December 12, 2009
Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away in the Context of Globalization
A cultural text is an artistic object which is representative of the culture from which it originates. The cultural text Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki is an animated film which identifies closely with its originating culture while making commentary on the impacts of globalization. It is a film which has gained widespread recognition both in its native Japan and abroad. In the film a young Japanese girl goes on a journey of cultural self-awareness which contrasts sharply with her globalized conception of culture at the outset. She learns to value her culture while simultaneously teaching viewers around the world that they must gain strength from their cultures in order to become influential members of a global society. As a cultural text or cultural object, Spirited Away may be divided into the sections suggested by Wendy Griswold’s cultural diamond of “creators, cultural objects, recipients, and the social world” (Griswold 15). This essay will consider these elements, focusing on the history which produced the cultural text of Spirited Away as well as the film’s impacts and reception abroad. This essay will also consider how outside cultures influenced the text and how the film illustrates concepts of globalization.
The history of Japanese animation has its roots in the comic art of manga. The Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai (best known for his Great Wave off Kanagawa ca. 1830-32) is the acknowledged first master of the genre shares Chris Taylor. Taylor continues that Hokusai attributed the term manga which means “anarchic drawings” to his volumes of small sketches. Kaoru Misaka provides a brief history of manga which describes it as a product of globalizing influences. Although the first manga were essentially political cartoons used in journalism (ca. 1830), the British artist Charles Wargman (ca. 1862) and French artist Jorges Bigo (ca. 1889) created magazines in Japan dedicated to the showcase of manga (Misaka 2). Much of this early manga was a commentary on the increasing westernization of late 19th century Japan. Manga later began to be used to tell stories, most of which were written for an adult audience (Misaka 2). It was when the artist of children’s manga Osamu Tezuka decided to incorporate Disney-inspired animation in manga that the way was paved for the first Japanese animation of a manga in 1963 (Misaka 3). Spirited Away’s creator Hayao Miyazaki is another example of an artist who works in manga and animation. Lucy Wright and Jerry Clode share that all animation done by Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli are drawn and painted by hand in the manga style (1). The animation of Spirited Away is therefore highly influenced by the manga tradition.
Spirited Away is an example of Japanese animated feature films. Unlike many films which are adapted from anime television series, Spirited Away is an original work created as a full length film. Fred Patten provides a history of Japanese animated feature films in which he identifies American and European animation as the inspiration for the genre. Japanese animated films have been found which date back to 1917 at which time they were short and silent, much like early American animation. Patten shares that most of these early films were “dramatizations of popular Japanese folktales in traditional Japanese art styles” to be replaced by comedies similar to those popular in the West. Due to stifled growth of the industry during WWII Japanese animators adopted the American studio system in order to compete with the West. Miyazaki together with Isao Takahata are credited with creating prominent and widely acclaimed feature length Japanese animations (Patten). The Anime News Network reports that Spirited Away is significant as the first Japanese animation to win the American Academy Award for best Animation.
While Japanese animation is not limited to a single set of characteristics, certain themes and styles have come to be associated with anime. Japanese animation is known for themes such as heroic children and enormous battling robots (Patten). The Anime News Network adds that anime characters can be recognized by their large round eyes, small mouths, spiked hair and expressive faces which make Japanese animation easily distinguishable from other forms. However, copying the Japanese style has gained in popularity in recent years most notably in Korea, France, and America. This is an example of David Galenson’s thesis that the widespread dissemination of ideas through globalization causes artistic styles to be adapted throughout the world (2). As a result, the styles characteristic of Japanese animation are often copied in other genres. The work of Hayao Miyazaki is a classic example of Japanese animation styles and is therefore clearly associated with his home country of Japan.
Spirited Away was produced in Japan by Studio Ghibli. The Anime News Network shares that Studio Ghibli is a production company dedicated to high quality Japanese animation. Ghibli is run by Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata under the parent company Tokuhma Shoten. Peter van der Lugt reports that the studio, which derives its name from the name given to Italian reconnaissance aircraft during World War II, is located in Koganei, Tokyo. The name itself means “a hot wind blowing through the Sahara Desert” and reflects Miyazaki’s fascination with Europe and aircraft (Anime News Network). The Anime News Network also reports that Miyazaki was born in Tokorozawa, Saitama, Japan in 1941 and as such he has particular interest in the effects of war and modernization on individuals and the environment. The films of Miyazaki therefore share both a style and feel which is characteristic of their creator and his culture.
