Studio Ghibli Tribute: Looking for Chihiro -Spirited Away (2001)-

Earlier this week, it is reported that the much-revered Studio Ghibli will halt the production of its feature animation films. While conflicting reports of translations has suggested that this could be temporary, it would not surprise me if we had already seen the last of Miyazaki’s feature films.

This is a sad thing to witness for the Japanophiles but ultimately isn’t inevitable. Ghibli had never managed to produce a successor after Miyazaki, and even the great man would eventually have to retire.

Spirited Away remains my favourite Japanese film of all time. Yes, it is the most ‘mainstream’ releases of all Miyazaki’s films because of its financial success (thus costing me a lot of hipster points), but as a young child, it was what brought me into the world of Japanese culture in the first place.

Spirited Away tells the tale of a young girl trapped and lost in the spiritual world, and I distinctly remember being taken to the cinema to see it. Perhaps it was because I really liked Chihiro, the protagonist, who was roughly the same age as me or perhaps because I was fascinated by the existence of a hidden world, I instantly fell in love with the movie. And with Chihiro, for that matter.

The movie became my gateway to Japanese culture. I spent a lot of time catching up on the older Ghibli titles such as Castle in the Sky (Another young character on an adventure to a hidden world. That seems to explain why I am a Potterhead too) Eventually, I became captivated by all things Japanese. Considering it was pretty normal for Hong Kongers to become enamoured of Japanese culture, it’s a stretch to suggest Miyazaki was the sole reason for this, but his films certainly played a significant role in shaping me and my interest.

As I am fascinated with the worlds under the pencil of Miyazaki, I have sought to visit the locations that resembled, or even inspired his work. I shall offer my tribute in my typical fashion: writing about these places that had aided the creation of such amazing worlds. Let us trace Chihiro together!

For Spirited Away, numerous locations were said to have inspired the spiritual world we saw in the film. Of the four most often-cited locations, I have managed to visit these three as follows:

(the fourth location is the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum, I have meant to go on a few occasion, but never managed it)

1. Ginsan Onsen, (Yamagata Prefecture): the Ambience

Ginsan Onsen

Ginsan Onsen

There are no prove for this, but personally I’ve always believed (or managed to convince myself) that the streets in Spirited Away are based on Ginsan Onsen, a secluded spa town hidden deep in the mountains in northeastern Japan. Skeptical? See in for yourself.

The town is tiny, with its only main street filled with traditional-style Ryokans, exposed wooden, beautiful buildings from the bygone era. I had the fortune to visit the Ginzan Onsen in winter, with the heavy snow on the rooftops and steps enhancing the breathtaking view. Combined with the lack of transport into the area, you would easily believe that you are now in a spiritual world.

2. Dogo Onsen Honkan (Ehime Prefecture): the Bathhouse

Dogo Onsen

While the ambience of Ginsan Onsen was what in my mind ‘it’, official accounts stated that Dogo Onsen in Matsuyama, Shikoku, served as one of the inspiration for the bathhouse in the film. It’s easy to see the resemblance. My photography has let me down here, so let’s have a look at the expert’s take:

Photo from Japan-Guide

Well-known within Japan but not quite so outside of it, Dogo Onsen is probably the oldest and most famous public bathhouse in the whole country, with its history stretching back at least a millennium. Located on the island of Shikoku, it was a favourite of the Japanese emperors and many famous writers, adding to his legendary status among the Japanese. However, it remains a public bathhouse, open to anyone seeking a relaxing bath.

When I went to Matsuyama, my friends and I arrived on a night bus and so taking a bath was the most welcoming thing. Using a Japanese public bathroom was ‘interesting’ to say the least (for starters, no clothing allowed), and after a bath you were treated to tea and snacks. Great start to the day.

3. Jiufen (Taiwan): the Streets

City of Sadness poster: set in Jiufen, one of the first films to discuss Taiwan’s sensitive political past

Not all reported sources of inspiration originated in Japan. The Taiwanese town of Jiufen doesn’t have a bathhouse: but its narrow street, with a mixture of Chinese and Japanese architecture references, were almost carbon copies of the ones we’ve seen in the film.

Jiufen was one of those former mining towns that saw its fortune directly linked to the rise and the death of the mining industry in the region, largely forgotten and hidden in the mountains of northern Taiwan. Incidentally, it was another film that had revived the town: City of Sadness, which won a Golden Lion at Venice (1989) was set among the nostalgic scenery in Jiufen. The film proved to be a massive hit and Jiufen likewise rebounded: it is now one of the most popular weekend getaways from Taipei, and a must on the bucket list for any prospective tourists to Taiwan.

Due to its popularity the streets are often packed and the ambience is certainly different, but the video above gives us for of an idea for how it could be.

There is no confirmation to whether these locations actually helped the creation of the spiritual world in Spirited Away. While accepted usually, these references remain merely speculations. However, they did give me a certain insight, and especially an opportunity to engage myself into this world I have longed for. If you have the opportunity, do go.

Perhaps it is quite unlikely that we’ll see another feature film from Ghibli; I will be very sad about that. But hopefully, the ones that we already have will be here to stay.