Regaining Continuity with the Past:Spirited Away and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
What can a classic of Victorian children's literature have in common with a recent Japanese film? ANDO Satoshi argues that they represent, respectively, the crisis of Victorian England and that of contemporary Japan, through their heroines' identity crises as they pass from childhood into adolescence
Hayao Miyazaki's animation film Spirited Away (first released in Japan in 2001), although written in a very different social context, has much in common with Lewis Carroll's classic children's book, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865). Both works are products of transitional periods: when Alice was written Britain was in the midst of a great turbulence, brought about by industrialisation, urbanisation and Darwinism, while Spirited Away is set in a precarious period for Japan's economy just after the 'babble boom' of the early 1990s. In such times of crisis, anxiety and pessimism prevail and people look not to the future but to the past, feeling the need for escapism. These are the conditions in which great fantasy is created (see Ando 2003 for a discussion of Alice and other British children's classics as products of the Darwin disturbance or the decline of the British Empire). Humphrey Carpenter (1985) points out that 'optimistic societies do not, apparently, [End Page 23] produce great fantasies'. Most fantasy novels (and films) seek the past in some way, which is a reflection of the time's anxiety and pessimism.
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In both stories, a pre-pubertal girl happens to stray into a perplexing 'other world' and experiences an identity crisis there. The two girls are soon going to go through puberty – Chihiro is said to be 10 years old; Alice's age is not given in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and though she is suggested to be seven and a half in the sequel, Through the Looking Glass, she seems to be about the same age as Chihiro, considering her linguistic ability and logical way of thinking – and they will encounter various rites of passage as they pass from infant to adolescent.
Girls are likely to experience at least some level of identity crisis when they go through puberty, for it is one of the biggest discontinuous changes of their lives. The two stories seem to express the protagonists' bewilderment at the change which they are soon to confront. The characters feel disconnected from the past by discontinuous change and thus lose their sense of identity and of the future. The sense of being connected with the past gives one comfort and confidence, and one's identity is, of course, the very accumulation of one's past experiences and the memories of them.
The book 'without pictures or conversation' that Alice's older sister is reading when Alice's Adventures in Wonderland opens suggests the boredom and dullness of the adult world for Alice. As she has an elder sister, she must have seen an example of a girl's physical change during puberty. The wonder she feels when she peeps into the book her sister is reading shows that she is beginning to perceive the sense of incongruity caused by acknowledging that she is approaching the boring world represented by the book.
Spotting a flustered rabbit with a watch – which, like the crocodile in Peter Pan, can be construed as a metaphor for those who are always chased by time – Alice runs after him and finds herself falling down a dark hole. In the underground world, Alice is constantly frustrated in her efforts to get into 'the loveliest garden'. On a table she finds the golden key to the small door into the garden, but as she is too big to get through the door, she drinks some medicine that she finds, until she gets small enough – only to find that now she is too small to reach up onto the table to get the key. No matter how many times she repeats magnification and reduction by eating magic cakes and mushrooms, Alice cannot make it to the garden, which we can read as symbolising both childhood and adulthood: she is too big to go into the garden of childhood, and at the same time she is too small to enter the garden of adulthood. She is frustrated by not being able to get into the garden and is perplexed with the repeated metamorphosis of her [End Page 24] body: she has lost her place between childhood and adulthood.
Walt Disney's animation film Alice in Wonderland (1951) must not be admitted as the filmisation of Carroll's work, for it visualises only superficial elements such as the amazement of the adventure or the queerness of the characters, who are all too amiable. The film fails to show Alice's bewilderment, whereas in the book, Alice almost always seems to be crying, angry or perplexed. She feels not only bewildered, but deprived of her identity in this 'Wonderland', where she has no friend or acquaintance, and where she repeats the physical magnification and reduction too many times. Her identity crisis is aggravated when the rabbit calls her 'Mary Ann' and the Pigeon refers to her as 'Serpent'.
William Empson (1935) points out that death is 'never far out of sight' in the two books featuring Alice. Alice feels the fear of extinction when she physically reduces and she is afraid of being drowned in her own tears when she becomes small. Alice is encountering the discontinuous change of puberty, which is in effect the death of Alice as a little girl and her birth as a young woman.
Alice is disappointed when she finally arrives in the garden because it is a very strange place, where the playing cards are painting the white roses red so as not to exasperate the Queen who loves red roses and hates white ones. It is obvious that both the worlds of adulthood and childhood, which the garden simultaneously represents, are worlds ruled by the obsession with death. Infant Alice is doomed to die within a few years and the grown-up Alice constantly and steadily approaches death in the domain of time.
The awkwardness Alice experiences in Wonderland, and that she expresses by crying, getting irate or being bewildered, is a metaphor of her awkward situation where she is going to be forced to face a discontinuous change. The awkwardness she has in Wonderland is a reflection of the incongruity and bewilderment which lurks deep within her. Alice is at a loss and her identity sways as the great change approaches. Alice famously asks the Caterpillar 'when you have to turn into a chrysalis – you will some day, you know – and then after that into a butterfly, I should think you'll feel it a little queer, won't you?' Referring to this, she also says, 'it would feel very queer to me'. She seems here to be commenting on her experience of magnification and reduction, but she is also manifesting bewilderment at the physical changes she is to undergo in the near future.
