Featuring possibly the most imaginative bathhouse ever represented in art, Spirited Away is a Saunatarian dream film. Almost.
I’d never actually seen it. I’d meant to watch it for years. I’d seen a snippit once. Then, last month, a friend reminded me that Hayao Miyazaki’s classic film Spirited Away (2001) is all about a bathhouse. My blood quickened.
Last night I finally got a chance to watch it … and I loved it! What an amazing creation. The detail, the detail. And by steam, what a bathhouse!
I’ll assume that most people have seen the film – if not, do yourself a favour and watch it soon. Especially if you want some wholesome kids’ entertainment . And don’t read any further:
** SPOILERS BELOW **
I won’t review the film either, nor decode its symbolism. (But see below if you are interested in Shinto influences on the film.)
Instead I want to talk about the bathhouse.
As you’d expect, there are websites galore dedicated to Spirited Away. Some of them even explain how the bathhouse works. Take a moment to remind yourself of the characters working there: I liked Kamaji especially, the crazy old man with 8 arms who keeps the boiler running – the alchemist brewing the hot water – the pulsing heart of the place. Without Kamaji, there is no bathhouse.
The bathhouse is a glorious structure to behold, piercing high into the sky. And indeed, there are plenty of scenes of glory within. (Notwithstanding the tyrannical machinations of Yubaba, the old lady who runs the place.)
The spirits come to be cleansed, refreshed, reborn – and a wonderful cast it is. A few of my favourite shots:
But the most important bath scene of the film by far is the cleansing of the Stink Spirit:
Miyazaki’s Bathhouse Influences
As you heard in the clip, the Stink Spirit / River Spirit scene was inspired by Miyazaki’s own experiences. Unsurprisingly, so is the bathhouse. Here’s four influences I’ve discovered so far:
1) Firstly, from an interview in 2001 (translated here):
– Why did you make a story that takes place at a bath house?
M: For me, a bath house is a mysterious place in town. The first time I saw an oil painting was in a bath house. And there was a small door next to the bath tub. I wondered what was behind that door. So, I thought up a story about a young man the same age as Hiiragi-san, but it was rejected as well. (laughs)
– Where did the idea of bath house being a place for gods come from?
M: It would be fun if there were such a bath house. It’s the same as when we go to hot springs. Japanese gods go there to rest for a few days, then return home saying they wished they could stay for a little while longer. I was imagining such things as I made images (of the film). I was thinking that it’s tough being a Japanese god today. (laughs)
2) But there are also deeper Shinto influences:
“There are many folk and Shrine Shinto perspectives embedded in the cultural vocabulary of this film. The director Miyazaki explicitly acknowledges his indebtedness to this tradition. He refers, for example, to his “very warm appreciation for the various, very humble rural Shinto rituals that continue to this day throughout rural Japan” and cites the solstice rituals when villagers call forth all the local kami and invite them to bathe in their baths. This, apparently, is the inspiration for the bathhouse locale in the film, and his reference to kami invokes the essence of the Shinto tradition.”
– Boyd & Nishimura (2004), Journal of Religion and Film 8
3) Apparently the bathhouse building was inspired by Dōgo Onsen, one of the oldest onsens in Japan. It looks pretty cool.
4) Finally, the world surrounding the bathhouse (the abandoned amusement park), is based on a real place – some similarities are pretty stark.
The Ending …
If I’m honest, I was let down by the ending. Why? Because the Bathhouse didn’t feature in the resolution.
I can’t complain about the film itself – an epic homage to the arts of bathing, Japanese bathing in particular. It can hardly be accused of not making the bathhouse central.
But this was my disappointment:
Here’s what happened:
- After freeing Haku by helping him remember his real identity, Chihiro returns to the bathhouse to finish her mission. All the characters are gathered around to watch.
- Yubaba gives Chihiro a final task – to pick out her cursed parents from a bunch of pigs.
- Chihiro correctly says that none of the pigs are her parents, and so wins back their freedom.
- Her parents emerge back at the start of the dream, calling Chihiro to join them with no memory of the bathhouse.
Sure. Fine. But:
Here’s what SHOULD have happened:
- Her parents ARE in the pack of pigs – and Chihro picks them out through some telepathic love trick, or whatever.
- She opens the pen and those two pigs run out, Chihiro leads them INTO THE BATHHOUSE with everyone cheering.
- Kamaji goes down to the boiler room and prepares the most refreshing, luxurious batch of water he has ever made, using some special magic ingredient (set this ingredient up earlier in the film; they spend plenty of time down there).
- The glorious water flows over the pigs, and in a swirling whirlpool of happiness they are returned to human form, holding hands with Chihiro and spinning in the water.
- Then make the sequence go trippy/abstract, her parents disappear –
- Then finish with the same forgetful re-entry to the real world. Easy, no?
That would have made it a truly Saunatarian film.
Was this ever part of the original plot? Miyazaki had to cut a full hour from his original story … was there originally more bath glory at the end? I’d love to ask him, but his contact details are hard to find.
Some Happy Hot Air to Finish
But – we can salvage a Saunatarian gem from this story – the name Ghibli itself! As described in this 2014 interview about Miyazaki’s last film:
The name Ghibli was proposed by Miyazaki, who had found it in an aviation textbook. (At first, he mispronounced it “Ji-bli”, and the mispronunciation stuck.) It’s an Arabic term adopted by Italian pilots to refer to the hot, dry siroccos that blow across the Mediterranean from the Sahara. He hoped to bring fresh air to a stale industry, so the word was just right.
Just right indeed!
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