20 references spotted by a non-otaku
Spirited Away is a poignant masterpiece. Hayao Miyazaki excels in endowing this animated feature with a sense of calmness that numbs one’s sorrows and worries. Every frame oozes charm and purpose, hand-drawn with meticulous detail. One that modern animation techniques fail to replicate. Let alone best.
If orthodox means of discerning plot arcs were to be used to make sense of Spirited Away, one would perform a disservice to the art that Studio Ghibli bestows upon its viewers. For there are no truly good or evil characters, no ulterior motives, no appalling twists. This tale is one of development, of outgrowing one’s slippers and donning new shoes to face the unknown, just a little better than before. Heck, it didn’t even have a script.
Despite its whimsical beings, the narrative is grounded in values that are a staple of Japanese culture even today. Greed, compassion, bravery in the face of adversity, these are but a few of the themes that are explored at length. Its conclusions are yours to derive.
Greek myth is fascinating, but far from forgiving.
Which is why references to a bastion of myth that prefers disembodied talking heads to ordinary ones stood out to me in a Ghibli film. Not that Spirited Away doesn’t have disembodied heads of course.
Listed below are some of the references I spotted that hark back to the Greek pantheon of gods and their indulgence in human matters. Seeing allegories of myths come to life in a film that deals with a vastly different culture altogether is a riveting experience. Peruse through the list quickly or dive in to learn a bit more about the myths themselves. The choice is yours to make.
[SPOILER ALERT ]
Chihiro lies on the car seat with a bouquet of flowers in the first scene — Greek funeral
A somber start to an otherwise positive film, the first still of Spirited Away is one of a bouquet of flowers. The parallels to death are clear; some have even debated upon the possibility of the film taking place after Chihiro’s demise. It was given to her by her friends as a parting gift. No reason for it not to be an adornment of one making her way to the afterlife. The allegories of the rivers of the Underworld across the film merely add to said suspicion.
The dried-up river between the real world and the mystical one — The River Styx
As Chihiro and her parents stumble upon desolate buildings and red arches that are tell-tale signs of transition in Japanese culture, they encounter a river that seems to have dried up. As our protagonist makes her way across the glistening stones, it brings to mind the five rivers of the Greek Underworld. For this is but one of the water bodies that Chihiro crosses on her personal odyssey.
The bathhouse run by the witch Yubaba — Circe
A witch who turns visitors to pigs? There’s no mistaking the similarities between Yubaba and Circe, the unofficial queen of the Greek Bermuda Triangle, the Sea of Monsters. Both rule impressive islands and rely on stealing identities to cement their position among the populace. Both rely on subverting the noble Greek tradition of hospitality to lure their unsuspecting guests with food. Nevertheless, Yubaba’s greed and the reasoning behind the eventual seasoning of her victims make for an intriguing tale.
The importance of one’s identity — The Odyssey
Much like Odysseus’ tussle against the witch Circe, Chihiro also gives away her identity in order to overcome impossible odds. She turns into docile Sen, a humble servant just as Odysseus consented to stay with Circe for a year as her consort. Their memories, Odysseus of his wife Penelope and Chihiro of her parents, serve as motivation to unshackle themselves from their predicaments.
Greed turns Chihiro’s parents to pigs — Circe
Just as Circe ensnares poor sailors who have the misfortune of ending up on her island with the promise of food, the abandoned bathhouse reels in Chihiro’s parents with delicacies that give off an aroma so tantalizing it can be seen on-screen. Their greed roots them to the spot, consumed by thoughts of consumption. Chihiro returns from a bit of exploration to find her parents turned into pigs.
Haku gives Chihiro a red seed to anchor her to the Spirit Realm — Persephone and Hades
The tale of how Hades wins Persephone is one of trickery and deceit. One that even the woman’s father Zeus was in on. Hades ensures that Persephone, the love of his life, is to stay in the Underworld by deceiving her into eating a pomegranate of the Undead Realm. For if one is to partake of what the Underworld offers, they are doomed to stay there forever. The red seed that Haku offers to Chihiro in the Spirit Realm needs no further explanation. But it is a gesture subverted from one of deception to one of trust. In true Studio Ghibli spirit.
