Thoughts on ‘Spirited Away’

In 2002, I dragged my then-boyfriend reluctantly to see “Spirited Away.” The screening was attended by some parents who brought their too-young children expecting to see something simple and diverting, but there was an exodus as it became clear that this wasn’t a movie aimed at entertaining children on a simplistic level.

Now that it has come out on Blu-ray, I’ve had the opportunity to play it over and over again, listening to first the original Japanese and then to the English dubbing and back again to the Japanese. The English subtitles are not the same as the English dubbed dialogue. The dubbed dialogue attempts to match up English words with the animated lip movements and yet that in itself is problematic.

Women in the U.S., particularly in my region are more likely to give broad toothy smiles. In Japan, women do not laugh showing their teeth. If you see a Japanese woman laughing and showing her teeth it means something–perhaps that she is coarse or perhaps she has adopted foreign ways.

We can see a lot of foreign influence in what the family encounters in “Spirited Away.” The family has a foreign car (Audi). The daughter, like many Japanese, eats Kit Kat bars–hugely popular in Japan with limited edition flavors. The family visits Kinokuniya, the largest bookstore chain in Japan. For foreigners in Japan, it was well-known for offering books in European languages.

The movie is called “Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi” (千と千尋の神隠し). Sen means a thousand, but the pronunciation of the character can change to “chi” as it does in the name Chihiro. The “hiro” in Chihiro means to ask questions. Kamikakushi means spirited away with kami meaning spirit or god and kakushi meaning hidden. So perhaps we can translate the title as “Sen and the Mysterious Disappearance of Chihiro.”

As the father, Akio Ogira, takes a dirt road that leads the family to what seems to be an old amusement park, Chihiro notices the stone statues. She’s somewhat disturbed by them, but her parents don’t seem to notice. There is a disarray of stones near the entry way and Chihiro’s mother tells her those are spirit houses, but thinks little more of it. There’s another stone statue at the entry gate and Chihiro pleads with her parents not to enter. Doesn’t she seem whiny and almost hysterical?

Now this is crucial: pacing. We’ve had two brief moments of foreshadowing before entering the tunnel. Is there really nothing else until the transformation of the parents?

Inside the tunnel we see a waiting room and then outside the tunnel, there are more stone statues up a hill. We see buildings. On the first building we see an incomplete phrase. Alone the character 正 would be read “sho” or “sei” and means right, righteous, justice and genuine, but 正 also suggests 正しい, meaning correct, right, honest and truthful.

There are other signs, such as 三千眼  (3,000 eyes) and 塩 (salt). I wonder about the repetition of  “me” (眼 or め) in the movie.  Eyes can mean so many things and figures in many idiomatic phrases. There’s also a repetition of “yu” with different meanings.

We see 生あります posted on a corner which Chihiro and later Sen passes several times during the movie. The character 生 in this phrase  means raw and usually refers to beer.  When we get to the main street we see the characters  市場 for market (ichiba) and the word 自由 (jiyuu) for freedom.

Then there are some disquieting Chinese characters. The mother says that all the places are restaurants. When you see 天 float by you might think 天ぷら (for tempura), but actually the characters are: 天祖 (tensoo) for the ancestral goddess of the sun, Amaterasu. In one frame we see only 天狗 (tengu), with “ten” above and “gu” below.  The character 狗 means dog, but can be used for dog meat (狗肉)which is not commonly eaten in Japan (and could suggest the homophone 苦肉 or “kuniku” which  literally means bitter meat meaning a countermeasure that requires personal sacrifice). The character usually used for dog is 犬.

Floating at the corner of one building is 骨 which means bone and it could be a restaurant term as in the creamy broth: 豚骨 (tonkotsu) which is literally pig bone. Yet bone or “hone” is used in idiomatic phrases such as hone-nashi meaning to lack moral backbone.

There’s a repetition of terms for fat such as 脂 (abura) and 油 (abura). The first suggests meat and flesh because the radical (肉 or 月) represents meat. The second suggests liquid because of the radical sansui or three water drops. The latter is also a common term for cooking as in  油揚げ (abura-age or oil fried).

