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This is how I interpret the story of Spirited Away:

  • The bathhouse represents the society. People work with each other towards a common goal. Every night, 8 million gods come to the bathhouse and workers serve them, worship them. In a way they deal with them, do business with them. In Asian cultures, fire, air, earth, water, food, etc. are represented as gods, so bathhouse very accurately represents a working society. The 'spell' breaks if they stop working.
  • Yubaba is the culture. She manages the bathhouse. She is tyrannical and rules over people by taking there real name and giving them a new name.
  • Chihiro was given a new name by Yubaba, 'Sen', which means 'one thousand', similar to how a person is given a roll number or employee number in an organisation. That number becomes his new identity.
  • Haku has forgotten his real name. Similar to Islamic terrorism, he's become a slave to the tyrannical culture. He'll do anything the culture tells him to do.
  • The baby is the belief system of the society. Yubaba is overly protective of him.

One thing I can't understand is, who is Zeniba, Yubaba's twin sister.

  1. Yubaba and Zeniba are two parts of a whole.

  2. Yubaba keeps baby locked in a room, afraid that he might get sick because of germs. Zeniba turned baby into a mouse so that he might have a little freedom.

  3. Zeniba lives in swamp bottom.

  4. There used to be trains running between bathhouse and swamp bottom in old days, but the return trains from swamp bottom have stopped. Now it's a one-way road towards swamp bottom.

  5. The tickets to swamp bottom Kamaji gave to Chihiro had been with him for 40 years.

  6. 'Zeni' has two meanings in Japanese, 'money' and 'ancient'. 'ba' means 'old lady'. The meaning of Zeniba which seems to fit the story is 'ancient old lady.

  7. Yubaba wanted to steal a seal from Zeniba, which was supposedly very precious.

So what does Zeniba represent in this story?

  • Could you give a reference where 'zeni' means 'ancient'? jisho only mentions 'coin', but not 'ancient'. – Aki Tanaka Feb 20 '18 at 17:03
  • @Aki Tanaka Post edited to include the reference – saga Feb 20 '18 at 17:08
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    You have linked to a Google search there. What exactly are we supposed to infer from it? – muru Feb 24 '18 at 4:04
  • @muru it's a reminder for those who have watched the movie. – saga Feb 24 '18 at 9:11
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For me, it was old money vs new money. Yubaba keeps rushing to make money, accepts tourists etc. Money became not the means to an end but the end itself. Her bathhouse is modern corporation, Zeniba's house is old school mom and pop store. Chihiro gets her first job in a large corporation, gets treated as disposable, grows up... But it is no way to live, to truly be adult, that is not the true meaning of adulthood. There has to be more to life than money. And it is Zeniba which shows her true grandmotherly kindness and gives her some peace and respite from the story.

In a way, Zeniba is at peace with nature. She takes what she needs from it, but no more than that. Yubaba uses nature to gain money and she only cleans the river god for gold. And Zeniba doesn't do much, maybe because she is retired; in modern world, people don't search for her, her ways are not wanted anymore. Her entrance in the story can be seen as reaction to Yubaba's actions.

"You and your corporate thinking are not all powerful and all good, Yubaba. I will show you the different way to do things. The old way!" Zeniba says with her actions. And it turns out that there is value in old ways, in traditions long forgotten. That is my interpretation at least. They represent old ways to do business and grow up and new ways to do that and you need to understand both to be a complete person and live in modern society which at the same time has long traditions.

Also, an interesting thought and a way of looking at the story: Sen didn't search for Zeniba until she has seen naked greed of her coworkers, until she has seen them consumed by it. A lesson can be seen as this: As long as you spend all your time at work, you will not see your parents again. If that is what you truly want, then stop working, visit your grandmother and your parents will return to their senses and see you again.

