Ghibli’s Spirited Away is undoubtedly one of the best films of all time,  but fully “getting” what goes on in the movie may be difficult without some knowledge of Japanese culture. 

In this podcast series, Japanese culture researcher/enthusiast/The Metro-classic Japanese show host Kyota Ko will share with you insights that will help you to enjoy the epic Miyazaki film two fold. 

Hello world! You’re listening to the Metro-classic Japanese. My name is Kyota Ko. I got a question from one of my online acquaintances I made on Instagram, and it was an inquiry about Ghibli’s Spirited Away. 

I’m a Ghibli fan myself. One of my favorites was Kiki’s Delivery Service. I’m sure I’ve watched it over a dozen times since I was like 7. Now a couple of Miyazaki Ghibli films, namely Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, are set in Japan-themed fantasy worlds. 

And because I was born and brought up in Japan, plus I do research on Japanese culture everyday, it didn’t occur to me that for non-Japanese Ghibli fans, there would be so many little question marks that arise as they watch the film. Who are these monsters in the sauna? Why were they invisible on the boat and why do they become visible when they disembark? Why was Chihiro not supposed to be there in the first place?

These were some of the questions my Instagram friend asked me, so I thought I’d answer them. Let’s enjoy the film fully, together. So in this series, let me supply some cultural background explanation to several scenes in Spirited Away where non-Japanese people, and even Japanese people who are not very keen about their own culture, would have a hard time understanding or relating. 

The opening

So the film starts on a car headed towards the main character, Chihiro’s new house. The family moved to a new town and Chihiro’s mad about it because she had to leave all the friends she had made. 

The father who’s driving the car takes a turn onto a pathway with a stone gate and a bunch of these small, stone cubes pushed off to the side of the road. I’m sure you’ve seen one of those red gates in a photo of Japanese shrines before. The red gate represents the entrance to the world of the gods that are being enshrined there in Shintoism, so it’s always built over a pathway, not off to the side. 

So the one Chihiro’s family saw was a displaced gate, and the little cubes which the mother points out that are houses of gods, are in fact houses of gods that were removed from where they were originally enshrined by some construction company. So Miyazaki is establishing that the family is going to drive into an old residence of Shinto gods that was destructed by humans. 

The family drives into a forest and goes right up to a big red Chinese-style architecture, and the father gets really curious and wants to find out what this was built for. Mom tags along, and Chihiro is very reluctant because she’s just a whiny little girl at this point in the movie. But she ends up following her parents because she is not independent in any way.

When the family walks through the red building, Chihiro’s father points out: “I knew it! It’s an abandoned theme park. They built them everywhere in the 90s. Then the economy went bad and they all went bankrupt. This must be one of them.” 

This actually happened in Japan. There was a period of extremely rapid economic growth between 1988 and 1992 and it’s so called the Bubble Economy. The prices of things were climbing by the day. It was like if you bought a piece of land today, you were absolutely certain that you would make a handsome profit from selling it the next month. It probably felt ridiculous not to invest.

So as the father says, hotels, shopping centers and amusement parks were built everywhere in hopes of making a big fortune, but soon, people realized things were getting out of hand. They were investing a large amount of money on properties not because they were actually valuable, but because their prices were expected to rise. 

So suddenly, the growth stopped, opportunities were lost, and then jobs were lost, and then tycoons went from having everything to having nothing. Chihiro’s family accidentally wandered into an abandoned business initiative. 

The theme park

They cross a little stream by hopping over rocks, and here, something very subtle but a little strange happens. I don’t know if you noticed, but the rocks are so uneven that even an adult can’t make it through easily. The mother jumps and then holds onto her husband’s arm so that she wouldn’t fall. It requires a bit of athleticism. 

But strangely enough, the mother doesn’t even give a helping hand to her daughter. She just looks back halfway and tells her to hurry. In the next scene, you see Chihiro actually struggling to get herself across the stream, but again, the mother just keeps walking on. 

So while the mother seems pretty close with her husband, it seems like she offers slightly less love to Chihiro. One thing we need to bear in mind is that there are no improvs in animation. Everything that’s shown is very deliberate. And we need to keep in mind that we are watching a Miyazaki film. Of course there is an intent hidden behind this subtle, awkward interaction between the mother and Chihiro. 