When we look above at the arch, there is also something off.  The characters are 飢と食と会 which seem to substitute for 飢える (ueru, to starve),  食べる(taberu, to eat)  and 会う(au, to meet).  The と signifies “and.” It should read eat ( 食べる), drink (飲む) and meet (会う) or something like that, but the last two symbols are backwards–on either side.

Just before the father Akio (昭夫) turns into the narrow alleyway that leads to the sumptuous meals, we see him framed by two large characters. On the left is the character for heaven (天). On the right, is the character for demon(鬼 or oni). That I believe foreshadows what happens next.

Akio sees large plates with piles of meat. That never happens in Japan. Rice is the filler and you generally eat meat sparingly. You rarely see a whole chicken or bird.  The buffet would be sumptuous by American standards and in Japan, suspiciously grand and unreal. While the father makes assurances that he can pay with his credit card, are they really that wealthy?

Chihiro perhaps here further notices something is wrong. She refuses to eat. Sure she was probably eating Kit Kat on the drive down, but she won’t even venture a bite. Instead, she leaves the alleyway and above her, we seen the character, 冢 (tsuka), which means hill or mound. Yet this is not the preferred character which would be 塚 (also read tsuka). The small cross represents ground or earth. Without that radical, 冢 is only one stroke different than the word for house  家 (uchi) which is the same one used for the combination that means family 家族 (kazoku). The significance here is that pig (豚 or buta) under a roof represents house/home 家. That quick flash of the character gives the suggestion of pig and family. Yet it is also like bone (骨  or hone) associated with death as in grave (冢穴).  The usage of the character for abura or fat also ties in with the word for obesity (脂肪過多).

Abura is the character that predominates and stands for the public bathhouse or a yuya (湯屋)but in this case, the usual yu is 湯 and instead we have 油 and there’s okurigana to tell us we should read it yu instead of abura so that this yuya 油 屋 becomes a pun for the other type of yuya 湯屋 .

The “yu” is repeated in the mother’s name 悠子 or Yuuko. On one discussion board in Japanese, someone posted a comment that perhaps if we put yu (ゆ)and me (め)together, we have yume (夢)which means dream.

If we are looking at the names of the family, Ogino, 荻野, then we also have another suggestion of barbarian with the first character (which means reed) without the grass radical. The mother’s name derives from “yuu” meaning distant or longtime. The father’s name, Akio (明夫 ) means sunny and the last character means husband or man.

Although there is no characters given for Haku whose real name is Kohakugawa, I think most people who read Japanese would instantly think 小白川 or small white river and that seems to be confirmed when Haku is seen to be a white dragon. Dragons are associated with water in Japanese and Chinese mythology.

Other names have meaning, some of which I would translate differently. Yubaba (湯婆婆) means hot water old woman. Baba doesn’t mean witch (魔女 or maho) as I see it translated in some places. It can mean a wet nurse and婆 is the character used for grandmother (婆さん). Baba can also mean grandmother with different characters (祖母). Her twin sister is Zeniba (銭婆) and the “zeni” means a zen or one-hundredth of a yen and that’s not a lot of money at all. Today 3 July 2015, the yen equals 0.0081 of a US dollar. Zeni does mean money and is used in phrases such as the coin slot for machines. Zeni is a homophone for 善意 or good intentions.

Kamaji ( 釜爺) means kettle old man with kama meaning kettle and ji meaning grandfather.

Another katakana name is カオナシ which a reader of Japanese would assume to be 顔なし and literally means to be without a face. There is an expression in Japanese for someone not to have a face which means to be ashamed ( 君に合わせる顔がない or I am ashamed to meet you). 

The servant woman who helps Sen is named Rin or リン which is oddly translated Lin even though Japanese does not have an “L” sound. Someone who reads Japanese might think that this person also had her identity stolen and her name was perhaps Hayashi (林)which can also be read “Rin.”

As with the movie “When Marnie Was There,” which was released on 19 July 2014,  the release date (20 July 2001) for “Spirited Away” in Japan was right about the time for Obon, when people would be expected to return to their true homes and spirits were believed to be traveling back to their earthly homes to meet with their descendants. If you keep that in mind, the movie makes more sense.

However, I’m writing this essay mostly to talk about my A-ha moment, when I realized just how the changes in the amusement park were foreshadowed. That alone makes this DVD/Blu-ray worth purchasing.

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