Spirited Away

Luxurious, well-lit spirit boats plying the night waters? Bath houses for the spirits? The danger of total memory loss? Implanted spells in the shape of little black worms? Bitter medicines that provoke vomiting and purge the system of malign influences? Animal transformation? Shamanic flight?

Surely, we’re in the realm of Amazonian shamanism!

Surprisingly, we’re also in the realm of Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, the renowned anime director’s most successful, and Japan’s top grossing, film. Like many of Miyazaki’s films, Spirited Away both conveys a strong ecological message and depicts a young heroine’s journey without falling into the simplistic good/evil formulas characteristic of Disney. Instead, the protagonist Chihiro surmounts the obstacles in her path by discovering her innate capacity to heal and to perceive the true essence of those around her. In short, she conquers through love.

Miyazaki’s imaginary realm is wild and free, much as the mythos of traditional and ancient peoples.

Of course, Miyazaki’s cultural background is profoundly Shinto, yet the influence of other cultures, such as ancient Greek myth, upon Miyazaki’s work has long been recognized (for example, the protagonist of Spirited Away, Chihiro, has her parents transformed into swine for eating the food of the spirits, and must, Odysseus-like, must find their cure and effect their release). Less recognized is the imprint of the cosmovision of Amazonian shamanism upon Spirited Away.

The early arrival of the Acero Punta, the steamship of the spirits sited throughout the Amazon waterways and depicted by artist Pablo Amaringo, first tips off the viewer of Miyazaki’s new cultural inspiration, but it is an ayahuasca-like medicine that Chihiro, like a good curandera, utilizes to heal the sick that clinches the case.

Chihiro receives the intensely bitter, fist-sized ball of medicine as a reward after performing her first purga upon a polluted river spirit, and is soon required to purge and heal two spirits of intense maladies. The first, her ally the river spirit Haku, dying of internal bleeding while in dragon-form, swallows the potent remedy, is flung into convolutions, and vomits up a stolen golden seal upon which sits a black worm. Chihiro kills the worm, which had been implanted in Haku by the witch Yubaba to enslave him – a hex and extractive procedure quite typical of Amazonian folk medicine.

The second healing, performed upon No Face, a spirit akin to the hungry ghosts of the Buddhist tradition, triggers the most comical sequence of vomiting in cinematic history – as No Face careens after the fleeing Chihiro through the levels of the bathhouse, disgorging the contents of his vast swollen, distempered belly, he literally returns to his senses. After a bout of hurling reminiscent of the most nightmarishly purgative of ayahausca ceremonies, we hear him give a post-limpiada burp and meekly beg pardon! The restoration of No Face’s original self is complete, and he finds his home with Yubaba’s twin sister, Zeneba.

Really, that’s what Spirited Away and the Amazonian shamanic tradition is all about – finding one’s way home. It’s an inspired nostos, a homecoming song, in the best of Ancient and traditional storytelling ways.