4. National Identity in the Content and Reception of Spirited Away
In Spirited Away Miyazaki draws strongly on his Japanese background by setting the film in modern Japan as well as the world of traditional Japanese Shinto spirits. Kate Matthews notes that the film is devoid of the usual logic which is expected of Western films. She postulates that the film is more logical from the vantage of a Japanese cultural background due to its heavy reliance upon Shinto principles. Shinto is the term used for the traditional religions of Japan which share a common principle that the things in nature have spirits which are called “kami” (Matthews 5). In Spirited Away, the statues seen in the modern world are old shrines for the kami while the protagonist’s journey to the spirit world centers on her interactions with these spirits in a bathhouse for the kami. While the story and characters of Spirited Away are Miyazaki’s original creation, they have a conceptual basis in Shinto principles. Matthews declares that an understanding of Shinto “primarily reinforces the function of its (the movie’s) illogical nature” as the experience of kami is outside the realms of ordinary logic (6). This indicates a cultural text which is closely tied to its region of origin.
The professed purpose of heavy Shinto influence is to make a commentary upon a decline in Japanese culture (Matthews 5). While the movie is uniquely Japanese, it serves the purpose of educating Japanese viewers about their own forgotten culture and how it can be incorporated in the modern world (Wright and Clode 5). However, Wright and Clode add that Miyazaki has created a story which has a message for a global audience stating that “Miyazaki’s broadening appeal is located in the creation of a hybrid Japanese ‘modern myth’ that is accessible (in different ways) to post-industrialized audiences all over the world” (3). Furthermore, they point out that Miyazaki continually blurs the line between Eastern and Western settings and characters with his use of round-eyed, independent, young girls as courageous heroes (Wright and Clode 3). The theme of a strong-spirited young girl entering a mythical world and going on a mission to save her friends and family is one which has universal appeal.
5. Reception by Location
Spirited Away is popular both in Japan and abroad with viewers of all ages. The Anime News Network shares that the DVD of the movie has been translated into at least 12 Asian and European languages. The movie received positive reviews around the globe. The Japan Times gave the movie 5 (of 5) stars and reviewer Mark Shilling called it a “masterwork” while comparing it to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield. The film receives similarly positive reviews from British news services, with Caroline Westbrook writing for BBC News that “Quite simply, it is one of the most beautiful, original films for ages” (qtd. in Team Ghiblink). Peter Bradshaw of Britain’s The Guardian explained its appeal to non-Asian audiences saying “it's undoubtedly in a class and genre of its own: its alien, exotic qualities, all the more intense for a non-Japanese audience, are part of how extraordinarily pleasurable it is to watch.” Team Ghiblink provides translations of more positive reviews from France, Germany, and Singapore as well as from the American-owned International Herald Tribune. The American reception of Spirited Away is best described by the aforementioned fact that it was the first Japanese film to win the Academy Award for Best Animation (Anime News Network). Similarly, in Japan it is significant as their top grossing film of all-time, reports Elvis Mitchell.
The beauty of this film alone gives it universal appeal. However, Miyazaki intends for his viewers not just to see the beauty of a fairy tale style visit to a magical world. As Matthews, Wright, and Clode have pointed out, this is a story of the impacts of cultural globalization upon Japan. While viewers outside Japan will understand the story to encourage industry and loyalty in the youth, they are less likely to notice the call for a return to traditional Japanese cultural principles. This does not mean that Westerners cannot find a call to seek their own traditions in order to become strong members of a global community. By evoking an attitude of mythology Miyazaki creates a universal call to remember cultural roots and traditions. Miyazaki unequivocally tells viewers to find and cherish their own identities, just as the character Haru tells the protagonist to never forget her identity and purpose in the spirit world.
6. Spirited Away and Globalization
Spirited Away is a product of many forms of globalization. Its production, themes, distribution, and reception give evidence of the widespread influence of globalization. Additionally the influences of cultural, economic and environmental globalization are prominent in the film. Each aspect should be considered separately in order to create an accurate picture of the forces at work in this film. In particular, Spirited Away should be analyzed as a product of global hybridization while simultaneously making a commentary on global homogenization and becoming affiliated with a symbol of McDonaldization.