I actually didn’t bother thinking too deeply about this scene until I saw a Youtube video of a very amusing film critic talk about this scene. I just thought the mother was fed up with Chihiro because she’s always so whinny, but it turns out there’s much more than that. I’ll explain what’s going on here later. 

Anyway, the father fast-walks towards the direction he smells food, and finds a Chinese restaurant with tons of dishes ready to be served. 

The father and mother don’t see any shopkeepers, but decide to start eating anyway. They invite Chihiro to join them, but she refuses and instead goes away to explore the place. 

She sees a lantern with a Japanese Kanji character that’s translated to “Oil.” It’s the logo of the bath house Yubaba runs, which is called Aburaya. Abura is the Japanese word for “oil.”

Now there was in fact a Japanese inn called Aburaya in 18th to 19th century Tokyo. It used to be a red light district until the late 19th century. It was a sort of place where companions would sit together with customers and eat and drink together. They would also dance and sing for their customers, and after all that, the companions would accompany their customers to bed. 

And you might feel surprised hearing this, but during this time where samurai ruled over Japan, and this era is  called the Edo Period, there were government-approved red-light districts. 

Between the 17th and 19th century, the city of Edo, which is what Tokyo was called then, had a very unbalanced male-to-female ratio of around 6:4. There were more men than women because many men came to find work in rapidly growing Edo City from the countryside they grew up in. 

Then, the demand for particular kinds of services was extremely high, so brothels opened up everywhere. The whole city was becoming a red-light district and that’s not good for a countless number of reasons. So the government made an agreement with some brothel business owners and designated a few areas to be red-light districts. They banned any such service in all other parts of the city. 

So the original Aburaya that existed in the Edo Period was one such red-light district that provided meals, a place to stay, and companions. 

And the reason I’m spending a lot of time talking about the original Aburaya is because there’s a high chance Miyazaki adopted a historical episode of the original Aburaya into the storyline of Spirited Away, and the episode also gives us an idea who the character No-Face is. 

The Aburaya incident and No-face

The Aburaya incident occurred in June of the year 1796. A man by the name of Itsuki Magofuku who was 27 at the time came over to Aburaya and asked for some sake. It wasn’t his first time to Aburaya, so he was let in and a companion called Okon was told to sit beside him. 

Things were all right until a group of 3 rich merchants came into Aburaya. Perhaps there weren’t many companions available, so Okon was told by the manager to go join the merchants along with two other companions.

Itsuki got upset that he couldn’t talk to Okon anymore, and started making loud complaints to Aburaya. One of the female staffers of Aburaya calmed him down and escorted Itsuki to the entrance. But when she gave Itsuki’s belongings back, which included a short katana sword, Itsuki suddenly assaulted the staffer with his sword.

A male staffer who was right there tried to stop Itsuki but couldn’t and got injured, another female staffer who was nearby was assaulted too. Itsuki stepped back into Aburaya and next, stabbed the mother of the owner of Aburaya dead. The merchants and their companions noticed something was going on, so they came downstairs to the first floor to see what was wrong. 

One of the companions who led the way bumped into Itsuki and was stabbed to death. Another companion was also injured. The three merchants tried to stop Itsuki, but two got badly injured and one of them was killed. 

So Itsuki ran away after injuring 6 people and killing 3. He was found a couple days later. He had cut his own stomach open and stabbed his own throat. 

So yeah, the model of No-Face is likely to be this lunatic, Itsuki Magofuku. He was probably a lonely man who just lost it one day. In Sprited Away, No-Face persistently seeks for Chihiro’s attention and when he realizes he cannot have her, he starts cursing the whole world around him. 

Later on in the movie, No-Face finds a place to be at Zeniba’s house and he seems happy. I don’t know, but maybe Miyazaki wanted to try putting himself in Itsuki’s shoes, and tried to think what would have saved his soul. What No-Face and Itsuki needed was a sense of belonging. 

I didn’t even get to the bridge where Chihiro meets Haku, but I think I’ll call it a day here, and come back to talking about Spirited Away in Part II. I hope that gave you a bit more cultural context for enjoying this wonderful movie. 

Thank you for listening and please check out my Instagram account @themetroclassic for daily content on Japanese culture. それでは、パート2でお会いしましょう。

To be continued to Part II…