The evident hierarchy between the Japanese Shinto gods who visit the bathhouse — Greek pantheon of gods
The pantheon of Greek gods is one that places some equals above others. By virtue of a twisted family tree that looks more like inter-connected brambles, some gods have a bigger role to play in the machinations of the universe than others. Some merely traverse the realms to seek pleasure and contentment; they have no clear role or purpose. Japanese Shintoism also believes in a vast multitude of gods. 8 million of them in fact. A number considered analogous to infinity.
Hospitality, a tenet practiced by all at the bathhouse — Xenia
While the air surrounding the witch Zubaba’s bathhouse is initially oppressive, the gentle nature of its employees shines through the muck and grime of its customers. Some look down on Chihiro because she is a human. Others take advantage of her duties to mistreat her. Despite being hard on Chihiro at first, the workers under Zubaba’s command eventually help her in her time of need and even celebrate her triumphs.
But Zubaba subverts this notion of Xenia, the Greek term for hospitality, as she lures mortals with food that turns them into pigs.
Eight-handed Kamaji works tirelessly at the old boiler room — Hundred-handed Ones
The boiler room under the sheer opulence of Zubaba’s bathhouse is a rather contrasting sight. Its unembellished wooden frames and cupboards are a realm apart from the sights of red and gold above. A not-so-subtle nod towards the Greek Underworld. Hades’ highways are constantly bombarded by the dead. Ensuring its smooth functioning is paramount to the safety of the surface-dwellers, those among the living.
In the Greek gods’ moment of despair in their war against the Titans, they free the Hundred-handed ones from their prisons beneath the Underworld. And their terrible captor. These mythic beings fashion weapons of unfathomable destruction for their saviours, tools instrumental in the Titan War. Beings akin to humble Kamaji, an eight-armed man under the iron grip of Yubaba. He tirelessly sees to it that the water that circulates across the bathhouse is kept at just the right temperature. A cog in the machine.
Kamaji presents Chihiro with two choices — Janus
Haku instructs Chihiro to work under Kamaji, for it is the only way of evading Zubaba’s wrath. She darts across a rickety staircase and lands up at the old boiler room. Tiny soot-like creatures, known as sootballs, work under Kamaji by lifting pieces of coal several times larger than themselves and tossing them into the furnace. Chihiro helps one that is crushed under the coal’s weight, leading to a decisive moment. Akin to the Greek god of gateways presenting choices to the Greek hero, two doors open before Chihiro. She can either finish what she started. Or run away.
Chihiro performs incredible tasks to save her parents — Labours of Hercules
Even one merely acquainted with Greek lore must know of the trials of Hercules. The famed hero of legend, Hercules performs 12 impossible feats beyond mortal comprehension to atone for killing his entire family while under the effects of a curse (thank you, Hera). While Chihiro is no demigod, she faces her own challenges and tribulations. Be it toiling away at the boiler room, ferrying coal across to the furnace or dousing the Stink Spirit with a gushing torrent of hot water, she defies her circumstances to even the odds. To become more than she ever thought she could be.
Chihiro cleans the bathtub of muck, then cleanses the Stink Spirit — Hercules cleaning the Augean Stables
Speaking of Herculean ordeals, one task that bears an uncanny semblance to one of Hercules’ labours is the challenge of bathing an unwelcome guest. The Stink Spirit reeks of pestilence and is effectively a living mass of muck and grime. Its sight was reason enough for the bathhouse inhabitants to reconsider their social distancing principles. As expected, they send Chihiro to perform this repulsive deed. She gets to it with gusto, with not a word of complaint. With some help, she purifies the River Spirit, setting it free from the taint of humanity. The entire bathhouse joins in on the celebrations, despite their hostility mere moments ago.
The River Spirit offers Chihiro a herbal cake with immense healing properties — Hermes and Odysseus
In return for cleansing the human junk that had seeped into its essence, the River Spirit offers Chihiro a herbal cake as a reward. Known to have incredible magical properties, she saves it, hoping she can use it to save her parents. In the Odyssey, Circe’s magic has no effect on Odysseus. For he too has a herb, one offered to him by Hermes, the Greek god of travellers and trade.
