June 26th, 2018


Incremental Understanding and Spirited Away

When I first watched Spirited Away - in the local arts cinema, when it came out - I knew virtually nothing about Japan or Japanese. I remember noticing with surprise, for example, that the cars drove on the left. Accordingly, a lot of things went over my head. Some I knew I didn't understand, others passed me by entirely. On the other hand, I already had a pretty good knowledge of Western fantasy tropes, mythology and, to an extent, magic. It didn't strike me as odd at all, for example, that Yubaba might want to take custody of Chihiro's name and issue her with another one. After all, names and things are ultimately one, as any reader of fantasy knows.

Still, I was surprised that by taking one character (千) from Chihiro's name (荻野千尋), Yubaba was able to come up with a name that didn't sound like any part of that name - namely, "Sen". That was explained later when I learned the difference between kunyomi and onyomi readings of kanji, as explained here. As a rule of thumb, the character "千" is Sen (kunyomi or native Japanese reading) when it's on its own, but Chi (onyomi or Chinese reading) when it's with other kanji, as in 千尋, or the name of my friend Chiho (千穂).

More recently, while eating at the yurei café in Kichijoji, my friend Mikako mentioned that after death she would be given a new name by the priests, who would do it by taking one of the kanji in her name and giving it a kunyomi reading. At least, I think that's what she said; I'd had a bit of sake by that time, and consulting the internet afterwards it seems that the rules for posthumous names are a bit more complicated than that.

"But... does that mean Yubaba's land is actually the land of the dead?" I remember asking, the penny dropping from my eyes. Mikako confirmed it.

Well, of course it makes sense - it's on the far side of water, after all. And the lands of the gods and the dead often bleed into each other, don't they? (Yes, Tír na nÓg, I'm looking at you.) That's going to be still more the case in a country with ancestor worship. It's only natural.

One thing I still don't get about Spirited Away is the title: 千と千尋の神隠し (Sen and Chihiro's Kamikushi). It's not that 神隠し doesn't really have an English translation - "being hidden by a god" is as close as I can get. If you're familiar with, say, Thomas the Rhymer or Kilmeny, then I think you have a pretty good idea what 神隠し involves. No, the bit I don't understand is "Sen and Chihiro" - as if they were two different characters. What's that all about?

Of course, it's not ideal to read Spirited Away through the prism of Western fantasy and myth - although it's a film influenced by Western fantasy, too. I recently read that in Japan its tagline was 「トンネルのむこうは、不思議の町でした!」 (There was a town of wonders through the tunnel!"), where 不思議の町 surely recalls 不思議の国、the usual translation for [Alice in] Wonderland, which of course begins with a young girl entering through a tunnel. [ETA But it probably also recalls the famous - to Japanese people - opening of Yasunari Kawabata's novel, Snow Country: "The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country" (国境の長いトンネルを抜けると雪国であった).]

But we all start from where we start from.