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The Power of a Name

Hayao Miyazaki, Japan’s greatest animator, storyteller, and director, excels in his ability to showcase Japan’s complex cultural identity in many of his films. Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi) is the most lucrative film in Japanese cinematic history and is considered to be Miyazaki’s greatest achievement. The film was released in 2001, a time when Japan was beginning to rebuild its lost identity following the economic crisis of the late 90s. The subsequent change of the Japanese labor market became the catalyst for youth marginalization, as traditional cultural practices were abandoned. On the surface, Spirited Away appears to be a simple, animated story geared toward children- yet a closer look at the film reveals Miyazaki’s true purpose: creating a discourse of Japanese cultural identity that is caught between traditionalism and modernization. As most critics tend to focus on the argument that Spirited Away attempts to resolve cultural liminality in Japan, between these two conflicting systems, I emphasize that the film, more importantly, exposes how Japan’s modernized culture caused younger generations to become disregarded. The primary purpose of this research project is twofold: to discuss how Miyazaki draws attention to the issues of youth identity, and to present how he effectively weaponizes nostalgia to induce a sense of discomfort among his audience that replicates the experience of Japanese marginalized adolescents. Acknowledging that Chihiro, the protagonist of the film, is the representative of Japanese marginalized youth, I build the case that her overt resistance to capitalism reflects the shared experience among young people in Japan at the turn of the century. Using the real-world studies of various scholars, I was able to successfully support my theorized relationship between Chihiro and Japanese youth, which essentially exists to instill hope in those who resonate with her character.

In Susan J. Napier’s analysis of the film (2006), she examines the ways in which Miyazaki creates a portrait of contemporary Japan that is searching for cultural recovery in a corrupt postindustrial society. Napier attributes the cultural identity loss to three major tropes- liminality, excess consumption, and the figure of the shōjo (young girl). As my research question focuses specifically on postindustrial Japan’s marginalizing effect on its youth, I examined Napier’s proposed argument on the implicit meanings behind Chihiro’s trajectory under the control of capitalism, as well as the very reason for Chihiro’s disposition in the film. Chihiro’s immersion into a defamiliarized spirit realm evokes an environment of uncertainty and changing identities. Her liminal condition in this changing environment reflects Japan’s uneasy drift away from traditional truths and values. Napier interprets the role of Chihiro, the shōjo, as a model for today’s generation of Japanese youth being mediated between liminal worlds. Through close analysis of Chihiro’s advancement from near dissolution to personal empowerment, Napier concludes the potential for cultural recovery is possible. Although Napier’s analysis provides sufficient evidence on how Chihiro’s individual character overcomes an identity crisis, it lacked the necessary elaboration on how a modernizing world has led to a group of marginalized Japanese youth.

Vinai Norasakkunkit, Yukiko Uchida, and Tuukka Toivonen (2012) provide elaboration on the social-structural causes of youth marginalization in postindustrial Japan through studies on shifting values and motivational patterns at the individual level. They explain how the collapse of Japan’s economic bubble in the 1990s led to a changing labor system, placing pressure on youth. Expected to maintain the traditional practices of a hierarchical seniority system in one that now calls for meritocracy and individuality, Japanese youth has thus struggled to adapt. Norasakkunkit et al. contend that Japanese youth are caught between the postindustrial pressure to rebuild the economy and the older generations’ stiff resistance to those pressures. Adapting the experimental paradigm used by Heine et al. (2001), Norasakkunkit and Uchida (2011) conducted a study on individual persistence after either success or failure feedback in the effort to test if the incentive to maintain the motivational style of self-improvement has diminished over time. The results supported their hypothesis, as they found the discrepancy in persistence levels show that the increasing population of marginalized Japanese Youth is demotivated to orient itself to interdependent norms. Therefore, Norasakkunkit et. al suggest that the existence of marginalized youth in Japan is a result of the denial of traditionally dominant cultural values, indicating that they also have a marginalized identity. This study provides a thorough analysis on how the psychology of globalization and the psychology of marginalization can go hand‐in‐hand, leading to a rift between cultural practices, however, it fails to encompass the direct effects of capitalism specifically.