Spirited Away as a cultural text is a product of hybridization. Marwan Kraidy identifies hybridization as the theory of globalization which considers cultural mixing without ignoring or excluding the forces of domination (3). As previously noted, Spirited Away is the product of a genre which was influenced by European and American animation. The characters as well are known to have Western appearances and in the opening of the film the protagonist and her family are shown in Western clothing, using the Western innovation of an automobile for transport. However, these Western images are carefully blended with traditional Japanese imagery. This cultural blending can be seen most clearly when the protagonist and her family believe the spirit world to be a theme park. The potential clash of cultures seems less jarring in this context and so emulates the effects of hybridization. Miyazaki openly acknowledges the importance of hybridity in his work (Wright and Clode 3). Cultural hybridization can also be seen in the production of the English version of Spirited Away. A Japanese-made animation with Japanese themes is translated into English by an American company which hired popular American actors to provide the voices (Mitchell). The agents of hybridization at work in the creation of Spirited Away therefore can be likened to Jan Pieterse’s example of a Japanese Kabuki style dramatization of Shakespeare’s Henry IV (83). An American production company took the Japanese text of Spirited Away and used their own cultural icons (the voice actors) in order to make it a hybridized product with appeal to Americans and Japanese alike.
The cooperation of Studio Ghibli and Disney gives evidence of economic globalization. Two companies are able to cooperate across borders in order to create a top-grossing product for both countries. While some may associate a partnership with Disney as a sign of American global dominance and McDonaldization, a consideration of the vast differences between Ghibli’s products and those offered by Disney can show that this is not the case. McDonaldization is defined by Manfred Steger as the “imposition of uniform standards that eclipse human creativity and dehumanize social relations” (73). Disney and its theme parks have been accused of similar uniformity at the expense of culture. Ghibli on the other hand is applauded for its originality, focus upon cultural and ecological issues, and artistic integrity (Wright and Clode 1). Wright and Clode also point out that Miyazaki is “adamant about avoiding Disney techniques,” as is evident in his presentations of a complex and not always pleasant world and mature characters (5). While Disney and Ghibli enjoy an economic partnership, their cultural principles remain distinct.
The plot of Spirited Away focuses on both increased homogenization and the cultural clash which results. Samuel Huntington refers to the cultural clash resultant from perceived homogenization as manifesting itself in “Asianization” in Japan as well as a revival of religion (5). This is a reactionary clinging to cultural difference or diversity by rediscovering a traditional cultural identity. The protagonist in Miyazaki’s film is depicted as a young girl who has lost touch with her Japanese culture and is quick to complain. Her clothing and attitude reflect modernization and at the same time Westernization. Her quest in the spirit world reflects an attitude regarding homogenization as she desperately seeks to cling to her own identity (Wright and Clode 3). The spirits as well are shown to be suffering from the global issues of consumption placed before the environment. An old river spirit is shown to be suffering from pollution by Western waste such as bicycles and refrigerators, and the spirit of the Kohaku River is shown to be without a home when his river is filled in for housing (Wright and Clode 3). This too is a reminder that traditional Japanese principles of respecting nature are being forsaken in the move towards a homogenized modern world. It is therefore through a call to increased self-awareness and a return to traditions that Miyazaki educates the Japanese about their role in globalization.
7. Spirited Away in an “authentic” genre
The text Spirited Away is part of a genre which has been influenced by global forces. While Japanese animation is an original product, it is one which was influenced by European and American innovations in animation. As with most art, the genre is one which resulted from the kind of creative destruction which Tyler Cowen addresses when he highlights the impacts of Hollywood innovations such as combining sound with movies (83). The Japanese assimilated foreign innovations and used them to create a new product. This product was then translated and the voice actors were re-cast for broadcast to an English-speaking audience. Considering these factors, inasmuch as authenticity implies a clearly defined or pure origin, the genre cannot be considered a truly “authentic” cultural expression. The artist Yinka Shonibare celebrates the irony of a lack of true cultural authenticity as he notes that a text can become closely associated with a culture without being completely original to said culture (qtd. in Lacayo). In a similar way, Japanese animation is truly a Japanese cultural expression despite lacking complete exclusivity and originality. The art of Spirited Away is the original creation of Hayao Miyazaki, and it is this art which communicates Japanese culture in a uniquely beautiful way. This text therefore shows that diversity can exist despite hybridity.
The cultural text of Spirited Away is an example of the complex interworking of globalization throughout the world. As the product of a genre which originated in Japanese art, European comics, and American animation it is the creation of global hybridization. However, as a uniquely Japanese expression, Spirited Away defies homogenization and communicates the importance of cultural identity to a global audience. It is by analyzing the text in the context of globalization that viewers can understand its richness. This film is a captivating message of hope to those who are struggling to find their place in a globalized world.
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