Spirited Away. Dir. Hayao Miyazaki. Studio Ghibli. 2001.

Human and Animal Transformation in Spirited Away

When ten year old Chihiro finds herself alone and her parents turned into pigs in the dazzlingly beautiful but dangerous world of the gods and spirits, she must overcome a series of challenges in order to uncover her true strength of character in a vivacious coming of age narrative. Miyazaki explores the condition of modern Japan through examining ideas of purity, excessive consumption, environmentalism and capitalist society. The initially lazy and spoilt Chihiro must relinquish her name and become Sen in the bathhouse of the gods in order to rescue her parents and return home. Along the way she helps the wayward spirit No Face, purges the pollution from a river god, and takes the bathhouse owner’s baby on an outing. Through the winding plot, the young girl learns independence and her self-worth, as she finally correctly identifies that her parents are no longer amongst the pigs. In an ambiguous ending, the family return to their new Audi to find it covered in dust.The of animalisation and anthropomorphism in the film uses animals to explore ideas about human nature, but in doing so it forms cultural ideas about the animals themselves by attributing them human characteristics. Pigs cannot be truly ‘greedy’ creatures, because ‘greed’ is a human idea, but still we portray humans who are greedy as pig-like. In effect, Spirited Away adds to uses filming representations of them to describe people, and in doing so adds to the body of cultural ideas about what it means to be animal.

Animation relies on the “suspension of disbelief”[1] it creates through its “illusionist and phenomenological status as a text.”[2] In other words, it is a space where ‘true’ fact or the ‘real’ is not expected to be found by the viewer, through their understanding of the genre as a representational code. Therefore as a medium as well as a genre it is the perfect partner for fantasy, as it is deep rooted in the blurring of the real and fantastical as oppositional entities. Japanese animation in particular has a long history of this overlapping, perhaps through the country’s language being pictorially based.[3] Miyazaki uses animation to engage with “the world on different terms and conditions”[4] through the meshing of animal and human boundaries. He paints a world in which these boarders are constantly in flux, as bodies transfigure and morph, or are simply fragmentary in nature, in order to point out and evaluate modern human characteristics and ways of life. Animation is a place for metaphor, in which animals are often used to represent and reflect aspects of society in an alternative way.

For Wells, animation is a genre which often casts an idea of animal naturalness as the binary opposite of humanity, which is represented by culture.[6] Miyazaki differentiates between the ‘cultured’ human and the ‘wild’ animal in the transfigurations of Boh, the parents and No Face, even though they are anthropomorphised and animalized to different levels in Spirited Away. Animals are first attributed human qualities, which are placed back on the animal through using them as symbolic. For example, the pigs are used to represent the human metaphor of greed, which is then reflected back onto the parents as a porcine quality. Similarly, the animals’ basic desires are first humanised as excess and gluttony, before being projected back onto No Face by using representations of animal features. Through signifying a reduction of human identity, they are placed in the role of being the complete opposite of cultured humanity, as excessive consumption is the main threat to the running of the bathhouse.

Animation’s reliance on the symbolised allows Miyazaki to use a gradual process of animalization to portray human greed as porcine-like, symbolising a darker and what he sees as a more basically animalistic nature of the excessive consumer in modern Japan. The first shot in this sequence shows the father standing ahead of the rest if the family, as shots from above show him making his way along the maze of streets. The first hints of animalistic qualities are in the way he sniffs the air for food, connoting the behaviour of a dog or a pig. At the restaurant the food is placed in the foreground on huge, glistening piles on plates. This too hints of animals, as we see an oversized fish head and bowls of cooked birds. The parents are shown looming behind the food in the middle of the screen, whilst Chihiro is a smaller figure, isolated in the background. As the parents begin to eat, they become less and less coherent. Chihiro’s mother turns away from the food to talk, but her mouth is full with pieces of chicken, and she mumbles when she tries to talk. Gradually, speaking is replaced by chewing and munching, and eventually totally replaced with grunting and snorting sounds. Human identity is portrayed as being lost through the lack of language and identity, as when the protagonist leaves her parents we only see a shot of their backs, as their faces are lost in the basic desire to eat. Pigs, as well as humans, like to eat, and so Miyazaki uses the image of the pig to describe the parents’ gluttonous behaviour. In doing so he creates a discourse about pigs which labels them as ‘naturally’ greedy, even though greed is quality assigned by humans. This idea of animality portrayed opposition  to ‘humanness’, but in fact it is the elements of human nature which Miyazaki sees as ontologically bad that he uses his representations of animals to explore.

Similarly human greed is represented through animalization of the character of No Face, and this is mirrored in the workers of the bathhouse. No Face is turned into a monster through acquiring a grotesque combination of different animal characteristics, such as the blackened legs of the frog he consumes, a pair of smaller forelegs, a set of large, square teeth, and a gaping red mouth. He shovels endless plates of food into his mouth, and the shot is taken from a low angle to emphasise his huge and still swelling size, as his initially almost non- existent body has become bulbous and distorted. The gnashing sounds he makes are reminiscent of the pigs the parents turned into, further exaggerating the ‘animal’ qualities he gains through his unbounded consumption. Miyazaki again comments on excess as individualistic and destructive, and he uses animal characteristics to imagine a loss of essential ‘humanness’. The shots alternate between the eating monster and the workers of the bathhouse, who are depicted as a swarm of bodies carrying animal based food on plates above their heads, obscuring their faces. Their voices are lost by the clamouring sounds they make, as again human identity represented through language is lost in what Miyazaki represents as animalistic actions of basic greed. Animaltiy, then, is used as a symbol of human excess gone wrong. By using animals as a vehicle for ideas of human corruption, the animal is represented as the monstrous and becomes a sign of the ‘anti-human’.

