Monthly Archives: April 2014

Analysis of Spirited Away

spirited_away_movie_posterSpirited Away is one of my personal favorites, but I wanted to hold off on writing about it until now. It was the first film from Studio Ghibli that I had seen; this was back in 2002, shortly after it was released in the United States. I was ten years old at the time, and to be honest, everything about this film terrified me and put me off of Studio Ghibli films for a good while. It wasn’t until I was thirteen that I decided to give it another watch, and I’m very glad I did; I’ve been enraptured by Studio Ghibli films ever since.


Spirited Away is a 2001 fantasy film directed by Hayao Miyazaki. It is, arguably, Studio Ghibli’s most well-known film, and it’s no surprise- it is notable for being the first anime film to win an Academy Award. The story is set in modern-day Japan, with a young girl named Chihiro and her parents in the process of moving to a new town. However, during the course of their drive, Chihiro’s father decides to take a detour and the family winds up in a strange world of spirits.

The resulting tale is very much like Alice in Wonderland, but with a Studio Ghibli twist.


Spirited Away is stuffed to the brim with all kinds of themes such as growing up, rebirth, present and past, identity, greed, love, and of course, the environment.

The most prevalent themes in the film, however, would probably be the themes of growing up and identity. Spirited Away focuses on the coming-of-age of the main character, Chihiro, and her transition from a young, whiny, selfish girl to a hardworking young woman. The film opens with Chihiro being upset over the move to a new town. She is portrayed as whiny and petulant; she only has complaints about the move, and when her parents take a detour and come across what appears to be an abandoned theme park, she clings to her mother and gives her parents a difficult time.

Many people have drawn comparisons between Spirited Away and Lewis Carroll’s classic tale, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and it’s really no surprise. Both girls are young and pre-pubescent, and they both end up in a strange world. In Ando Satoshi’s article Regaining Continuity with the Past: Spirited Away and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, he compares Alice and Chihiro, stating that they’re both at the point in their lives where they’re about to go through puberty and come into their maturity, and they’re both going through an identity crisis. He also makes the statement that girls’ transitional periods are recurring themes in Miyazaki films. Another film by Hayao Miyazaki that immediately comes to mind is Kiki’s Delivery Service- a film that follows the story of a thirteen year old witch-in-training named Kiki and her journey to come into her maturity, come to terms with who she is, and effectively come into her full powers as a witch.

However, Spirited Away takes the loss of identity a step further. Not only is Chihiro frustrated and unsure of herself at the beginning of the film (she is being uprooted from her old hometown and is moving to a new place; on top of that, Chihiro is on the cusp of adolescence), she literally loses her name when she enters the world of spirits.

The majority of Spirited Away takes place in a bathhouse for spirits that is run by a witch named Yubaba. Yubaba is corrupt and greedy, and she controls her employees by signing a contract with them; part of the contract is to sign away your name. In Chihiro’s case, when she signs a contract to work at the bathhouse, she becomes ‘Sen’. This is Chihiro’s symbolic “death”; her life as a whiny, petulant, sheltered girl is over, and she must now become this new person who is hardworking and strong (her symbolic “rebirth”). Her new identity is that of ‘Sen’, and she no longer shies away from responsibility and hard work, something that stays with her throughout the rest of the film.

The film also contains the themes of greed and corruption. In the beginning of the film, Chihiro’s family comes across what they assume is an abandoned theme park (when in reality, it’s the entrance to the world of the spirits). Chihiro’s parents are immediately drawn to the spirit food; they don’t give much thought to how they’ll be paying for the food (Chihiro’s dad makes the off-handed comment, “I have credit cards and cash”, meaning everything will be okay as long as he has money) and start gorging themselves on it. They transform into pigs, which highlights not only their gluttony, but also their greed.

Yubaba, who runs the bathhouse in the spirit world, is also greedy; she makes comments throughout the film about money and gold, and how much Sen’s transgressions are costing her. The bathhouse atmosphere itself is very corrupt, and this becomes obvious when a spirit called No-Face goes crazy (he feeds off of the greed that pervades the bathhouse. Sen makes the comment that “being in the bathhouse makes [No-Face] crazy”); he tempts the employees in the bathhouse with gold, and everyone in the bathhouse is eager to please him and be at his beck and call because of this wealth.

