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Kamikakushi -- Anime Master Miyazaki's New Ambition

Kumi Kaoru discusses Anime master Hayao Miyazaki's all time Japanese highest grossing film Spirited Away-- from its background to its meaning and whether or not Miyazaki succeeds at creating another masterpiece.

Hayao Miyazaki in his studio. © André Mazzone.

Editor's Note: At present Hayao Miyazaki's film, Spirited Away or Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi, does not have a U.S. distributor and the Japanese rights holders would not give AWN permission to run images and clips with this story. For images and clips you can visit the official Studio Ghibli site at and the film's official site at Another excellent, but unofficial site, is Nausicaa.Net, which is in English and located at

It is hard to put the Japanese word 'Kamikakushi' into English. When I referred to a Japanese-English dictionary, I found it was translated as 'spirited away.' Yet I think it does not convey the exact meaning because the phrase 'Kamikakushi' has a more spiritual meaning.

So let me explain what 'Kamikakushi' truly means using the famous Anime feature Tonari no Totoro (My Neighbor Totoro) as an example. Recall the sequence where the little girl Mei was lost and everything got very confused in the village? While men were searching for her body in the pond, an old woman, who loves little Mei as if she were her true granddaughter, prays desperately for her safety sitting on her heels on the footpath by the pond.

If you were there and asked her in Japanese: "Obarchan, ittai nani ga attan desu ka." (What's happened, Ma'am?), she would reply to you harshly: "Mei-chan ga KAMIKAKUSHI ni attan dayo!" (My little Mei has got involved in Kamikakushi!) If you take the word as 'missing' or 'lost,' you will miss her true feeling. She means that some spirits have carried off Mei.

Japan has many legends and tales about children who strayed into the spirits' world, although in Totoro, spirits help, not kidnap, Mei. Her older sister Satsuki finds missing Mei on a path outside of the village before sunset, assisted by the giant and kind spirit Totoro, living in the forest by her house, and his friend, the Cheshire Cat-like spirit Neko Basu ("Cat Bus"). The story ends with a happy scene where the old woman holds Mei with wild joy.

The Totoro story is set around 1955, ten years after Japan was defeated in World War II. Now it is 2001. With Japan's miracle economic growth since the '60s, many forests have been chopped down in order to make living quarters. Villages like the one in Totoro have disappeared in much of Japan. I believe forest spirits like Totoro would hate such places now because they must have loved the old, natural forests. To make a Kamikakushi tale in this age was the new ambition of Hayao Miyazaki, Anime master and best known as the creator of Totoro and Studio Ghibli (pronounced "Jibuli"). A ten-year old girl of today strays into the world of spirits, goes through many experiences there and finally returns to the human world. This is the story of his latest film Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (its official English title is Spirited Away), which is his first movie in four years since Princess Mononoke and broke box office records when it opened on July 20, 2001 in Japan.

Chihiro in Wonderland

If you saw Totoro, you will feel some deja vu while watching the prologue of Kamikakushi. The movie starts with 3 family members riding in a car. They seem to be moving house like Satsuki, Mei and their father in Totoro, although, while Mei's family brought all their belongings on their light truck, there is much less being carried in the smart Toyota four-wheel vehicle. It appears that housemovers will be bringing Chihiro's family's remaining belongings.

There is another difference between protagonists. While Satsuki and Mei in Totoro were watching the sights curiously with their bodies thrust forward out of the truck, Chihiro, the protagonist in Kamikakushi, seems to have no interest and does nothing but lie on the backseat spiritlessly. The place where they are living looks like newly developed housing on a hill.

Their car strays onto a mountain path and encounters a strange big gate. When they get out of the car and pass through the gate, they find they are in a large hill plain. They wonder if it is the debris of a theme park's construction, now suspended. In the middle of a street right out of a Western ghost town, they find an open public restaurant. There are no other patrons and no employees in sight. Chihiro's parents find plates of fried chicken available on the counter and begin eating without hesitation.

After that, the story proceeds as you saw in the trailer available on the Net. As the sun sets, the town grows lit and ghosts appear on the streets. In a state of shock, Chihiro shouts to her parents, still hungry for food: "I want to go home!" They turn their faces toward her and, my God, she discovers they have been turned into pigs!