  • Nice answer. But kamaji tells chihiro that the return trains from swamp bottom, which used to run before, have stopped. What do you think that means? – saga Feb 24 '18 at 18:40
  • People giving up, maybe? If you consider Zeniba old fashioned and Yubaba the modern world/society (constant search for money while at the same time not giving your children what they need, replacing the loving attention, freedom to learn things on their own and teaching with toys and sweets), then once you leave it, there is no need to get back. The world has changed, once you can't deal with it, you permanently retreat to the swamp, to the familiarity,safety and warmth. You stop fighting to better yourself or society, for good or bad. You retire to Zeniba place, because you can't keep up. – jo1storm Feb 25 '18 at 8:48
  • jo1storm and what does the seal represent? She'd put a spell on it and said that anyone(haku) who tries to steal the seal must die. How does boh fit into this picture? – saga Feb 25 '18 at 12:07
  • Seal... I'd say it represents honor(s) or values. Maybe even respect. In all her search for money, what Yubaba wanted the most was respect of the others. And that is what her sister owned! You cannot steal respect, you have to earn it. Same goes for honor. Try to steal it and you will die dishonored, branded as a thief and shunned from society. Old money Zeniba has respect, because of the way she gained that money, the honorable way. New money Yubaba doesn't have it. Funny thing is, Zeniba doesn't care much about seal. It is not enough for Yubaba to be rich, she wants to be respected too! – jo1storm Feb 25 '18 at 21:56
  • Old money Zeniba has respect, because of the way she gained that money, the honorable way. New money Yubaba doesn't have it but she lives alone. She's seen interacting with just a couple of people. – saga Feb 25 '18 at 22:22
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Yubaba is the culture.

What does that even mean? It's so vague.

Spirited Away is often interpreted to be about sex work. Yubaba is the owner of the brothel. The characters have their names changed because that was a common practice for sex workers in Japan.

Chihiro was given a new name by Yubaba, 'Sen', which means 'one thousand', similar to how a person is given a roll number or employee number in an organisation. That number becomes her new identity.

"One thousand" is a price, not a meaningless word.

So what do Yubaba and Zeniba represent in this story? It looks like they might represent:

  • culture and nature

  • tyranny and individuality

  • life and death

  • interdependence and self reliance

but none of these seem to elegently fit all the points I've mentioned above.

This is so vague. I could say that any character represents "individuality". Doing so wouldn't tell me anything useful about that character beyond a few superficial insights.

Art is about experiences. Experiences are detailed and specific, not vague "I'm going to be an individual in the face of an oppressive society."

  • As well as providing a link to analysis of the film, please could you include the relevant points from that analysis in your answer itself? Links can go dead, and if that link dies, your post becomes almost useless (at least, unsupported). – Rand al'Thor Feb 24 '18 at 20:28
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    Spirited Away is often interpreted to be about sex work. But it isn't meant to be interpreted that way. Miyazaki himself has said that this is a movie for preteen girls, the fact that adults liked it was a surprise for him. Buzzfeed article you linked doesn't provide any official links to back it's claim about miyazaki's quote. It all seems to be a rumor derived from a completely unrelated comment about sex industry. Take a look here – saga Feb 24 '18 at 22:18
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Miyazaki lived through the rapid rise and spectacular fall of the Japanese economy over the past few decades. Yubaba represents the head of a typical greedy Japanese corporation. The bathhouse, a very traditional Japanese business, represents Japan itself which grew insatiably greedy with the roaring Japanese economy of the late 80s and early 90s, as symbolized by the bathhouse's over the top extravagance. Yubaba is a strict domineering boss who treats her employees like slaves and sees customers as little more than a source of money. She is also a workaholic who neglects the relationships with her son and sister. Zeniba, who lives a train ride away in the countryside, represents the more traditional rural Japan that became forgotten during the economic boom. Remember that the train used to run both ways, but not anymore. Zeniba lives a slower life, and does not neglect her family, employees, or customers. Compare how Yubaba treats her own son, No Face, and Chihiro vs. how Zeniba treats them. Zeniba was able to recognize No Face's talents where Yubaba only saw fake gold. Miyzaki himself is known to be quite the workaholic so there might be a tinge of self reflection in his portrayal of Yubaba, and a tinge of how he thinks things should be in his portrayal of Zeniba. Studio Ghibli as a company has tried to set itself up to be something better than just another greedy corporation, and Yubaba and Zeniba might also represent the dichotomy that arises between Studio Ghibli's desire to rake in massive box office profit and the desire to do the right thing.

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