Last week I re-watched Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki, and as always I laughed, I marveled, and when the credits started rolling, I cried.
It’s a seemingly simple animated film about a ten-year-old girl whose parents were turned into pigs at a bathhouse for the spirits. It has a seemingly happy ending. (Spoiler: she saves her parents.) But despite its simplicity, or partly because of it, the film moves me and many, many others to the core.
As I grew up, I shut myself off to the possibility of animism. Trees couldn’t murmur or much less speak, witches’ powers stopped at the boundaries of fairytales, there was (tragically) no such thing as dragons.
But after the film, as I sat in the theater trying to understand what it had done to me, I realized I deeply wanted that childhood belief in animism to be real again. I wanted to feel that ancient conviction that the world is alive.
I was sure abandoning animism was the logical way to live, but Miyazaki’s film made me seriously wonder: was it really the better way to live?
Introducing The Magician
For those unfamiliar with his work, Hayao Miyazaki is considered a master of Japanese animation and his films have had enormous acclaim even among anime-shy U.S. critics.
In 2017, when The New York Time chief film critics rounded up The 25 Best Films of the 21st Century (So Far), Spirited Away leapt over thousands of other live action films released this century to rank at No. 2. (Surpassed only by my all-time favorite film, There Will Be Blood.)
Miyazaki’s films have become a touchstone of modern folktale, with many traditional elements of the genre.
Spirited Away, for example, revolves around a young girl named Chihiro and her parents become entangled in the world of the spirits who run a bath house at the back of an abandoned theme park. Her parents are transformed into pigs for eating the food of the spirits, and Chihiro must save them by evading witches, breaking spells, solving riddles, and helping the troubled spirits she meets along the way.
Similar to fireside folktales, Miyazaki’s enchanting stories form a shared cultural heritage for millions of people who experienced them around the glow of a screen: the modern campfire. I’ve found myself with peers in a hostel in Morocco, on a porch in New Orleans, on a train in Europe, and when the subject of conversation turned to animation, Miyazaki’s name would quickly crop up to virtually unanimous approval.
I’ve seen all Miyazaki’s major works, some of them several times over, but until last week I never realized the importance animism played in his oeuvre.* In Spirited Away, animism is at times quite literally on parade.
*You could write a very similar essay by using the animistic elements in Princess Mononoke, My Neighbor Totoro, Nausicaa and The Valley of The Wind, and perhaps other.
Animism isn’t a religion in itself but rather an ancient worldview that the natural world—plants, mountains, animals—possess or are possessed by spirits.
Animism is commonly found among tribal societies and among children.* That’s not to say it is naïve or childish. Rather what it suggests is that animism is intuitive.
Even in non-animistic societies, animism often remains strongly embedded in culture and popular belief in the form of things like ghost or the spirits of ancestors and the dearly departed.
Even a strict atheist may find themselves with the strong sense that an object that once belonged to a loved one still retains a part of his or her essence within it—a dusty guitar, a photograph, even a body or an urn of their ashes.
The sense that inanimate objects have the spirit or essence appears to be intuitive—and animism appears both in early childhood and early cultural development: both in tribal and early religions.
Folktales retain this sense of the inanimate, natural world as populated with or ruled by spirit-beings. Examples include the talking mirror in Sleeping Beauty, the moral animals of Aesop’s fables or Winnie the Pooh, The Lady of the Lake from the legend of King Arthur, or J. R. R. Tolkin’s sentient trees (Ents).
As a modern folktale, Miyazaki’s Spirited Away is no exception. But Miyazaki isn’t telling a European folktale. He draws heavily on the animistic tradition of his native Japan: Shintoism.
*Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget’s research on child development found that children have an innate sense of animism. Animals, plants, are understood by young children as not only being alive but also conscious. Objects that move of their own accord such as the sun, the moon, the stars are considered living as well.
Shintoism is a Japanese folk religion that involves the worship of kami—spirits—of the natural world. And while heavily entwined with aspects of Buddhism and Confucianism, Shintoism is deeply bound to Japan’s land, people, and mythical history.
Much of the conflict in the movie stems from the careless impingement of humans on the sacred-natural realm of the world.
The trouble starts long before Chihiro’s Westernized parents eat the spirit’s food. It begins with the parent’s general disregard for sacred space.
Chihiro and her parents ignore several traditional Shinto markers indicating the ingress to the realm of the spirits. First, the family passes a torii, a gate that marks the entrance onto sacred ground. Then a jumble of small mossy shrines with fresh offerings within. And finally they pass a series of plump Shinto statuettes sporting eerie smiles before arriving at the abandoned theme park in which the spirits have set up shop.
The eating of the spirit’s food is the last and most severe affront—a disregard not only of Shinto but also of Japanese etiquette. The parents stuff their faces with the brash assurance that “cash and a credit cards” will trump the etiquette broken by eating the food of strangers.
For their transgressions against what ought to be sacred, they’re turned into pigs, and Chihiro’s troubles begin.
Other major conflicts of the film similarly stem from human disregard for what’s sacrosanct in Shintoism: the natural world.
The damning of the Kohaku river in order to build apartments leaves the river’s kami (Haku) homeless and leads him to indenture himself to the witch Yubaba. The horrendous pollution of Kawa no Kami, another river spirit, turns the “old man of the river” into a sludge monster.
The spirit-characters of the film (the kami of Shintoism) are figurative embodiments of natural world.
According to the philosopher of religion James W. Heisig, “The Gods of Shinto are the life of the natural world in all its rich variety. The sacred does not lie outside of life but is one with it.”