This is the amusement town where spirits elsewhere in Japan visit in order to heal themselves. An old witch called Yubarba ("The Hot Water Hag") rules the big public bath in the town, which doubles as the banquet hall. Yubarba is very greedy. If you saw Laputa: The Castle in the Sky, you will be reminded of Dora, the greedy female captain of the flying pirate ship in the adventure movie.

Chihiro is accepted into the world on the condition that she works at Yubarba's public bath center as an employee. But Yubarba dislikes her name Chihiro ("A Depth of A Thousand Fathoms of Water"), and gives her a new name, Sen ("A Thousand"). Now her trials begin. Can Sen, no, Chihiro restore her parents to human form and return to the human world like Alice in Wonderland?

A Film For Ten Year-Old Girls

In 1997, a few months before the release of Princess Mononoke, Miyazaki surprised his fans with a sudden retirement declaration, only to withdraw it officially in February 1998. Apparently, it is because Yoshifumi Kondo, who directed the youth movie Whisper of the Heart in 1995, died after the Mononoke release. He was expected to be the successor to Miyazaki. In addition, My Neighbors the Yamadas, released two years after Mononoke, made only 820 million yen in distributor's revenue while the production cost was 2.4 billion yen. Studio Ghibli and its parent company Tokuma Publishing, whose fiscal situation had grown worse in these years, needed Miyazaki once more.

Then, what made Miyazaki decide to make a fantasy adventure whose protagonist is a ten year-old girl? He explains in an interview published in the theater program: "Studio manager Suzuki and I have friends and I'm familiar with their little daughters. For a few days every summer since the girls were 4 or 5 years old, they have come to visit me at my mountain cottage. [...] When they turned ten years old, I realized I had not made a movie for them. Kiki's Delivery Service was aimed at adolescent girls. [...] I started thinking [about] what kind of movie I should make, if I am making it."

Miyazaki says he decided to make a movie in which a typical ten year-old girl of today steps into a strange world, goes through many experiences and awakens to what's truly important in life. Through the experience, "her hidden adaptability and patience will appear. She will realize for the first time she has the power of life for good judgement and acting."

Our heroine Chihiro is the most unappealing girl among female protagonists created by Miyazaki (except Mei in Totoro). But Miyazaki designed such a girl intentionally. "Today, children are growing up spoiled, guarded and overly protected in Japan. They just live with less realization of life, and fatten their unhealthy ego. See Chihiro's slendar arms and legs, and her distorted and lifeless face. They symbolize the children of today."

Miyazaki emphasizes: "Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi has no fighting scene or ESP battle, but I think it is an adventure movie. 'Good versus evil' is not the theme. This is the story about a girl who stepped into another real world where both good and evil exist. She will go through many experiences, learn how important friendship and dedication are, and return to the human world with her wisdom."

The Real Girl of Today?

One cannot overemphasize that Miyazaki is now much more popular and respected in Japan than the legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998), let alone the Anime Godfather Osamu Tezuka (1928-1989). This film's release was a major social event in the land of the rising sun.

So you need not be surprised that Kamikakushi broke the Japanese box office record for best opening day held by Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace. If you went to the theater on the morning of the opening day, July the 20th, you would have found people already standing in a queue around (not just in front of!) the theater. Adults with their kids, school girls, junior high school boys, and so forth... They enter the theater, and chat happily in their seats waiting for the screening to start...

The film starts. Action scenes, humorous scenes, horrible scenes and so forth continue, and the audience's happy laughing and murmurs fill the hall. The running time is 2 hours 5 minutes. The movie ends and the hall is illuminated. You stand up and move toward the doors congested with people. If you are fluent in Japanese, and listen carefully to what is being said, you would find boys are saying, "Omoshirokatta kedo, naa..." (I admit it's very entertaining, but...), or girls saying to their parents, "Kore de oshimai?" (Did I miss something?)

Yes, I missed something. Kamikakushi is full of exciting events and adventures, but I felt it failed to give us something more important. Seeing reviews written just after the release, I found the reviewers were divided on Kamikakushi; some say it is a very entertaining movie, and the others (including me) say Miyazaki failed to have his intention thoroughly reflected throughout the film.

