Flying with Miyazaki
Flight as a Metaphor for Power in Spirited Away
by Joshua Morgan
[originally published in Animatrix: A Journal of the UCLA Animation Workshop, Volume 12, 2003]
Virtually every animated feature film directed by Hayao Miyazaki, the “master of Japanese animation,” depicts fantastic scenes of flight. By granting his characters the power of flight, Miyazaki conceives visually stunning flying sequences, as his heroes and heroines soar to the outer limits of the dreamscapes he creates. It is just as easy, if not easier, for an animator to make a character fly as it is to make a character walk, and since his medium is animation, there are no limits to the scale or complexity of the flying machines that Miyazaki can construct. Moreover, Miyazaki’s characters do not even need airplanes to fly, because the magic of animation can give anyone the magic of flight. Despite the boundless freedom that animation affords him, however, Miyazaki is very deliberate about which characters he endows with the power of flight, how they are able to fly, and when they can take to the air. The dazzling displays of flying in Miyazaki’s films are not merely for show, but rather, they are masterful metaphors that symbolize the empowerment of the character in flight.
Generally, the inhabitants of Miyazaki’s worlds are only able to fly with the aid of some sort of flying contraption, although the device is not always something obviously used for flight. Lupin III: Castle of Cagliostro, Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind, Laputa: The Castle in the Sky, Kiki's Delivery Service, and Porco Rosso are all films that depict somewhat conventional flying machines such as airships, autogyros, gliders, warplanes, and zeppelins. These machines, however, are not simply modes of transportation. Their pilots are empowered with the freedom to escape the confines of terra firma and the strength to combat their enemies and fears. Miyazaki, like the characters in his films, seems personally drawn to the inherent mechanical power of these flying machines. Though Miyazaki says that he cannot trace his parents’ influences on him, he may have inherited his fascination for flight and flying machines from his father, who was the director of the family firm, Miyazaki Airplane, which made parts for Zero fighters during World War II (McCarty 26). Miyazaki even named the animation studio he co-founded with fellow animator, Isao Takahata, after a flying machine: Ghibli, the Italian scouting airplane. 
True to the freedom of animation, Miyazaki’s characters also fly using implements powered by magic rather than science, like the spinning top in My Neighbor Totoro, the levitation stone in Laputa, and Kiki's broom. Since imagination and fantasy are not bound by the limitations of the physical world, magic can be more powerful than technology. With the help of the mystical Totoros, Mei and Satsuki unleash the life-giving power of the Earth as they raise a gigantic tree from the soil where they planted tiny seeds. The sisters then hop onto the enchanted spinning top with the Totoros and soar high above the trees on a magical flight symbolizing their newfound power. The next day, the girls confidently proclaim their empowerment by chanting, “We did it! We did it!” even though the giant tree is now replaced by tiny sprouts. In Laputa, the mythical levitation stone not only gives its bearer the power of flight, but its crystals physically work as power generators on a scale so great that the floating Castle of Laputa possesses the power to dominate and enslave the Earth. In Kiki’s Delivery Service, Kiki discovers only after losing the ability to fly that the true power comes from within, not from the broom.
The flying contraptions that dominate Miyazaki’s previous films, however, are absent from Spirited Away. In Spirited Away, Miyazaki has created a world so fantastic that his characters are able to fly by magic alone. The magic of flight, however, is an ability that Miyazaki gives to only a few select characters in the film. These characters only fly at certain dramatic moments when they demonstrate not only their flying ability, but also other powers that they possess, such as authority, respect, independence, love, and understanding. Conversely, the characters who are unable to fly are presented to the audience as altogether powerless. Thus, Miyazaki uses images of free-floating, high-flying characters in Spirited Away as a visual metaphor to symbolize an empowerment that transcends the ability to fly.
