We all love Studio Ghibli for its magical world enhanced by the beautiful cinematic art and lovely characters. But what makes Ghibli’s animation widely recognized worldwide is how it manages to express the depth and beauty of Japanese culture in each film. Most of Ghibli’s legendary works are inspired by Japanese folklore and mythology, and the Spirited Away characters are no different.
So today let’s get back to the magical spiritual land in Spirited Away and discover some Japanese myths referenced in this masterpiece!
Yubaba–the villain in Spirited Away–is said to have been inspired by Yamauba or Onibaba, which is a yokai that usually appears in Japanese folklore.
Yamauba is a type of kijo (female demon) or a mountain witch who was originally a human but became corrupted and turned into a yokai (Japanese ghost or spirit). This creature often appears in the form of a kind old woman, living alone in a roadside hut. She always enthusiastically welcomes and helps passersby who cannot find a place to stay.
Late at night, when their guests are sound asleep, they turn into their true form – ugly, old, evil witches who try to catch and swallow their guests. It is said that Yamauba has a mouth on the top of her head, hidden under her hair. In a related story, her only weakness is a flower that contains her soul.
Stories of encounters with yamauba were circulated and spread by those lucky visitors who escaped and told the story to disobedient children before going to bed.
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Haku’s original name is Nigihayami Kohaku Nushi – the river God Kohaku. When the Kohaku River was filled, he wandered and became lost in the Spirit Realm or spirit world.
As Haku is a river spirit, he has the ability to transform into a silver-scaled dragon with a green mane. This is an image associated with the water deity in Japanese mythology as Haku is based on Mizuchi, a water god who guards large rivers and lakes. Mizuchi is originally a divine beast shaped like a snake or a dragon, so it is also known as a water dragon.
Mizuchi is mentioned in the Nihon Shoki (The Chronicles of Japan). It tells the old story that, during the reign of Emperor Nintoku in the 67th year (AD 379), a large dragon inhabited the confluence of the Takahashi River in Okayama Prefecture. This dragon often spit venom and killed many passersby.
It was later defeated by a man named Agatamori, who then drowned it in the river, and from there the legend of Mizuchi was born.
Oshira-sama, also known as the Radish Spirit, is a minor character in Spirited Away. In the anime, he has a few on-screen appearances with the most noticeable scene being when he helps hide Chihiro Ogino (the protagonist) from a suspicious bathhouse worker. After Chihiro exits the elevator, she exchanges bows with him as the doors close.
He has the appearance of a white radish, but there are many opinions that Oshira-sama is actually a silkworm. Because behind him there are small holes for breathing and under the red hat are mulberry leaves. Besides, Oshira-sama is the name of a deity representing the ancestor of weaving and the god of agriculture and god of horses in the Tohoku region.
He is also the deity of home that, when Oshira-sama is in a person’s home, cannot eat meat, and only women are allowed to touch it.
The folk story behind this god originated in a Chinese folktale which is tinged with sadness about a strange love between two species. Legend has it that there was a farmer who lived with his beautiful daughter and a horse – which was also the only valuable asset of the poor family. However, the daughter fell in love with the horse and secretly married it.
This was discovered by the father, who was so angry that he killed the horse and hung its body on the mulberry tree. Witnessing the scene, the heartbroken girl hugged the horse carcass and cried. After that, she and the horse flew up to the sky and turned into gods.
As for the father, after the daughter left, she returned to his dreams to instruct him on how to raise silkworms with mulberry leaves. From this legend, it is believed that the girl and the horse became the patron god of mulberry cultivation and silkworm rearing.
In a scene in Spirited Away, when Haku is in the form of a dragon, he is surrounded by a bunch of paper dolls after his raid on Zeniba’s residence. Although they appear to be fragile and harmless, they attack him violently and injure him.
These paper dolls are Shikigami – powerful summoned spirits in Japanese folktales – derived from Onmyoji (Masters of Yin Yang). They are free spirits summoned by Onmyoji to fight or carry out the controller’s orders with its power being connected to the owner’s spiritual power.
For a powerful Onmyoji, Shikigami can possess objects, animals, and humans. In many stories, they’re great for spying or stealing. However, if the mage’s ability is limited or they become careless or negligent with their summon, the Shikigami will escape control, gain their own consciousness, and may even attack the owner or kill him for revenge.
Learn anything new about the Spirited Away characters? Or did you gain a deeper appreciation for this iconic Studio Ghibli movie? Let us know in the comments!
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