Spirited Away is laced with environmental themes, much like a few of Hayao Miyazaki’s other films. In the film, a grotesque, smelly spirit that is in need of replenishing visits the bathhouse. The inhabitants of the bathhouse eventually find out that this spirit is actually a powerful river spirit that was nearly overcome by the pollution and desecration of its river (in a scene from the film, the bathhouse spirits are busy removing the debris and waste that coats the river spirit. Among some of the waste removed is fishing wire, tires, household items that were thrown away, and even a bicycle).

The plight of Haku is also an example of the presence of the environmental themes in the film. It is eventually revealed that Haku is actually the spirit of the Kohaku River, a river that has long since been destroyed in the name of human settlement (Chihiro remarks that the Kohaku River is “all apartments now”). Because of this, Haku lost his home and his identity and, with no place to go, came to the bathhouse, where he became Yubaba’s apprentice. It wasn’t until Chihiro returned his name to him did Haku remember his true identity.


Spirited Away can be interpreted in many ways, and there are a large number of themes that are present in the film. This analysis has barely scratched the surface. However, the themes that are most obvious are growing up, identity, greed and corruption, and the environment. Like with Kiki’s Delivery ServiceSpirited Away resonates with audiences because the character of Chihiro is relatable; In a 2001 interview, Miyazaki stated that he aimed to create a film that spoke to girls Chihiro’s age). There are many messages that audiences can take away from the film, as it is rich in detail, storytelling, and depth.


Satoshi, A. (2008). Regaining Continuity with the Past: Spirited Away and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Bookbird: A Journal of International Children’s Literature 46(1), 23-29. The Johns Hopkins University Press. Retrieved April 25, 2014, from Project MUSE database.

Miyazaki, H. (Interviewee). (2002). Hayao Miyazaki [Interview Transcript]. Retrieved from Midnight Eye Web Site:

Miyazaki, H. (Director). (2001). Spirited Away [Motion Picture]. Japan: Studio Ghibli


Leave a comment

Filed under Film Analysis

Analysis of Ponyo


Ponyo is a 2008 film directed by Hayao Miyazaki. It tells the story of Brunhilde (Ponyo), a young fish girl living with her wizard father and numerous younger sisters under the sea. She is curious about the human world and, on an impromptu trip to the surface, meets a young boy named Sosuke, who she takes an instant liking to, and it becomes her desire to become a human girl and stay with Sosuke and his mother. The film is set in present-day Japan in a seaside town.


At first glance, Ponyo seems to be simply a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairytale The Little Mermaid, but while the basic plot is similar on the surface, Ponyo diverges from The Little Mermaid in terms of themes and the progression of the story.

While the tale of The Little Mermaid highlights the theme of self-sacrifice, and focuses on the trials the mermaid must endure in order to obtain a soul, Ponyo focuses on acceptance, devotion, harmony, happiness, and love.

In her article Through the Eyes of a Child: Aspects of Narrative in Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, Jane A. Lightburn states that while The Little Mermaid has Christian overtones (mermaids don’t have souls, but humans do; on top of that, human souls go to Heaven after they die; there is also the idea presented at the end of the tale that the mermaid can work to gain passage to Heaven through doing good deeds), Ponyo has no such overtones. Furthermore, while Miyazaki follows the basic narrative of The Little Mermaid, he also draws inspiration from Japanese folktales (in particular, the folktale of Urashima in which a sea princess and a human fisherman fall in love and live together under the ocean). Lightburn points out that this folktale contains the same motif of a mermaid and her human love.

Another interesting point that Lightburn brings up is the comparison between the land/sea and fantasy/reality. Ponyo and her ocean world represent the creative subconscious of the human mind, contrasted by Sosuke and his life on the land, which represents the outer, conscious human mind. This comparison ties in nicely with the theme of harmony and happiness (when these two worlds meet and balance each other, harmony and happiness is achieved).

While Ponyo may contain some of the more traditional elements of a fairytale (a trait not shared by many of Miyazaki’s other films), the film contains some themes and motifs that are prevalent in all of Miyazaki’s works. In his review of Ponyo, Funda Basak Baskan points out the presence of strong female characters, which are apparent in many of Hayao Miyazaki’s films: Ponyo, who is headstrong, adventurous, and stubborn, Lisa, who can be a bit eccentric at times but is powerful and daring, and Gran Mamare, the goddess of the ocean who serves as a maternal figure as well as a protector.

Ponyo, like other Studio Ghibli films, contains environmental overtones; the character of Fujimoto is concerned with keeping balance in the sea and views humans as destructive to that balance. Miyazaki also takes great care in showing the amount of trash that litters the ocean (a scene to note would be one of the early scenes in the film, in which Ponyo is nearly caught in a net and gets stuck inside a jar).