The power of Shintoism, and all animistic traditions, is that there is no “other world.” Only this one.
From the BBC page on Shintoism: “Shinto does not split the universe into a natural physical world and a supernatural transcendent world. It regards everything as part of a single unified creation. … even spirit beings exist in the same world as human beings.”
In other words: the spirits are right on top of us. They bunch up in our attics, relax in our bath houses, and take over abandoned amusement parks as readily as vegetation.
And this conviction of coexistence is where the real magic begins.
I walked into the parking lot behind that theater feeling as if the world around me were alive.
There were regions of the night in which powerful forces held dominion. Apartments in the middle-distance became outposts guarding the edge of unknown zones. The trees, older than any living creature for miles around, seemed in allegiance against death. And from over the shingles of nearby rooftops rose shapes that belonged neither to the sky nor to the earth on which a witch might roost and hunt.
The world, in short, became potently beautiful. Far more so than when I’d entered the theater a few hours before.
Of all the literal magic in the film, this was part of the figurative spell the film manages to cast on its viewers.
Miyazaki is a master of a particular kind of mental magic. Director Guillermo del Toro described the effect well in an interview with the New York Times as he recalled the first time he saw another of Miyazaki’s films:
“As a young adult I saw My Neighbor Totoro and it moved me to tears. I mean, I basically couldn’t stop crying at the beauty and the enormous feat of capturing the innocence of being a child.”
The return to childhood always seems to bring with it the rediscovery of what was once obvious: that the world instinctively feels alive.
By “alive” I don’t just mean “filled with living things” (i.e., the encyclopedia-busting variety of the plants and the whole table of animal elements). I mean that even buildings, streets, night shadows, weather formations—even the products of stories and imagination—felt real and live.
This feeling is something in direct contrast to the atheistic “Valley of Death:” the conviction that the world is nothing but jiggling atoms; that all living things are real just moving mater taking part in a danse macabre to the music of physical laws.
I believe in this Valley of Death. This is the metaphysics on which I have almost always place my bet. (Though I never forget it is always just a bet.)
But while I think this mechanistic vision of the universe is the one we have the most convincing evidence for, it doesn’t fill me with glee. It doesn’t make me smile like Miyazaki’s world can make me smile. And when it comes to caring about the world, it doesn’t inspire much of anything except apathy and detachment. In fact, for a long time I believe it was one of the factors contributing to my periodic bouts of depression.
By contrast, animism animates the world.
Under the influence of Miyazaki’s animistic films, my cynicism evaporates. My depression too. The world is transformed into one of constant wonder. My imagination has full creative license. My emotions unfurl. I might be alone, but I’m not lonely: the world is filled with companions. Life surrounds me: it’s in the clouds, it’s in the water, it’s feasting in the shrine, it’s smiling under my bed. Even walking through a parking lot becomes a joy.
And perhaps most importantly for Miyazaki: animism connects us with the natural world.
It’s no secret that a strong vein of environmentalism runs through Miyazaki’s films.
Spirited Away doesn’t just use animism as a feature of the plot, it uses animism to convince us of the value of nature.
Recall that for Shintoism there is no difference between the natural and the spirit world. In the film, the abandonment of belief in the spirit world is linked to an abandonment in the sacredness of the natural world.
Shintoism’s ecological value is that it offers us a way to sanctify the environment rather than just conserve it.
Kami anthropomorphize nature. The river spirits, the forest spirits, even the radish spirit, make the environment tangible with a whole cast of personified figures that Spirited Away brings to life so well.
It’s one thing to want to clean a river because you’re worried about mercury poisoning for you or your children, or you understand the theoretical importance of a healthy environment to human survival—but what if the river itself was personified as an old man? Or as a young boy? What if the radish could be empathized with? Or a mountain understood? This is a gateway to a more powerful type of environmentalism: deep ecology.
Deep ecology is a term coined by environmental philosopher Arne Naess.
Naess defined the shallow ecology movement as the “fight against pollution and resource depletion” the central objective of which is the health and affluence of people in the developed countries. The deep ecology movement, in a nutshell, is the effort to change the fundamental values at the heart of our civilization.
Through the lens of deep ecology, the rivers, oceans, mountains, forests, aren’t just seen as resources to draw on and conserve but sources of sacred human meaning, or even living things themselves.
Imagine the ecosystems of deltas and rainforests as higher forms of life. Life forms not contingent on any single animal or plant body, with a complexity that far exceeds that of any single living organism. What if we considered the most complex things in the universe weren’t human brains but natural ecosystems? Ecosystems of which we form a part.
Our perspective of life and of nature would be vastly different. Environmentalism would become something much more tangible, much more personal, much more effective.
There is a mutually reinforcing link between environmentalism and animistic spirituality: if you believe in animism, you ought to care about the environment (which is alive, and therefore sacred). If you care about the environment, you ought to care about animism (because it can strengthen and deepen your environmentalism).
You don’t have to believe in Shintoism to achieve this kind of bond. You don’t even have to believe in animism. You just have to feel emotionally invested in nature—connected to the world.
But don’t forget: humans like humans. It’s far easier for us to care about life that either is, acts, or looks a lot like humans. (It’s not an accident that baby-cute but useless pandas get a lot more support than the essential but unhuman bees.)
Animism is a way to bond ourselves emotionally, not just rationally, to the environment. It personifies the natural world and allows us a medium to honor it, commune with it, and feel in union with it.
Consider: while there’s no evidence that there are river spirits, rainforest kami, or bee gods—might it be better for us, and for the natural world, if we believed there were?