Another angle of human and animal morphing in the films is how baby Boh is cast into the body of a small mouse by Zeniba’s spell. Here the animation does not use animals to attribute characteristics like greed through the literal transformation of humans into animals, but uses ‘zoomorphism’[5] instead, as Boh only gains the form of the mouse rather than any of its characteristics. To be a mouse is to be reduced, in a reversal of the previous use of animals to portray human traits like greed as a base figure of humanity; animal alteration here is a path of escaping the superfluous. Eerily large and strewn with cushions, presents and toys, his nursery presents another kind of excess. In a similarly massive form, the baby holds Sen and tells her to play with him, otherwise he’ll “cry” and his mother will “kill” her. Only through becoming a small mouse does Boh lose the ability to cry, and indeed to talk at all. His subjectivity is changed, as when he was a human baby his eyes were small and shrunken into his outsized head, whereas as a mouse his eyes are emphasised as one of his most prominent features. Animation allows for this play between literal and metaphorical through its manipulation of the pictorial, and a contract between film and viewer for the lack of an expectation of truth and reality. Due to its size, the mouse is used as a sign for minimalistic and non-greedy living here. Through using the mouse to act as a symbol for this human idea of ways of living, the film creates the idea that mice are inherently moderate.

The politics of the film revolves around using animals for exploring modern Japanese society, but in doing so it also renders animals in different ways. The parents’ greed is portrayed as an animalistic quality as their bodies transform, literalising their hidden internal pollution of character through the metaphor of the pigs. They turn into ‘true’ pig who can’t speak, and Miyazaki comments on their loss of identity though making them identical to all the other pigs in the barn. Similarly, No Face’s animalization places animals in the role of the anti-human, as they represent a threat to cultured society of the bathhouse which works as a unit. Boh’s new mouse body is shown to only be an outer skin, as this animalization implies he has still retained his essential humanity and identity, but the change has only altered his subjectivity. Miyazaki’s animals explore his idea of humanity present in modern capitalist Japan through the different levels of morphing bodies in his fantasy world.

Spirited Away is comparable to Disney’s adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, which also revolves around the unexplainable playing of reality using bodily transformations of animals and humans, as well as playing with size and form. Both of these films can be seen to use transfiguration to explore ideas of identity and subjectivity. In an interview, Miyazaki said “when creating a fantasy, you open up the lid to parts of your brain that don’t usually open.”[7] This suggests a sort of releasing of the subconscious, and the two films explore the relationship between human and animal through literally playing with the visual forms of bodies. The Mad Hatter and the March Hare physically parallel each other, setting up a complex relationship between reality, fantasy, humanity, animalism and identity. Furthermore, both films explore and uncover elements of the self in relation to society in worlds which both collapse and set up the boundaries between human and animal.


Napier, Susan J., ‘The Problem of Existence in Japanese Animation’, in Proceedings of the American Philosophical SocietyVol. 149, No. 1 (American Philosophical Society, 2005), pp.72-79

Napier, Susan J., ‘Matter out of Place: Carnival, Containment, and Cultural Recovery in Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away”, in Journal of Japanese Studies, Vol. 32, No. 2 (The Society for Japanese Studies, Summer, 2006), pp. 287-310

Wells, Paul, The Animated Bestiary, Animals, Cartoons, and Culture, (New Brunswick, New Jersey and London: Rutgers University Press, February 2009)

Odell, Colin, & Le Blanc, Michelle, Studio Ghibli, The Films of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takakata, (Somerset: Kamera Books, 2009)


Spirited Away, (dir., Hayao Miyazaki, 2001, Japan)

Further Reading References

Baraka, Jolyon, ‘Shûkyô Asobi and Miyazaki Hayao’s Anime’, in Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions’, Vol. 10, No. 3 (University of California Press , February 2007), pp. 73-95

Cavallaro, Dani, The Anime Art of Hayao Miyazaki, (Jefferson, North Carolina and London: McFarland & Company Inc., 2006)

Hu, Tze-yue, G., Frames of Anime: Culture and Image-Building, (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2010)

Miyazaki’s Jonathan Ross interview

Spirited Away Full English Movie

Spirited Away Trailer

The Making of Spirited Away

[1] Paul Wells, ‘The Animated Bestiary, Animals, Cartoons, and Culture’, (New Brunswick, New Jersey and London: Rutgers University Press, February 2009) p. 49 All subsequent references refer to this edition

[2] ibid

[3] Susan J., Napier, ‘The Problem of Existence in Japanese Animation’, in Proceedings of the American Philosophical SocietyVol. 149, No. 1 (American Philosophical Society, 2005), p. 73

[4] Paul Wells, ‘The Animated Bestiary, Animals, Cartoons, and Culture’, p. 35

[5] Colin Odell & Michelle Le Blanc, ‘Studio Ghibli, The Films of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takakata’, (Somerset: Kamera Books, 2009) p. 27

[6] Paul Wells, ‘The Animated Bestiary, Animals, Cartoons, and Culture’, p. 19

[7] Hayao Miyazaki, in Susan J., Napier, ‘Matter out of Place: Carnival, Containment, and Cultural Recovery in Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away”, in Journal of Japanese Studies, Vol. 32, No. 2 (The Society for Japanese Studies, Summer, 2006) p. 228