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Fantasy and Studio Ghibli – Part Two: The Search for Identity

In the first part of this series, I took a look at the earlier Ghibli films – Nausicaä, Princess Mononoke and Laputa – and examined the ways in which they explored the eternal struggle between nature and mankind. In this second part, I’m moving on to films which utilise symbols and motifs typical of the fantasy genre and hope to show how Miyazaki employs them to such great effect.

“We each have to find our own inspiration.”: Kiki’s Delivery Service and Spirited Away

Kiki by kyuriThese films are classic coming-of-age tales. When Kiki turns thirteen, her parents expect her to leave home in order to make her own way as a witch. Unlike the younger Chihiro, her subsequent adventures are deliberately courted. 10-year-old Chihiro is given less of a choice. Her own coming-of-age is thrust upon her by circumstances ostensibly beyond her control, though one could argue that her parents – by irresponsibly turning into pigs – also initiated her transformation.

A number of similarities exist between these two films. Both girls find themselves in a new adult environment where they seek and attain employment: Kiki at the bakery, Chihiro in the bathhouse. During this employment, they experience a loss or uncertainty of self – a crisis that crops up in a good deal of genre fiction. Chihiro’s battle for identity begins when her birth name is taken by the bathhouse owner, Yubaba, and used as a means to control her. She is given a new name, Sen, more suited to a lowly and faceless employee.

Spirited Away Redesign by ChaosTheory999Spirited Away is all about identity. In fighting to regain her name and her purpose, Chihiro helps Haku to remember his own name and recover the person he was before Yubaba corrupted him. Then there’s No-Face: a prime example of someone struggling to cope with the loneliness of being without an identity. No-Face’s own quest coincides with Chihiro’s and his metamorphosis into a monster is suggestive of the danger of letting others dictate who you are.

For a creature desperate to attain a sense of self, entering the bathhouse is a bad idea because it’s full of people who have lost their individuality – note the hordes of same-faced frogs and women – and are seeking to turn No-Face into the ‘rich man’: a part that will validate their own roles in the bathhouse, these roles being all they have. No-Face is redeemed by Chihiro, whose innocence and strength of character help him to purge himself – in graphic fashion – of the false identity thrust upon him, and this is reflected in his anxious pursuit of her.

Kiki on a strawberry day by cuongdaoKiki’s loss of self is concurrent with her loss of magic. She loses the ability to fly, her only real skill as a witch, alongside the ability to converse with her cat, Jiji. It is interesting to note that in the Japanese version of the film, Kiki never regains this latter ability, which could well symbolise the fact that she’s left her childhood – and the need to be constantly reassured – behind.

Their new environments test the girls both emotionally and intellectually. They must earn their way by learning new skills and those skills become the means by which they prove themselves. They have to relate to adults and to adjust to life outside the safety of their parents’ roofs. A memorable scene from Spirited Away sees Chihiro huddled in the women’s sleeping quarters, crying as she struggles to make this very adjustment. Like Chihiro, Kiki is expected to look after herself, and finds the experience just as isolating in her poky room above the bakery.

Kohaku by YaphleenAnd what’s a coming-of-age story without some romantic interest? The boys who enter Chihiro’s and Kiki’s lives are quite different, but in the end they both require essential assistance from the girls, who must become mature enough to offer it. Kiki dislikes Tombo – the geeky aviator – at first, possibly because he has such confidence in his own abilities – a confidence she lacks. However, they are united by their skill and love of flying, and it’s this skill that Kiki must regain and hone in order to save Tombo’s life.

Chihiro’s feelings for Haku run deep and she is extremely hurt when he treats her so coldly in front of the other employees. I readily admit that I have a BIG crush on Haku – how could you not love someone with mysterious green eyes who can do magic and turn into a dragon? And so I was utterly charmed by Chihiro’s devotion to him and her determination to free him from Yubaba’s power.

Both boys provide important motivations for Kiki and Chihiro and drive them to achieve/regain their sense of self and the confidence that knowledge brings. Her struggle to remember the clue to Haku’s identity prepares Chihiro for her ultimate test: to differentiate her transformed parents from the other pigs, in order to restore their humanity.

Kiki's Delivery Service by SelladorraSo what makes these coming-of-age films stand out from their peers? I’d say that Miyazaki’s immense imagination has a lot to do with it. Although Spirited Away has a far more fantastical setting, Kiki’s Delivery Service is not without important fantasy elements. Kiki is a witch, displaying several traditional characteristics – she rides a broomstick, has a cat familiar and dresses in black. Take the witch profession out and could Miyazaki have told this story as successfully? I’m not sure.