Dualism embodied by most of the prominent characters — Greek and Roman pantheon of gods
A theme that permeates through Studio Ghibli’s delicate yet intricate canvas is dualism. Be it Chihiro’s transformation into Sen in servitude, or Haku’s dragon form, every character seems to have a hidden side, the second face of a coin. This eerily aligns with how Romans were inspired by Greek tradition. Roman gods are often considered by historians to depict the change in how Romans viewed the importance of Greek customs and values. Some had their roles reprised, while others remained unchanged.
Swamp Bottom, the Sixth Station — Five Rivers of the Underworld
Five rivers of the Greek Underworld. Five stations before Chihiro and No Face reach Zeniba’s abode. A coincidence or something more?
Mere spectres of beings that were once mortal accompany them in the train that takes them across the stations. Most are clothed in simple clothing, making Chihiro and her parents look like lavish tourists in their own nation.
The decaying clock that greets them as they alight at the sixth station suggests that time holds no sway here.
Chihiro’s quest to save Haku and not the other way around — Psyche and Eros
Few plots are as terrible as those fuelled by a kidnapped woman. Mario may be an exception. Regardless, Hayao Miyazaki works his magic as he subverts this trope on its head. It is Chihiro who heals Haku of his curse. She then journeys to Zeniba’s lair to return the seal that Haku had stolen. It’s refreshing to see a tale that shatters stereotypes, making for some compelling storytelling.
Haku’s dragon form sheds its scales as Chihiro utters his real name — Icarus
The classic tale of Icarus is one of gratification and sorrow. Soaring towards the Sun before plummeting to the depths as the wax in his makeshift wings give way, he is perhaps among the more popular of those who pride consumed. As Haku soars through the skies with Chihiro in tow, she figures out his real name, freeing him from Zubaba’s bondage. This is portrayed by the dragon shedding its scales as it weaves across the clouds. A breathtaking visual.
Zeniba’s thread of remembrance helps Chihiro find her parents — Ariadne’s String
As Theseus descends into the mystic maze known as the Labyrinth, he has with him a means of escape: Ariadne’s string. While some debate upon the nature of the string itself, none can deny the role it plays in his survival. It ties him to the realm outside the cold embrace of the bewildering puzzle. Zeniba gifts Chihiro a hairband, woven from the thread spun by her friends. This proves instrumental in binding her to the Spirit Realm and helps her pick her parents amidst the swine.
Zeniba plays the role of a mentor figure — Mentor and Telemachus in the Odyssey
The word mentor has a rather intriguing origin. Mentor (yes, that’s his name) serves as a trusted counsellor of Telemachus, Odysseus’ son. While Odysseus dukes it out with the Trojans, Mentor gives his son advice and wisdom that he might normally not have been ready to receive had he known that Mentor is Athena in disguise. By the same token, Zeniba mentors Chihiro and her band of odd companions. The witch reveals that it was Chihiro’s love for Haku that breaks the curse, freeing him from its adverse effects. She also agrees to take care of No Face, giving him a home when every living being in Zubaba’s bathhouse fears him.
Haku telling Chihiro not to look back as she ran — Orpheus and Eurydice
A man shattered by despair, the famed singer Orpheus undertakes a journey into the Underworld. He parleys with the god of the Dead and strikes a deal; he could revive Eurydice if he doesn’t look back as he escorts his beloved through the abyss back home. Eager to mend strands that were snipped by the Fates, Orpheus readily agrees. He speaks to her, of his love, of his endeavour. But it is met with silence. Orpheus senses her presence, but could not turn back. Just as he sees the light from the Mortal Realm above, he turns for a moment. To see his beloved return to the icy depths. Crushing what little remained of his sanity.
Soon, all that remains is a disembodied head that sings of woe and sorrow.
Those who had already witnessed Orpheus’ lament were forced into a position of hope when Chihiro was instructed by Haku to head back to the Mortal Realm without turning back. Worried that expectations may lead to disappointment, just as before.
Fortunately, Chihiro doesn’t make the same mistake.
By no means am I making the claim that a great deal of inspiration was drawn from Greek lore to craft this love-letter to childhood and serenity. But some traits of similarity are harder to ignore than others. For every fairy tale has in it a grain of truth. Questions that beg to be answered.
Uncovering Greek Tributes in Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away was originally published in ILLUMINATION on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
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