An example of empowerment symbolized in flight can be seen in Miyazaki’s depiction of the Stink God. The world of Spirited Away revolves around a bathhouse called Aburaya, where gods and spiritual creatures come to freshen up. One such creature is the oxymoronically-named “Stink God.” Miyazaki strips this character of the power that might be suggested by the term “god,” by drawing it as a big brown blob and animating its walk as a sluggish and slobbering saunter. The Stink God is so visibly powerless in its struggle to overcome gravity while walking that the employees of the bathhouse refuse to give the god any respect. The bathhouse workers try to drive the foul-smelling beast away from the establishment and when it manages to get inside, they have the least-experienced and lowest-ranking attendant see to its needs. Disrespect becomes deference, though, as the Stink God undergoes an empowering transformation that reveals its true identity as a River God and restores its ability to fly. When the polluted sludge that emits a fetid stench and weighs the Stink God down is washed away by an herbal bath, a clean and renewed River God emerges in flight to command the respect deserving of a god. When it could barely walk, the God is considered to be an intruder and is met with frantically waving arms trying to stop it from entering the bathhouse, but when it has the power to fly again, it also regains the power to command respect, and so it is revered as an honored guest and the entire bathhouse rejoices and waves goodbye as it makes a soaring departure.
Another character that possesses the power to command respect is Yubaba (“Hot Water Hag”), the greedy ruler of the bathhouse. Her power and authority over the bathhouse workers are symbolically reinforced by her ability to fly. Each time Yubaba flies, she displays the many powers she possesses. When the Stink God visits the bathhouse and begins its transformation, Yubaba flies down from a balcony, hovers over the scene, and begins to bark orders from an elevated position in a demonstration of her power of authority. Yubaba not only takes charge of the situation, she also lays claim to all of the gold left behind by the Stink God. Although the countless bathhouse workers perform the actual “dirty work” while cleansing the Stink God of its pollution, only the high-flying and greedy Yubaba reaps the riches of the deed.
Yubaba’s ability to fly also empowers her to leave the bathhouse and soar like a bird over the expansive sea that isolates it. The freedom afforded to Yubaba in flight is denied to her workers. This is typified by a woman named Rin, who dreams of escaping to “the world beyond the sea.” She works hard at the bathhouse in order to save enough money for a train ticket, but she knows that even if she earns enough money, train tickets are rare and the sea level often rises above the train tracks. Rin and the other bathhouse workers acquiesce to Yubaba’s authority over them, in part because they are jealous of her free-flying sovereignty, but there is also an element of fear in their obedience. Yubaba not only flies like a bird herself, but she also commands a minion bird that flies high over the bathhouse grounds and spies on the workers below. This “Yu-Bird” literally acts as a second pair of Yubaba’s eyes, because its head is a miniature version of her own. By having a scout that can fly around at all times and see over everything from above (even when she herself is on the ground), Yubaba is empowered to a point that nears omniscience, and she is able to keep her workers in line.
Yubaba further asserts her power of authority by making her subordinates fly against their own will. When a ten year-old girl named Chihiro enters the bathhouse from the outside human world (present-day Japan), Yubaba uses her magic to make this powerless girl fly with her arms outstretched only an inch off the ground, through the maze of hallways leading to Yubaba’s office, where Chihiro is sent tumbling to the floor. Though Chihiro herself is flying, it is clear that Yubaba is the one who controls her flight; therefore, it is Yubaba who is empowered. Chihiro seems to feel empowered, however, for she defiantly demands that Yubaba give her a job in the bathhouse. Yubaba repeatedly refuses Chihiro’s request, but Chihiro is relentless in her petition for employment until Yubaba flies from behind her desk through the air, directly at Chihiro. Miyazaki demonstrates Yubaba’s power over the situation by using the symbol of flight. Chihiro is obviously awe-struck and frightened by Yubaba’s flying demonstration of power and she probably would have given up her demands for a job, but luckily Yubaba is distracted by her crying baby just long enough for Chihiro to ask one last time, and this time Yubaba gives in.
Though Yubaba concedes and allows Chihiro to work at the bathhouse, Miyazaki further illustrates Yubaba’s power of authority over Chihiro in a subtle yet powerful image of flight. Yubaba makes all would-be workers sign an employment agreement, and so Chihiro, whose name literally means “a thousand fathoms of water,” scribbles the four Kanji characters that spell out her name onto the contract. However, Yubaba magically makes three of the Kanji letters fly off the paper and into her hand, leaving only the character pronounced “Sen,” which means “a thousand.” By giving flight to the characters in her name and “spiriting” them away, Yubaba has stripped Chihiro of the power of her identity and leaves her with a name that suggests her anonymity amongst the thousand other workers in the bathhouse.
