What Does “Spirited Away” Say About Environmentalism?

The anime films of Hayao Miyazaki often feature strong environmental themes. Spirited Away (2001) is no exception, telling a very environmentally-conscious story about a little girl named Chihiro (Rumi Hiiragi) who moves to the suburbs and winds up stuck in a netherworldly Japanese bathhouse for various spirits, witches, and creatures. While Chihiro’s story runs a gamut of symbolic and thematic subjects, Spirited Away repeatedly examines the consequences of destructive actions against the environment and the harm it causes to people and society through ecological subtext.

An essay in Ecological Economics notes, “The girl, Chihiro, ends up in a bathhouse in the spirit world used to replenish all varieties of spirits but is surrounded by Roman-style feasting. She seeks employment in the boiler room from a half-human named Kamaji, who works in crude, dirty, hazardous conditions to keep the coal and energy flowing. Through her hard work and diligence she eventually is able to find a way to rescue her parents, who had become victims of their irresponsible consumption.” Her parents, though an act of gluttonous self-pollution, feasted upon food intended for the spirits and were transformed into pigs as punishment.

Chihiro first enters this magical world by crossing a dried-up river that divides the human realm from the fantastic. She crosses a literal threshold of natural destruction to embark on her journey.

Two of Chihiro’s encounters in the film specifically speak to environmental concerns. The first appears when an enormous “stink spirit,” as it is thought to be, arrives at the bathhouse. The staff attempts to drive the huge beast away, but it forces itself into the building and is directed to the largest tub. As the stink spirit is bathing, Chihiro discovers something sticking out of its side and decides to pull, with the assistance of various bathhouse staff members and its ambiguously-natured proprietor, Yubaba (Mari Natsuki). What they discover is the being isn’t a stink monster at all, but a river spirit who was corrupted by the endless pollution of his river. As they tug on the protrusion sticking from his side, an endless stream of trash and filth pours from his murky core, containing everything from general garbage to car tires, and even a bicycle. After all the human trash was removed from his body, he was freed as a majestic dragon-like being and able to fly away. The stink spirit is an obvious allusion to man’s pollution of the environment.

Miyazaki said the stink/river spirit was based on his own experiences cleaning a river, where he was part of a team that pulled tons of trash (including a bicycle) from a filthy riverbed. Since then, the river has remained clear and fish have returned. The character in the film not only displays the harmful consequences of human pollution, but also our capability to repair the damage we’ve done if we try.

The second character in Chihiro’s story with environmental subtext is Haku (Miyu Irino). Part of Spirited Away’s mystique is related to nomenclature—employment at the bathhouse means you must give up your name and adopt a new one. Forgetting your old name means the loss of your past, and permanent residency in the mystic world of the spirit realm. Throughout the story, Haku has forgotten his original name and notes he’s spent ages trying to discover his origins. By the end, Chihiro figures it out—Haku is actually the spirit of the Kohaku River, a body of water destroyed in the name of human settlement. It is remarked that the river is “all apartments now,” identifying that Haku lost his home and identity due to human destruction of nature. He had nowhere to go, ended up at the bathhouse, and lost sight of his origins.

The bathhouse itself sits at the edge of an abandoned theme park, as noted by Chihiro’s father early in the film. He mentions the way theme parks were being developed all over the place before the economy tanked, forcing them to close and peppering the landscape with huge, abandoned constructs. This setting for the story is environmental in itself, addressing the issue of poor land management and pollution. Mass amounts of nature were destroyed to put theme parks like this up for no lasting reason.

Spirited Away isn’t preachy in its environmental commentary, but it offers a concise observation about human behaviors and global pollution. As our species continues to grow and multiply, we certainly have little choice but to make use of the planet’s resources, but the way in which we go about that utility can often be better managed.