Spirited Away Is About Xenophobia

Normally when I pick out my entertainment, I look for themes. Themes that interest me and strike a chord within me on a visceral level — and perhaps my least anticipated reaction after watching Spirited Away is to have a stronger connection with what was happening represented, instead of what took place materially within the world.

Let me preface this by saying I don’t think I understood much of the movie, or what was happening and whatever reasons made such events happen. I stopped watching anime years ago because I felt the medium was becoming stale and feeding off a cyclical desire to give into a consumerist desire to see more of what already existed, perhaps more so than other mediums. That’s completely fine if the artform is your bread and butter, but at the time, I had already immersed myself in live-action TV and found that while left with a less rich visual presentation, I was completely in awe of the writing quality and production value worked into network/streaming television. And I think there’s a push to candidness and human authenticity whenever it comes down to a presentation mostly comprised by humans, detailing their experiences and fleshing out their trials, struggles, to be human ones, such as our own.

But Spirited Away was everything but what the artform had me accustomed to. It was a tale old as time, about someone, finding themselves alienated by their newfound home. A home that they didn’t choose, that was superimposed by circumstances prior, that had led to this specific moment in time. Does that remind you of something?

Immigration, to me, and a lot of people, whether immigrants or not is a sticking point. Because if you’ve lived in a place where you’ve long been recognized as part of it culturally, historically, and even socially, there’s perhaps no further need to immerse yourself in a place that looks at you as already homogenized and fully integrated. While “others”, who don’t look as though they belong, or look akin to people often referred to as outsiders, can feel a little bit of resentment until they literally feed off of their recipient culture’s produce — symbolized within the movie by the young girl eating a fruit, so that she doesn’t dissipate away and become a spirit, ignored, left out, cast aside, an invisible body of being that once was material, felt, solid, and real, to not be relinquished into oblivion. That moment struck a deep chord within me because I was considered by some people as someone who has willfully cast a shadow on themselves by not behaving in a culturally appropriate manner, only in this case, if I were to not take that mainland made object, ingest it, and make it a part of me — I wouldn’t have been able to blend. I would’ve been a ghost, a spirit, that moves through the corridors of society unnoticed, stripped of attention, and consideration.

Then there’s a point at which, said young girl is looking to conform. That culminates into wanting a job, and then there’s a scene in which by trying to take the elevator and avoid suspicion of her uncanny presence in an unearthly compound — someone as they sense her presence, is compelled to overlook by dangling a food item in front of them. That to most people doesn’t look like much, but it’s a running theme with people who are bigoted against especially immigrants, and people of color in general, to if they want the snooping and malicious interest to stop, they’d have to sway away those interested with something to take the attention off them. That’s why entertainment exists. It’s a distraction, a deterrent from looking at the harsh realities of the world and examining them up close. Instead, we’re forced to have something that is deemed of cultural value to the majority, to take the judging eyes away from us.

As she meets up with the lady in charge, she’s poised to sign a contract, to soon have bits of her name taken away from her — coercing her into adhering to what the workplace thinks of her instead of what she thinks of herself. That could be its whole separate article on its own. But it’s worth taking a look at since most employers the way you legally bind yourself to work for them, compounded with the financial, or societal pressure to do that work, have to put up with egregious conditions that can go as far as erasing something as fundamental as your own identity to proceed. It is a major running theme throughout the movie, as the protagonist acquaints herself with the world. The way it was presented in this movie though, was effective, and to-the-point — I very much appreciate that.

Comes on at a later point, a blob of mud, that looks under the night sky like it could be concrete. Which would have been perhaps a not so subtle nod at the way progress, most exemplified in concrete jungle behemoths such as Manhattan, can sully a whole road, and later on, an entire bathhouse, that it takes a water with special properties to swipe the dirt off. Revealing an ancient shell of a self, in a dragon-like body shape, that zips away into the sky. (Remember me not knowing who was who, and which came from where? It’s possible it has returned and I hadn’t noticed, but bear with me as I’m mostly interested in themes, and not so much the chronology of the events) But then comes an inquisitive soul… No Face, that has a douchebag’s haircut and is willing to offer people gold, in exchange for food. Let me break this down, for a bit:

So we all know how when European explorers came to finally get a hold of the Americas’ riches, there was a steady influx of precious metals into the Old World. At the time, economists of the renaissance era were still grappling of what this means for their currency, as the definition of what worth was still shaping up long after the arrival of those natural resources into the host invaders’ nation. What’s perhaps a long forgone conclusion is that this “figuring out” period, gave birth to a lot of issues, and that culminated into famine, extreme poverty, in the way that government did not have the slightest idea on how to deal with such a foreign concept in place, that it took a readjustment period and a whole hell lot of human sacrifice for us to find our footing again. This is important as most inhabitants of the compound did not know what to make of these riches coming into their hands in such an unexpected way. And sure enough, refusing to partake in it, upsets the balance, ticks off the intruder, and wreaks havoc — only to start shedding its darkness after having eaten the stuff of the sour tasted souls. It is the bitter reality of what incessant greed, and unwieldy generosity can do to both the people benefitting, and others losing from it. As it all, later on, expectedly so, turned into ashes, and was exposed for the very fraud it was. Long after its perpetrator was gone to other realms, born anew. In an embrace opposite, of where he were previously.

For a movie that locks its telling of events in a specific timeframe, and acts as if everything that has happened has no bearing on what follows then is the course of human progression really. We all go through phases of major turmoil, great change, and as nature of the very beings we are, we rise up, and readapt. To survive, and make room for their existence, at the expense, of others’ discontent, and to be frank, Spirited Away hammers that point home with exhilarating pointedness, and for that, it makes an incredible viewing experience even if you’re not one bit interested in the characters, the art style, or much of anime really. It’s a recommended watch for all, and perhaps, most importantly, for those who feel like they have not been at home for a while, and wish if things would come back to the way they were —a bottomless ocean of blissful ignorance.