Spirited Away also features a heroine who is going through an identity crisis in a kind of other world shortly before confronting her puberty. Girls' transitional periods is a recurring theme in the films of Hayao Miyazaki, but this is the film of his that most specifically deals with a protagonist's transitional period and death as a rite of passage.
At the beginning of the film Chihiro is moving to a new house. She is sad and sullen because she has had to part with her friends and does not think she can get used to the new environment. Like Alice, she is in a precarious situation before the onset of puberty and is feeling awkward and perplexed. The removal signifies her transitional situation and losing her own place. Her being [End Page 25] displeased shows that she rejects the change of her environment, her physical and mental situation, and that she wants to remain in her old familiar place. The bunch of withering flowers she is holding obviously symbolises her feelings of depression.
Then off the road she and her parents happen to come across a peculiar tunnel and go through it to a place like a ruined theme park. Tempted by a delicious smell, her parents begin to devour the food they find on the stools and, while Chihiro hesitates and walks round, they turn into enormous pigs. To help them out she is forced to work in an old bath-house, where various kinds of gods ('eight million gods' in the verbatim translation) come to relax and cleanse themselves, and she also has to discover the way to dissolve spells. A mysterious boy called Haku tells her how to get a job there and, after many twists and turns, she succeeds in getting employment.
Masashi Shimizu (2001) points out that this is a process of Chihiro's death and rebirth, and that Yubaba, an avaricious witch and manager of the bath-house, fills the role of her mother for her rebirth. Here the spoilt child Chihiro dies and is led to be reborn as a devoted and loving adolescent through performing her duties.
When she starts work, Chihiro is deprived of her name 'Chihiro' and renamed 'Sen' by Yubaba. 'Sen' is the other pronunciation of the Chinese character 'chi' which forms the first syllable of her real name, 'Chihiro', and it means 'a thousand' or 'a great number'. As Haku explains, Yubaba controls the employees by taking their names away. Being called Sen signifies her lost, or dispossessed, identity; and she almost forgets her own name when she is talking to Haku early one morning in the flower garden and when she yells 'I'm Sen' to her parents in the pigsty.
It is obvious that Alice's Wonderland and Sen's bath-house, or the theme park world as a whole, have the same meaning: a symbol of the pre-pubertal girl's awkwardness and sense of incongruity, and a place of symbolic death and rebirth. Chihiro is upset during the transition period for two reasons: she has just left the place she is familiar with and has moved to a new one where she does not feel at home, and she is beginning to migrate from childhood to adolescence. Her parents' being pigs signifies the fact that she has lost one of the most important sources of her identity and the means to maintain continuity with the past.
Sen's mission here can be summed up as 'to regain the past'. Since Haku has also been bewitched by Yubaba and deprived not only of his real name but also of his past, she must help him to get back his memory to find the way to save her parents. Yet, Haku, whose real name [End Page 26] is Nigihayami Kohakunushi and who is in fact the spirit of the River Kohaku [Amber], recognises Chihiro when he first meets her in front of the bath-house. Once, when she was very young, she almost drowned in the Kohaku, which has now been reclaimed to build blocks of flats; and it is not until she regains the memory of the river that Haku is freed from the spell and takes back his real name. He has lost not merely his past but his own place because the Kohaku does not exist any more, but when she recovers her memory of the river he can have a place in it.
Past and place are two most important bases of identity, for past experience and its memory forms one's identity, and one needs a place where one can be 'at home' to maintain it. Chihiro's identity is in crisis when she loses her place in two ways: being forced to leave her town and the house she is used to, and being chased by time, to leave childhood and enter adolescence. Like Alice, Chihiro is in an unstable condition before her approaching sexual maturity and the physical and mental transformation it brings about, and thus she has a sense of incongruity. Her transformation means her death as an infant and her birth as an adolescent. Her experiences at the bathhouse, such as helping the River God to wash off the mud, the encounter with No-Face, who represents those who have lost their identity, and consoling him or her for his or her sadness and going to see Zeniba, the twin sister of Yubaba, to rescue Haku, are all important lessons for her to recover her past, her place and her identity.
Many other works of Miyazaki feature girls in their teens and facing transition and rebirth. My Neighbour Totoro (first released in 1988, and apparently set in the early 1950s, when Japan was in the midst of an abrupt change after World War II) begins with a scene of the protagonists' removal, where a 10-year-old girl, Satsuki (rightly named after the Japanese word for the fifth month of the year, May), and her little sister Mei (pronounced just the same as 'May') are removed from somewhere in town to an old country cottage with their father, while their mother is in hospital because of some tuberculosis-like illness. In their new surroundings the two girls experience the rural and traditional way of life for the first time.