Alistair Swale (2015) examined how Spirited Away’s distinctive treatment of nostalgia and identity evokes a sense of defamiliarization in its viewers, which I argue is used to replicate the defamiliarized nature of Japanese marginalized youth. Pulling from Napier’s work, Swale discusses the global phenomenon of “nostalgia without memory,” which drives Miyazaki to employ both the fantastic and the liminal to develop a nostalgic engagement with the past. Engaging with the discussion of the “uncanny” and “fushigi,” Swale argues that the nostalgia Miyazaki evokes, particularly in the Japanese context, is problematic due to being caught between modernization and traditionalism. Furthermore, he provides relevant details as to how Chihiro resolves her identity, which can be adapted to the audience of marginalized Japanese youth in their personal quest to resolve their individual identities.

This paper examines the representation of youth identity in the changing world of postindustrial Japan in the film Spirited Away. Centered around a young girl’s loss of identity in a fantastical realm; a realm that replicates the capitalistic practices of a modernizing Japanese society, Spirited Away deals with the issue of marginalized Japanese youth. Drawing on the work of Japanese animation scholar, Susan J. Napier, I theorize that Miyazaki is not only concerned with reimagining the cultural identity of Japan in the wake of capitalism, but also with exposing the gap between generations that westernization has caused. Through discourse analysis, this paper attempts to examine the specific cultural experience of liminality in Japanese youth. Bridging the conceptual ideas of Napier to the authentic studies executed by Vinai Norasakkunkit, Yukiko Uchida, and Tuukka Toivonen, I contend that Spirited Away presents a realistic delineation of the impacts the postindustrial cultural drift had on young people in Japan. Pulling from Alistair Swale’s examination of Miyazaki’s overt and unusual use of nostalgia, I further argue that Miyazaki purposefully creates a sense of defamiliarization in the viewers of this film, in an attempt to duplicate the liminal and defamiliarized state of Japanese youth.

At the very onset of Spirited Away, Miyazaki presents an unsettling portrait of failed modernity as evidenced by the abandoned theme park Chihiro and her parents explore. As her father explains that theme parks were common prior to the economic crisis of the 90s, the film immediately establishes its underlying interest in exposing the negative impacts of capitalism. Chihiro must pass through the theme park to reach the spirit realm, hinting at Japan being caught between two worlds; one aiming for modernization and one stuck in traditionalism. When Chihiro is crossing between these worlds her body literally beings to vanish in front of her- a scene that Susan J. Napier argues is metaphorical for the limbo state of postindustrial Japan, as the changing labor system caused traditional cultural practices to uneasily drift away (Napier 2006). These traditional cultural practices can be defined as social harmony, hard work, and maintaining a rigid hierarchical seniority system. Vinai Norasakkunkit, Yukiko Uchida, and Tuukka Toivonen explain how those entering the workforce are expected to maintain the traditional practices of a hierarchical seniority system in one that now calls for meritocracy and individuality, resulting in a difficult situation for youth to adapt to. This misalignment of cultural values created a sense of deviance in younger generations. As the rift increased, so did the social spaces where potential new entrants into the labor market (i.e., the youth) became marginalized (Norasakkunkit et al. 2012).

To understand how Spirited Away is representative of this expanded pool of Japanese marginalized youth, it is critical to discuss the very nature and purpose of Chihiro’s character. Chihiro is often categorized as a figure of the shōjo, which Napier explains as a phrase that describes a young girl who is attached to a “betwixt and between culture” (Napier 2006). She interprets the role of Chihiro, the shōjo, as a model for today’s generation of Japanese youth being mediated between liminal worlds. In an interview following the film’s premiere, Miyazaki explains that “it was necessary to have a heroine who was an ordinary girl... a girl you can encounter anywhere in Japan” (Miyazaki). Chihiro’s ordinary status allows Miyazaki to use her as a stand-in for the mass of deviant Japanese youth that has been marginalized by the resistance to conform to the traditional cultural practices. In turn, marginalization engendered an uprising of identity crises, which Miyazaki reflects in the defamiliarized spirit realm’s “liminal world of uncertainty… where old truths and patterns no longer seem to hold” (Napier 2006). Once immersed in the spirit realm, Chihiro’s identity is physically taken from her when the ruling witch, Yubaba, forces her to relinquish her name, suggesting that she must subordinate herself to the group, a value connected with traditional Japanese social structures (Napier 2006). The subordination advances as she is forced to join the oppressed working class of the spirit realm, a class that shares the overwhelming obsession of wealth. Here, Miyazaki condemns the industrial labor system as it blends individual employees into an indistinguishable body. Chihiro, however, defies this labor system by displaying her lack of interest in wealth. Her resistance to conform to the behavior of those around her makes her the epitome of marginalized Japanese youth, as she reflects “the rebels’ lack of conformity with cultural standards” which pushes her “to the fringes of society” (Norasakkunkit et al. 2012).

