At an ecocriticism conference several years ago, a Japanese scholar asked why so few American academics were paying attention to the great filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki. Today, my class is going to talk about Spirited Away. Here are the discussion questions. I hope they get conversation started for you and your classes.
1. Spirited Away incorporates many elements from classical Western literature and folklore: people who magically turn into pigs (the Odyssey); the hero’s quest; the prohibition against eating the food of the Faerie (Irish folkore); a girl who goes to Grandma’s house (“Red Riding Hood”); the need to solve riddles. Do these familiar elements make the story easier to understand, or does their appearance in a Japanese film make them too alien to be helpful?
2. Through Chihiro’s transformation from miserable little girl to courageous adventurer, the film suggests that the world of the spirits is necessary to help us live in the everyday world, that spiritual development is part of the solution to environmental crises. What do you think about this?
3. Many of the film’s characters are related to fresh water: Haku, the Sludge Monster, Yubaba. The main action of the film takes place in a bathhouse, where spirits come to relax and refresh themselves in water. Chihiro’s family enters the spirit world by crossing a body of water. Chihiro and Haku first met at an incident in a river. How can the film’s preoccupation with water help us to understand the planetary water crisis?
4. Can you draw any connections between Spirited Away and Ishimure’s Paradise in the Sea of Sorrow or Kurosawa’s Dreams? What do these works tell us about a particularly Japanese approach to nature and environmental issues, if anything? What do these works have to say to an international audience?
5. The character No Face (the one with the white mask who eats everything) can easily be taken as a critique of consumer society, but No Face earns a happy ending. What do you think of Miyazaki’s solution to the endless appetite of the modern world?
6. Does it make sense to think of bodies of water as possessing spirit? Have you ever had a relationship with a river, a pond, an ocean, or the rain that prompted you to speak to water? Have you ever been rescued by a body of water? Have you ever cleaned a body of water?
7. The turning point of Spirited Away occurs when Chihiro cleans the Sludge Monster. The film’s creator, Miyazaki, based this incident on his own experience as a volunteer at a river cleanup, where he actually pulled a bicycle out of a river. What does this incident (in the film and in real life) suggest about the power of individual and communal action in environmental recovery?