As their names signify, Satsuki and Mei are identical and imply two aspects of a girl who is approaching her transitional period: the former is she who is turning into adolescent and the latter she who still remains infant. Shimizu indicates that Satsuki's symbolic death and rebirth are intimated in the scene where she does headstands and forward rolls in the field in front of the cottage on arriving there, and that Mei imitates the same process by doing the same action as her elder sister. It must be pointed out that these processes are executed in their mother's absence and in an unaccustomed environment for them; that is to say, when they are separated from their own past.
In Kiki's Delivery Service (1989), as well as in Majo no takkyuu-bin [The witch's delivery service] (1985), a novel by Eiko Kadono on which the film is based, the heroine, Kiki, according to an old custom, begins her training to be a witch at the age of 13. Unlike Chihiro, Satsuki and Alice, she has already plunged into puberty and been conscious that she is now forced to disconnect herself from both her home and her past to change and grow up. In the earlier part of the film there is also a scene of removal, in which Kiki flies on a broomstick with her cat Jiji. While her mother complains that Kiki does not learn traditional witchery such as prescribing witches' medicine, an elderly lady called Dora, one of her customers, tells her that everything is changing with time, which implies that this story is also set [End Page 27] in a transitional period in the witches' world. Kiki faces lots of trials and crises in the process of her training, but all through the narrative her independence and unyielding forward-lookingness are acclaimed. It is interesting that Kiki regains her lost confidence when she is absorbed in helping others (in this case especially a boy called Tombo) and surrendering herself, just as Chihiro retrieves her continuity in the course of devoting herself to saving Haku and her parents.
Nausicaä, the heroine of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), is 14 years old; Sophie in Howl's Moving Castle (2004), based on Diana Wynne Jones's novel with the same title, is 18 – although for most of the story she has been turned into an old woman of 90; ages are not revealed, Princess Mononoke and Sheeta and though their ages are not revealed, Princess Mononoke and Sheeta (in Laputa: The Flying Island) also appear to be in their teens. Shizuku, the 14-year-old protagonist of Whisper of the Heart, which is directed not by Miyazaki but by the late Yoshifumi Kondo, one of Miyazaki's fellow artists and directors at Studio Ghibli, and produced by Miyazaki, goes through some rites of passage such as first love, first farewell or deciding her way of life. These works are almost always set in historical crises: Nausicaä lives in the time after the last world war and the disintegration of human civilisation, whilst Princess Mononoke is set in the mid-16th century when nature and human technology began to come into conflict in rural Japan. Miyazaki's Howl's Moving Castle, unlike the original novel, has a war as its background, and Whisper of the Heart is located in a western suburb of Tokyo, where the landscape is always changing rapidly and thus is one of those places which have lost their continuity with the past.
In both Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Spirited Away deaths and rebirths as rites of passage in girls' growth is one of the central motifs. The Victorians had sentimental views about girlishness and chastity and tried to make childhood and girlhood as long as possible. Nowadays, a much more positive view is taken of girls' growth. However, no matter how drastically the historical and social contexts of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Spirited Away differ, they have an important issue in common: that is, that a girl's puberty is a great discontinuity which can be considered as a kind of death, and that the only way to be reborn from it is to get back continuity with the past to retain her identity.
There is disagreement among critics about whether Alice grows up at all in the Alice books (see Empson 1935, Batchelor 1990, Hyland 1994, Gordon 1987), but it appears to be true that she recovers continuity with her past by waking up from her dream. She at least understands the pain and jeopardy of losing her [End Page 28] identity by being detached from her own past, and it is apparent that the infant Alice and the grown-up Alice are sure to have some continuity.
Books and films cited
Carroll, Lewis  Alice's Adventures in Wonderland Puffin (1962)
Kadono, Eiko  Majo no takkyuu-bin [The witch's delivery service] Tokyo: Fukuinkan (2002)
Kondo, Yoshifumi and Hayao Miyazaki  Whisper of the Heart Optimum Home Entertainment (2006)
Miyazaki, Hayao  Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind Optimum Home Entertainment (2006)
Miyazaki, Hayao  Laputa:The Flying Island Optimum Home Entertainment (2006)
Miyazaki, Hayao  My Neighbour Totoro Optimum Home Entertainment (2006)
Miyazaki, Hayao  Kiki's Delivery Service Optimum Home Entertainment (2006)
Miyazaki, Hayao  Princess Mononoke Optimum Home Entertainment (2006)
Miyazaki, Hayao  Spirited Away Optimum Home Entertainment (2004)
Miyazaki, Hayao  Howl's Moving Castle Optimum Home Entertainment (2006)
Chihiro also regains her continuity not just with the past but with the future too by experiencing death and rebirth throughout her adventures, and therefore at the end of the film she is able to come to grips with her new life. She has overcome instability and awkwardness and is ready to accept the two forthcoming changes: the environmental change and the physical one. The moment she discovers her parents amongst the pigs indicates her regaining of continuity with her past. The last scene in which, seen off by Haku, she crosses the river that divides the two worlds of death and life, and walks through the tunnel – possibly a metaphor of female genitalia – represents her rebirth.
Ando Satoshi is professor of English at Aichi University, Japan
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