It is important to understand that Chihiro’s marginalized status was a very deliberate choice on behalf of Miyazaki. As director and animator of the film, Miyazaki not only wanted to expose how marginalization affected Chihiro, he wanted to make viewers of the film understand how it feels to be an outsider. Alistair Swale accredits this technique to Miyazaki’s distinctive treatment of nostalgia, explaining how the film employs both the fantastic and the liminal to develop an engagement with the past (Swale 2015). Swale explains that Miyazaki’s ability to produce “nostalgia without memory,” triggers a sense of discomfort in viewers that can be defined as defamiliarization. As Napier suggests Chihiro’s marginal condition is caused by “a defamiliarized realm” (Napier 2006), I contend Miyazaki’s unusual use of nostalgia is intentionally attempting to duplicate the defamiliarized state of marginalized youth in those watching Spirited Away.

As outlined above, Miyazaki’s Spirited Away masterfully transcends reality while simultaneously being a part of it. The fantastical realm, occupied by witches, ghosts, and spirits, serves to represent modernizing Japan, occupied by capitalistic practices. Miyazaki’s animation accurately captures the limbo state of postindustrial Japan, and how that limbo state affects Chihiro, the protagonist of the film. Chihiro functions as a stand-in for Japanese youth in the 1990s, experiencing the push and pull of two systems: one governed by modernization and the other by traditionalism. I propose the theory that Chihiro’s marginalization in the spirit realm directly correlates to the marginalization of Japanese youth, as they both subsist identity loss from the resistance to conform to capitalism. This theory is further supported by Miyazaki’s decision to replicate the defamiliarized state of marginalized youth in those who watch the film. Although my research constructs the comparability between Chihiro and Japanese youth, in regard to their disoriented identities, supplemental elaboration on Miyazaki’s proposition to resolve youth identity would be significant. To delve further into the final scenes of the film, explicitly the scenes that show how Chihiro is able to escape the spirit realm may provide service to the mass of Japanese youth that resonates with Chihiro. Nevertheless, the relevance of my study focuses on how Spirited Away portrays the presence of marginalized youth in Japan. To even acknowledge the presence of a marginalized youth is a definite step in the right direction, as marginalization is defined as a phenomenon that pushes individuals to the outside, creating a generation of individuals that have been unnoticed and ignored. I believe Miyazaki is reaching out to this generation through his powerful tactics of animation, which not only highlights the very real issues branding Japan, but instills an even more powerful sentiment of hope for the Chihiro’s of the world.


Miyazaki, H., Suzuki, T., Wise, K., Ernst, D. W., Lasseter, J., Hewitt, C. D., Hewitt, D. H., ...

Walt Disney Home Entertainment (Firm),. (2003). Spirited Away.

Napier, S.J. (2006). Matter Out of Place: Carnival, Containment, and Cultural Recovery in

Miyazaki's Spirited Away. The Journal of Japanese Studies 32(2), 287-310.

Norasakkunkit, V., Uchida, Y., & Toivonen, T. (2012). Caught Between Culture, Society, and

Globalization: Youth Marginalization in Post‐Industrial Japan. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 6(5),361–378.

Swale, A. (2015). Miyazaki Hayao and the Aesthetics of Imagination: Nostalgia and Memory in

Spirited Away. Asian Studies Review, 39(3), 413–429.


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