhaps Yubaba had her real name taken away by someone else herself a long time ago. Kamaji probably used to have a real name too.
So going back to where we were, Chihiro goes down to the boiler room in the basement where she meets Kamaji. I just remembered reading this film critic pointing out that in Miyazaki films, the protagonist often goes deep underground and goes through a major transformation there.
For example in the Ghibli film Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Nausicaa gets sucked down underground beneath the toxic jungle, and finds out a truth nobody knew about the toxic jungle. It was a big moment in the movie where her life-long doubt about the world was clarified.
In Spirited Away, Chihiro goes through a major transformation at Kamaji’s place. Until then, she was just a helpless kid who needed to be told to do anything, but here, she makes up her mind to participate in this struggle she found herself in. She picks up a chunk of very heavy coal and throws it into the furnace. It was her first accomplishment at Aburaya.
She was able to have a little chance to practice being useful before she went into the main service area of Aburaya.
Now you may have wondered why the entrance into Aburaya from Kamaji’s boiling room was so small. Rin, who is Chihiro’s senior colleague, and even Chihiro herself had to crawl on all fours to get through.
There is actually a name to this kind of entrance in Japan. It’s called “Nijiriguchi” and you would see it in Noh theater or sometimes in tea rooms.
Noh theater is a traditional Japanese theatrical play, kinda like a meditative, spiritual musical that’s supposed to be an offering to the gods. So the stage is a sacred place, and the actors and instrumentalists need to mentally prepare themselves to play an important role.
And the entrance the instrumentalists use to get on stage is a Nijiriguchi. So they have to kneel and crawl onto stage. It seems like in Japan, or I guess in other cultures too if I think about Alice in Wonderland, this action of going through a rabbit hole signifies entry into a different world.
When you crawl, you can only see the floor, and when you’ve finally made your way through the rabbit hole, you look up to see what’s there for the first time. It’s dramatic.
Tea ceremony too is supposed to be an extraordinary experience where you leave your social rank, title, responsibilities and problems all behind in the everyday world to purely enjoy interacting with the tea ceremony host over a cup of matcha and food.
So some tea rooms have a Nijiriguchi as an entrance, and it helps to mentally prep the guest for something very different from their ordinary lives.
Imagine kings, prime ministers, presidents of companies going through a Nijiriguchi. No matter who you are, you are forced to crawl like a baby, just like when you didn’t have any title or responsibility. You are reborn when you go through a Nijiriguchi. It’s a thoughtful gimmick.
So Chihiro going through the Nijiriguchi at Kamaji’s place, I think, signifies that she’s going on stage, feeling like a new person. And in fact, she suddenly becomes a very independent girl after this scene, as if she is playing a role in a play.
In the bath house
So Chihiro is taken into the main service area of the bath house and what she sees there are gods and spirits sharing big baths in great numbers.
It seems like lower class spirits, namely the ones that look like giant chicks here in this screenshot are crammed in one bath, and it certainly looks cute because they’re big yellow fluff balls, but imagine people doing this. It’s not very pleasant, but Japanese public baths during the 17th to 19th century had the same kind of concept.
Because preparing hot water for yourself to bathe in every day was not practical at a time without gas or electricity, everyone who could afford it went to a nearby bath house. Nowadays bath houses and hot spring resorts separate bathing space for men and women, but coed baths were the norm for a long time.
Also at some bath houses, there were women who were employed there to scrub customers, and that is what we see in this screenshot here in Spirited Away.
Not only did these women accompany customers into the bath space, they sat beside customers in the restaurant area while they ate after taking a bath. These women would also sing and dance for the customers, and that pretty much seems to be part of the service Aburaya is providing to the gods.
The culture behind the employment contract
Now let’s skip forward to where Chihiro meets Yubaba and manages to get employed. Yubaba tells Chihiro to sign a contract, and when she sees Chihiro’s 4-character name on paper, she says the name’s too long and takes away all but one character.
Chihiro’s full name is Ogino Chihiro. In Japanese, the family name comes first. Chihiro is her first name, and these Chinese characters mean “A thousand heights” so it represents an epic landscape of thousands of mountains.
After Yubaba takes away most of Chihiro’s name, the remaining Chinese character is “Sen” which means “a thousand” in Japanese.
All this is very much related to an ancient Japanese belief in which people thought that if you disclosed your real name to someone else, that someone would be able to take control of you.
Especially girls were told to keep their real names to themselves, and telling her real name to a man meant she was confessing her love to him. In fact, there are a few female novelists who have left us important pieces of literature, like Murasaki Shikibu or Seisho Nagon, but these are not their real names. They are sort of like the names of their positions in the world of royalty, and to this day, we don’t know their real names.
Now going back to Spirited Away, what’s interesting in the scene where Chihiro signs her contract with Yubaba is that she kind of misspells her name. A part of the first Chinese character of her name is supposed to be the character for fire 火 but she mistakenly writes the character for dog 犬 there.
Japanese Ghibli fans suspect that this was the reason she didn’t end up completely forgetting her identity. Yubaba couldn’t take total control of her because of this spelling mistake. It’s very sly of Miyazaki to throw that little detail in there.
I think this is one reason people love his movies. The more carefully you watch them, the more mysteries you solve. The reward gets bigger.
I think I’ll leave it at that for this episode. In the next one, we’ll discuss the cultural background behind Chihiro’s, or Sen’s, new life as an Aburaya employee.
Thank you for listening again. それでは、またお会いしましょう。