Why do you leave with such an unsatisfied feeling? I think it is partly because Chihiro is not really portrayed as an ordinary girl.

Miyazaki says Chihiro is a typical modern Japanese ten year-old girl, but she appears to me to be his typical innocent and courageous heroine. I wish that he had depicted Chihiro as bullied by her colleagues at Yubarba's public bath center, felt vexed by her own incompetence, and thus grew mean-spirited due to her failings. She would then more accurately portray a typical girl of today. I think he was successful with this in Kiki's Delivery Service.

There is another unsatisfying point for me; various spirits, ghosts and gods call at the public bath center, but what on earth are they? I guess they are designed as symbols for the strains and shadows of modern Japan. For instance, in one case, Chihiro and her older colleague Rin bathe a Jabba the Hut-like spirit desperately trying to remove his sludge pollutants. He turns out to be a polluted river god. I think Miyazaki tried to depict that Chihiro comes to learn how her country is going, as well as how important labor is, while working for the spirits. I, however, don't think he was entirely successful. They are all interesting and fascinating, especially Kao-nashi ("Faceless") and Boh ("Baby"), but to me they were not more than goblins like Hampty Dampty.

Miyazaki and the 'Family'

Above all, I felt uneasy about the relationship between Chihiro and her parents, especially her mother, who is portrayed as a bit too distant. It is a formula in juvenile novels, such as Ende's The Never Ending Story, that the protagonist steps into another world, adventures and returns to the real world to re-confirm his/her tie with his/her parent(s). Yet, if you expect such a conclusion in Kamikakushi, you will feel betrayed.

As Miyazaki discusses in the film's press kit, the protagonist returns to the human world with her father and mother, but that's all; there is nothing more than the fact that they return to the world. I understand, or believe I understand, that Miyazaki tried to make a story about a child who awakes to the 'power to live,' not a story about the family. However, I could not help feeling the conclusion is something unnatural.

It is sometimes pointed out by critics that the family relationship, especially the stable relationship between parents and children, is rarely portrayed in Miyazaki's works. Even in his most heartwarming movie Totoro, Satsuki and Mei are not living with their mother. Meanwhile, to work together is always admired as a very good thing in his films. He seems to love to describe solidarity through labor, rather than blood or territorial relations. He loves para-familial communities based on labor. For example, the fortress village in Mononoke and how lively the employees are in Yubarba's pubic bath!

I think this is related to the main reason why I was unsatisfied with Kamikakushi. Frankly speaking, I went so far as to think that Chihiro would have been happier if she stayed in the spirit world rather than returning to the human world with her rather selfish parents. On the surface it looks as if this movie deals with a dull girl's awakening and return to the real world, but I suspect Miyazaki made (maybe unconciously) a story about the denial of the real world and the escape to his own fantasy world.

In other words, Miyazaki sailed under false colors. The superb animation technique (Kamikakushi is full of crowd scenes!), realistic background artwork, Joe Hisaishi's excellent tunes, lively voice acting by talented actors and actresses like Bunta Sugawara and Mari Natsuki, Yumi Kimura's impressive song and so forth made Kamikakushi the most sophisticated and exciting Anime film, but Kamikakushi, I must conclude, is nothing more than the attractions in Tokyo Disneyland. On November the 13th, the film's distributor Toho announced that Kamikakushi broke the all time Japanese box office record, formerly held by Titanic with 26 billion yen, but I wonder if it might have reached only one-fourth of this box office figure without the spell cast with 'directed by Hayao Miyazaki.'


Director: Hayao Miyazaki Animation Supervisor: Masashi Ando, Kitaro Kosaka and Ai Kagawa Background Art Supervisor: Yoji Takeshige Color Design: Michiyo Yasuda Sound Effect Supervisor: Kazuhiro Hayashi Music: Joe Hisaishi The theme song composed and sung by Yumi Kimura, words by Wakako Kaku Executive Producer: (the late) Yasuyoshi Tokuma Running Time: 2 hours 5 minutes Color / Vistasize DTS-ES (6.1ch)

Kumi Kaoru is an Anime scholar residing in Japan, and now is engaged in the translation of Helen McCarthy and Jonathan Clements' The Erotic Anime Movie Guide. The Japanese edition will be published with the translator's commentary chapter in 2002.