Monday, November 23, 2015

Movies and Worldview: Spirited Away

Stories are an integral part of our lives aren't they? They are an art form, a type of communication, that we use to convey how we see the world. Our values and the values of our culture seep into the story. We paint the world we see through stories. Movies are just another medium for storytelling. And one of my favorites to be honest. They must be a favorite of yours as well because the most popular post on my blog continues to be Movies and History: El Dorado, where I examined the relationship between a movie and real history. You see? We all know movies communicate more than you first suspect. Recently I had the opportunity to examine a movie called "Spirited Away" for the sake of a school project. But I couldn't just leave it at that. I had to share some of my findings with you. The question I had to examine the movie through was this: 

What does this foreign film communicate about its worldview and how should I respond as a Christian? 

What is a Worldview?

This word is heard a lot in Christian circles today. But what does it mean? And how does it apply to movies like Spirited Away? Put in a long fashion, a worldview is the framework of our most basic beliefs that shapes our view of the world and is the basis of our decisions and actions. Put in a shorter fashion, a worldview is like glass lens you see the world through. Ever heard the expression "through rose-colored glasses?" It's a similar concept. 

"[Worldview] is like an invisible pair of eyeglasses - glasses you put on to help you see reality clearly." ~ Jeff Baldwin

What Worldview does is act as a foundation. Imagine a pyramid with Worldview on the bottom. Your foundation is how you see the world. The middle layer, on top of your worldview, are your core values. At the top of the pyramid are your actual behaviors. You see? How you see the world shapes your value system and ends up dictating how you behave. 

In addition, there are....

Four key areas a worldview will impact:  

  • How you relate to God (Ultimate Being)
  • How you relate with Humanity
  • How you relate with Nature
  • How you relate with yourself

Having taken the time to figure out my own worldview personally, I was now ready to dive into this foreign film and discover which worldview it was communicating 

So let's get to the fun part already!

Chihiro with Haku

The Story

"Spirited Away" was written by the Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki and produced by Studio Ghibli. Since its release in 2001 it has been the most successful film in Japanese history. If you have never heard of Miyazaki, he is often called the Walt Disney of Japan. His many films have the reputation of being magical and memorable. 

The story centers around the rather whiney little Chihiro as she moves with her family to a new city. Their journey becomes sidetracked when they wander into what appears to be an abandoned theme park. But when the sun sets everything changes. Chihiro's parents have been transformed into pigs and strange, bizarre spirits are now roaming the lighted streets! Chihiro must overcome her fears if she wants to free her parents and escape this place. 

Many challenges await her. Chihiro finds a job in a bathhouse for spirits, loses her name, and must decide whether to really trust the mysterious Haku is she wants to succeed. Along the way, the small girl finds her bravery and makes unforgettable friends in this sweeping adventure

For fun, you should definitely check out the trailer!

Worldview of Spirited Away

A River Spirit
For any of you who have already watched the film, you know it's not like our normal American-made movies. It doesn't include our normal cast of fantasy characters. And why would it? It was made in Japan! It's interesting to note that Miyazaki intended this movie for a child audience. Japanese children must be made of tougher stuff than American kids! All the bizarre spirits and witches in this film are what big sisters like me call "monsters." So what's the deal here? 

It's pretty simple. These movies were made by a Japanese storyteller. He naturally draws from a widespread worldview in his country. A belief system commonly known as Shintoism. 

Shintoism: a devotion to invisible spiritual beings and powers called Kami, to shrines, and to various rituals. 

The Kami would be the assorted spirits you see in the movie. They are neutral, neither good nor evil, so long as all things are kept in balance. This is because, in Shinto, no one in inherently bad. Evil is like a disease that infects someone. Shintoism has no absolute truth and no ultimate god. Only these nature spirits. So, very loosely, here are the... 

Rules of Shintoism: 

  • Do not break harmony with the Kami (nature spirits)
  • Do not disrupt worship of Kami
  • Do nothing to disturb harmony of the world
  • Do not harm natural world

A lot of Japanese culture is steeped in this religious worldview. So, it comes as no surprise to find it in Miyazaki's "Spirited Away." You can see evidence of it in almost every one of his films. I watch a lot of Japanese anime as well and I'll tell you the Shintoism is there too. It's expected. What does that mean for Christians? Can we enjoy stories like this that hold a worldview different than our own? 

Soot Spirits 

How Christians should (or should not) respond

Just for kicks I went out and looked for reviews on this movie written by other Christians. I was met with very different perspectives of this film. 

Let's focus on the negative first. This first reviewer gave Spirited away a -4 on their scale. The spirits and witches were clearly not a wise decision for good Christians to be viewing. There were no allusions to a Christ-figure or even a God. If the story does not support a Christian worldview then what purpose does it serve to watch it?

"Abhorrent ~ Creepy Worldview." ~

Because someone says something in a way we disagree with, does that mean we can't hold a conversation with them? I wonder what MovieGuide would have to say about the Chronicles of Narnia? That had pagan symbolism in it too you know. Centaurs, fauns, unicorns, and Rivergods aren't Christian. And hey! C.S. Lewis turned Jesus into a lion! Just saying. 

When you set the Shintoism aside for a second you can see what else this movie offers. There are healthy themes of courage, loyalty, and growing up in "Spirited Away." The story also deals with things like greed, selfishness, putting other's needs before your own, and true love. Our Christian worldview deals with those as well doesn't it? 

I believe that a Christian who understands their own worldview can watch a movie like Spirited Away and still come away with a valuable lesson. Of course, we all should monitor what media we allow to influence our lives. I'm just saying you can't discount a movie's value based entirely on the cultural worldview. 

Beautiful Art from Film

Well! That was a mouthful wasn't it? Worldview really is an interesting thing when you start applying it to the movies and shows you watch. You learn a lot. Would you like to see more posts like this? Has anyone else watched Japanese films before? Questions or critiques are always welcome in the comment section below.


  1. This is a neat perspective! I watch a lot of Japanese films and television. Spirited Away is a great one. I like to called it Japanese Alice and Wonderland. It's definitely very weird, but it has a lot of beauty to it as we watch Chihiro grow. Thought the story is based in Shintoism, there are a lot of strong Christian values to glean from as you said. And soot spirits are adorable just saying. Great post!

    1. *Happy Dance* another Ghibli fan! I totally agree. In my paper I compared it to Alice in Wonderland and to Narnia. Alice in Wonderland is kinda creepy too when you think about it! I love the soot spirits. I've seen them as slippers and I want them! Thanks for commenting as always :)


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