Magic is a powerful metaphor for the life-energy we all possess. As we grow, we find new ways to tap into it, new purposes towards which we may put it. A witch or wizard’s magic is inherent, in the same way that a talent for writing, or painting, or carpentry, or leadership is inherent. But magic is all of these things. It has the power of universal identification. What better profession to give Kiki than one that’s able to metaphorically encompass every other?

Magic is also closely associated with emotion and internal harmony. I’ve read so many books where the protagonist grows angry or scared and their magic bursts out as an uncontrollable manifestation of those emotions. When Kiki loses her magic, it’s a poignant comment on her state of mind, as she struggles to make the transition from child to young adult. Like us, she must find new channels and new purposes to which to put her energy.

Bath House by Unknown ArtistThe fantasy in Spirited Away has more to do with the importance of setting. The bathhouse for gods and spirits – as well as being entertaining – is also the perfect theatre for a story about the theft or loss of identity. The spirit customers are all highly individual, both in look and personality, and the power this grants them is the ability to come and go as they please. No so the employees of the bathhouse, who can’t leave even if they want to. Kamaji’s train tickets are therefore highly sort-after, and the fact that he gives them to Chihiro is symbolic of someone who has accepted that their role has become their identity.

The bathhouse also has the element of being removed from reality. This is a clever device that turns the bathhouse into a physical manifestation of the transitional phase between childhood and adulthood. That phase often feels removed from reality because – while you inhabit it – you are neither child nor adult. Much like fantasy, it’s a plane full of magnificent possibilities. Chihiro discovers love, new friends, experience, purpose and strength to face her life ahead, symbolised in the film by the move to her new home.

Since I promised to mention Ponyo and My Neighbour Totoro, I’ll finish by taking a very quick look at the fantasy elements that work in their favour.

“The balance of nature is restored. Life begins again.”: My Neighbour Totoro and Ponyo

Totoro - Halcyon Days by IllyciaI’ve put these films side by side because they feature younger protagonists and share doubly in the innocence and charm that characterises a Miyazaki animation. Although a full twenty years separate them, they are both comments on the environment, the ways in which humans relate to the forces of nature, and the relationships between children.

Ponyo herself echoes the little mermaid in her desire to be human, and the same fate – of becoming sea foam – awaits her if the little boy Sosuke fails his test of devotion. In My Neighbour Totoro, Satsuki and Mei are sisters attempting to settle into a new home while their mother is in hospital. It’s a simple story of children learning to cope with the difficulties of illness and the experience of adjusting to new places and behaviours.

Both films feature spirits of nature. Totoro is an earth spirit, a keeper of the forest, and Ponyo’s mother is a goddess of the sea. From these spirits, both sets of children learn respect for the natural world and the importance of restoring the balance of nature should it be disturbed. Magic has the power to upset this balance as well as restore it and it is Ponyo herself who disrupts the balance by unleashing a dangerous flow of her father’s magical elixirs into the sea. Totoro’s magic too has a transformative power. It is the magic of the land, of living things, and it’s suggested that eating vegetables grown in this rich, Totoro-blessed soil will speed Satsuki and Mei’s mother’s recovery.

Ponyo by toerningThe familiar theme of identity rears once again in Ponyo, who seeks individuality from her many sisters. The catalyst is 5-year-old Sosuke with whom she seems to have fallen in love. Like Haku and Tombo, Sosuke has an essential part to play in helping his friend to find herself. And he must be willing to love Ponyo as the complex being she is: as both fish and girl. This was Kiki’s desire too. “I’ve decided not to leave this town”, she says at the end of the film. “Maybe I can stay and find some other nice people who will like me and accept me for who I am.”

It goes without saying that all four films are executed with subtlety and insight. Miyazaki’s adept use of fantasy and its many themes helps to convey to an audience his exceptional understanding of something that will always be mysterious and unknowable: the hearts and minds of children.

Title image by alicexz.

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Rating: 10.0/10 (7 votes cast)
Fantasy and Studio Ghibli – Part Two: The Search for Identity, 10.0 out of 10 based on 7 ratings
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One Comment

  1. Alec says:

    “I’d say that Miyazaki’s immense imagination has a lot to do with it. Although Spirited Away has a far more fantastical setting, Kiki’s Delivery Service is not without important fantasy elements. Kiki is a witch, displaying several traditional characteristics – she rides a broomstick, has a cat familiar and dresses in black. Take the witch profession out and could Miyazaki have told this story as successfully? I’m not sure.”

    Miyazaki didn’t invent the character of Kiki the witch, though. The film is based on the first book in a novel series by Eiko Kadono.

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