To The Power Of A Gentle Heart – Spirited Away

By David Edwards

“In thee mercy, in thee pity, in thee magnificence, in thee whatever of goodness is in any creature, are united.” (Dante)

Treating Earth Like It Was Dirt

Having taken a wrong turning, become lost in a forest, and wandered though a dark tunnel – all classic metaphors of crisis and transformation – ten-year-old Chihiro and her parents stumble on a sumptuous banquet in an apparently deserted theme park in Miyazaki’s animated film, Spirited Away.

Without a care in the world, or permission, the parents tuck in, declaring they will pay with cash or credit card when the absent caterers return. Theirs is the self-confidence of so many wealthy professionals who take for granted that money, and the power money brings, can fix every problem. When they were driving through the forest, Chihiro asked her father if they were lost. He replied, “Don’t worry, I’ve got four-wheel drive.” High-tech power fixes everything – even when you’re going in the wrong direction.

The parents proceed to gorge themselves on the abundant feast. Despite their evident, animalistic pleasure the soundtrack leaves us in no doubt that this is very much a crisis, not a celebration. Horrified by their reckless greed, Chihiro implores her parents to stop, warning of trouble ahead – but they are too engrossed even to respond.

We quickly discover that the parents have indeed committed a grave sin – they have gatecrashed a feast for divine visitors to a spirit world bath house: “where eight million gods can rest their weary bones”. Their poetic punishment? To be turned into vast, slobbering pigs penned for slaughter! It is down to little Chihiro, running off alone – bewildered and shaking with fear – to find a way to break the spell and return her parents to human form before they are eaten.

This is a wonderful set of metaphors for our modern condition. So many people are indeed enslaved to slavering, reckless greed in exactly this way – our corporate planet is collapsing under the weight of unrestrained consumption and infinitely rising profits. Who gives a damn about the future when we can pay off any damage we cause with credit cards and cash? The result, as XTC’s Andy Partridge sings: “We treated Earth like it was dirt.”

As epidemics of diabetes, obesity, alcoholism and other illnesses of over-consumption rage around us, we might just as well have upset the gods in the way of Chihiro’s parents. We can talk in terms of consumerism offending the rules of ecological sustainability, if we like; or we can talk of offending nature’s spirits. Either way, demonic storms of climate change are being summoned to smash, flatten and flood us.

And what is so wonderful is that Miyazaki dumps the symbolised version of this crisis into the symbolic lap of the apparently clueless Chihiro – all skinny legs, baggy shorts and T-shirt-clutching fear. Except that Chihiro does have +one+ clue – the one that matters.

Sympathy For A Stink God

Miyazaki goes to great lengths to indicate Chihiro’s anxiety and vulnerability. She runs in blind panic from her pig-parents this way and that as looming spirits arrive for the banquet. At first, all she can do is scream and run, fall flat on her face, wish it were a dream, and sob into her hands. Is this the hero to save the day? Is this really someone with the power to break the spell of greed and pacify the anger of the gods?

Where Hollywood heroes nonchalantly wisecrack and muscle their way to salvation, Japan’s Chihiro sits curled up in terror, shivering and lost. Her clarion call: “I’m afraid!”

And isn’t this the fear and helplessness we all feel in contemplating the awesome problems around us, for which no sane individual could possibly feel a match? None of +us+ has the confidence or power of a Hollywood hero, either. All of us are alone, bewildered and insecure in the face of this, too.

Ernest Hemingway wrote beautifully of heroic struggles for the great cause, the great love, the great fish. But in our real lives we often don’t know what the great cause +is+. We often don’t know if our great love is the real thing, or just a childish infatuation. We don’t know if, in facing adversity, we are being heroic or just doing what anyone would have done. In working to make the world a better place, we don’t even know if we’re making things worse!

Is it possible that the shivering Chihiro can somehow provide inspiration to the rest of us trembling, transient sparks of human consciousness? But what on earth could she possibly offer in response to the terrible crises facing her and us?

Throughout her many trials and tribulations it is made clear that Chihiro has both nothing and everything. She is small, physically weak, confused and afraid; and yet she has one overwhelming resource to make up for everything. Chihiro is guided by invincible love for her parents, and for the mysterious boy-God Haku, her friend and helper. Every decision she makes, every word she utters, every courageous act she attempts, is motivated by her desire to save her parents from being eaten, and Haku from dying.