There is also the absence of a distinct “bad guy” character, a trait shared with many of Studio Ghibli’s other works. Baskan points out that Fujimoto, at first glance, might be considered a villain, but he is only a concerned and overprotective father who is also very concerned with keeping balance between humans and nature.


Ponyo is a deceptively simple tale of acceptance and love (in order for Ponyo to become a human permanently, Sosuke’s love for Ponyo must be true and unyielding), as well as balance (the balance of nature and man, as well as the balance of the subconscious mind with the conscious mind). Hayao Miyazaki’s penchant for storytelling shines through in Ponyo; it’s obvious that this story was intended for children and on the surface, it is simple enough for children to enjoy. However, there are many layers contained in Ponyo that makes for a deep and engaging tale if one takes a harder look at it.



Baskan, F. B. (2010). Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea (Gake No Ue no Ponyo) (review). Marvels & Tales 24(2), 363-366. Wayne State University Press. Retrieved April 12, 2014, from Project MUSE database., J. A. (2010). Through the Eyes of a Child: Aspects of Narrative in Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea. Foreign Languages & Literature35. Retrieved from, H. (Director). (2008). Ponyo [Motion Picture]. Japan: Studio Ghibli

Leave a comment

Filed under Film Analysis

Analysis of Howl’s Moving Castle

howl's moving castle posterSynopsis

Howl’s Moving Castle is a 2004 fantasy film by Studio Ghibli, adapted from the novel of the same name by Diana Wynne Jones.  The film, like the novel, is set in a world where magic is a common phenomenon and used by many magicians.  Howl’s Moving Castle revolves around Sophie, a young hat-maker who encounters the titular wizard, Howl.  Because of this encounter, Sophie gains the ire of the Witch of the Wastes and is cursed into a 90-year-old by the Witch.  Sophie then finds herself working for Howl as a cleaner in hopes of finding a way to undo this curse.


The central focus of the film is Sophie’s metamorphosis from a shy and unmotivated person to someone who is more confident and loving. However, the film also makes a point in developing its other characters, especially Howl. Kathryn Hansen’s analysis, “Physical Metamorphosis in  Howl’s Moving Castle” argues that the physical transformations the characters undergo in the film reflect the character development. Sophie’s transformation into an old lady is the best evidence for this.

Throughout the film, Sophie gradually changes from a hunched ld lady to a more dignified and younger self whenever she experiences moments of self-confidence and assurance because of her growing relationship with her new companions. In the end, she is able to break the curse by herself, signifying this newfound self and her love for Howl. Meanwhile, Howl is also changed by Sophie’s acts of love and becomes more selfless and courageous, as opposed to the vain wizard who was trying to run away from his responsibilities in the beginning of the film.

Another focus of the film is the war that is already happening when the film begins. In Devon Gordon’s interview with Miyazaki, “A Positive Pessimist”, Miyazaki expresses his disdain over U.S. involvement in the war in Iraq, further noting that his version of Howl’s Moving Castle is affected by this war.

In the film, the kingdom that Howl works for is currently in war with another country and is recruiting all the magicians it could find to bolster its forces. This is a contrast to America and its rallying of flags whenever the war with Iraq first broke out. Furthermore, the steampunk-inspired technology present in the film is there to emphasize the militaristic nature of the kingdom.

At the center of this conflict is Howl. Howl works against his former teacher, who practically has more power than the king, by sabotaging the kingdom’s forces in order to avoid this war. His efforts can be seen as a commentary of a world that doesn’t want this senseless war that could claim many innocent lives.


Howl’s Moving Castle is a film that emphasizes change. All the characters change for the better, ending the film in an optimistic note, especially regarding its anti-war subtext. The main antagonist’s decision to end the war after seeing her former pupil’s and Sophie’s efforts encourages change through pacifistic methods and reflects Miyazaki’s pacifistic stance towards war.



Physical Metamorphosis in Howl’s Moving Castle. (n.d.). Retrieved April 6, 2014, from

Gordon, D. (Interviewer) & Miyazaki, H. (Interviewee). (2005). A ‘Positive Pessimist’ [Interview Transcript]. Retrieved from The Daily Beast Web Site:

Miyazaki, H. (Director). (2004). Howl’s Moving Castle [Motion Picture]. Japan: Studio Ghibli

Leave a comment

Filed under Film Analysis