First, to avoid being eaten herself – a real possibility in this spirit world – she has to demand work from Yubaba, the manager-witch of the bath house. Yubaba is duty-bound to give work to all who ask for it and, as a good business manager, is disinclined to eat her own staff!

One of Chihiro’s first tasks is to bathe the dreaded Stink God – a vast muddy being with body odour that incinerates food to ashes. Knowing that work offers the only hope of rescuing her parents, Chihiro overcomes her revulsion and succeeds in hosing down the noxious divinity. Here, also, we see that she is encountering the consequences of greed. Finding a “thorn” in the side of the refreshed Stink God, she attaches a rope and pulls out what are in fact the handlebars of a dumped bicycle, followed by an emerging avalanche of scrap metal, tins and other fly-tipped rubbish. The Stink God sighs in blissful relief, “Well done!”. The being, in fact, is a River God who has been polluted and gravely wounded, again, by the greed and wanton selfishness of man. The ecological message could hardly be clearer.

Chihiro’s compassionate response on seeing the “thorn” was sufficient to transform the wretched Stink God into a gleaming fountain of clear water which, laughing delightedly, flies out of the bath house. Looking into her cupped hands, she finds she has been rewarded with a gift of magic food. Could this have the power to break the spell and transform her parents?

No Face – Every Place

Chihiro’s most telling encounter with greed involves the spirit No Face. “Everyone”, Miyazaki tells us, “has a No Face inside”.

No Face is a silent, haunting figure with a voracious appetite that grows more extreme the more it is indulged. With gold magically manifesting from his hands, he buys endless praise, attention and sensual gratification. And yet he is never satisfied, declaring himself haunted by loneliness. Richard Davidson, director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin, reports of brain function:

“In craving, the circuitry associated with liking appears to be weakened. Because our sense of liking or enjoyment declines and our wanting increases, we want more and more and we like less and less. We must keep wanting – but we need more to enjoy it as much.” (Quoted, Daniel Goleman, Destructive Emotions, Bloomsbury, 2003, p.202)

And so we can become a kind of bottomless black hole of desire, like No Face. In Buddhist terminology, No Face is an example of a “hungry ghost” – an insatiable, craving spirit ultimately tortured by its inability to love. When asked what a hungry ghost realm looks like, one Buddhist teacher replied: “America!”

The more No Face is indulged by the bath house workers, greedy for his gold, the more crazed he becomes until he eventually swallows several people whole. Again, the apparently powerless Chihiro is required to confront this symbol of greed, with No Face reflexively offering her a handful of gold. But with heart and mind immovably fixed on rescuing her loved ones, Chihiro is not interested: “I don’t want any. Don’t need any. I’m busy, please excuse me.”

No Face is visibly deflated by this lack of grasping. Later, in sympathetic response to the monster’s despair – “I’m lonely, lonely” – Chihiro offers him the magic food she received from the River God: “I was saving it for my parents, but you can have it.” It is this act of generosity, this kindness, that finally satisfies No Face’s hunger, which is actually of the spiritual kind. For the first time, he is being offered something out of kindness rather than out of lust for his gold. Just as the Stink God was purified by an outpouring of rubbish, so a flood of filth (and swallowed people) now pours out of No Face.

Moments later, we see him sitting calmly beside his now beloved Chihiro on a train travelling across a flooded landscape, with our diminutive heroine saying gently: “Behave yourself, okay?”. On her lap, protected by her cupped hands, a rat and fly are dozing contentedly – two more former enemies who have been won over by kindness.

Miyazaki is clearly suggesting that Chihiro triumphs over all obstacles through the purity of her gentle heart. She does not slay dragons and ogres in the way of Western mythical heroes; she transforms them with love, generosity and compassion.

According to this version of the world, ‘evil’ is life traumatised and blocked by suffering and confusion. The solution is not to add to the suffering with hatred and revenge – like throwing dirt in the wound – but to relieve the suffering that is the underlying cause.

And so Chihiro does not need to lift weights, ride tanks, or wield mighty swords. She needs only to care about the suffering of others, and to work with all her strength and courage to relieve it.

This motivation, Miyazaki tells us, has the power to transform despair into delight, enemies into friends… and pigs into people!

(Note: This film is available in two versions: the Japanese original with subtitles, or, dubbed with American voices. I recommend the former.)