Yubaba’s power of authority over Sen is undermined, however, by Yubaba’s own henchman, a boy named Haku. Haku himself is subjected to Yubaba’s power of authority, but he too is able to fly. The power of flight not only allows Haku to carry out Yubaba’s secret orders, but it also symbolically empowers him to subversively challenge Yubaba’s authority by helping Sen. It is Haku who hides her from the all-seeing eyes of the Yu-Bird and instructs her to seek a job in the bathhouse. Once Sen has been granted employment but stripped of her name, Haku reminds Sen that her real name is Chihiro. He also takes Sen to see her parents, who have been turned into pigs after gorging themselves on food intended for the divine guests of the bathhouse. It is after Haku shows Sen her parents that she first sees a flying dragon, which appears to be very similar to the Stink-God-turned-River-God. The next time Sen sees the flying dragon, Miyazaki depicts its flight over backgrounds of water so that it initially appears to be swimming rather than flying. In fact, even when the dragon is plainly seen flying through the sky, its body moves as if it was swimming in the air. Miyazaki uses this visual ambiguity between swimming and flying to foreshadow a later revelation about Haku’s character.
The flying dragon is, after all, Haku in dragon form, and Sen realizes this subconsciously when she sees the dragon flying on this second occasion. Haku is clearly powerful when he is flying as a dragon. However, this time, he is hindered because he is bombarded by hundreds of flying paper birds. Paper alone has no power since it tears easily and requires some sort of manipulation to become useful; but, as Miyazaki shows with his animated paper birds, even paper, when empowered with the ability to fly, can be a mighty force. The fragility of the paper is contrasted by the power Miyazaki provides it with. The swarm of paper birds is so powerful that it is able to physically harm Haku and knock him out of the sky. Battered and bleeding, Haku momentarily seeks shelter from the paper birds within the bathhouse as Sen wards them off. Miyazaki signals to his audience that the power of the paper birds’ flight lies elsewhere, by showing one of the paper birds flying along the floor with its “wings” outstretched in a manner which is very reminiscent of Chihiro’s flight through the hallway when she was being controlled by Yubaba.
Haku, whose flight is being indirectly controlled by Yubaba, has just enough power left to fly up to the top of the bathhouse to seek the refuge of his master’s office. Yubaba refuses to help him, however, since he is “of no use” to her anymore, presumably because he is no longer able to fly in his beaten condition. When Yubaba leaves Haku, he is confronted by an apparition of Yubaba’s twin sister, Zeniba, who proceeds to turn Yubaba’s gigantic son, Bou, into a tiny rodent-like creature. Bou is an oversized, spoiled baby who has probably never crawled out of his nursery, but when Zeniba shrinks him into a rodent, she declares that his new form will give him “a little more freedom.” Zeniba also shrinks the Yu-Bird into a tiny fluttering speck, which lends its power of flight to the rodent-sized Bou. Zeniba informs Sen that Haku, acting under Yubaba’s bidding, has stolen a charmed seal from Zeniba, and that Haku will die for his thievery.
Shunned by his master, battered by the flying paper birds, and poisoned by the charmed seal, Haku is rendered powerless and falls down a pit, dragging Sen, Bou, and the Yu-Bird down with him. Haku has totally lost his ability to fly, and it seems that they will all plummet to their deaths, but the way that Sen straddles Haku and grabs his horns suddenly conjures up a flash of a shared memory from a moment in which Sen and Haku have met in the past. The spark of this memory acts as a powerful jumpstart and Haku momentarily regains his ability to fly, and he soars Sen, Bou, and the Yu-Bird to safety, but it is clear from his extremely rough landing that Haku will probably die unless something is done to help him. Sen had been given an herbal cake by the flying River God which she is certain will turn her parents from pigs back into humans, but acting in a wholly selfless manner, Sen takes a bit of the herbal cake and gives it to Haku. The cake does indeed possess the magical powers that Sen had believed, and Haku regurgitates the charmed seal and Sen steps on the charm. Haku then turns back into a boy, but he is still ill from the effects of the charm. Sen wants to return the seal to Zeniba and beg for Haku’s forgiveness, but Haku can no longer fly, so Sen resolves to take it back herself.
Sen gets directions and four train tickets to Zeniba’s house in Swamp Bottom from the spider-like Kamaji, who works in the boiler room. Before she can set off on her new quest, however, Sen is detoured by Yubaba, who makes her confront the Kaonashi, a “No Face” creature who has been terrorizing the bathhouse. Sen yet again demonstrates an unselfish act and gives up the last of the herbal cake to the No Face, who chases her and regurgitates all of the food and people he has eaten in the bathhouse. Now accompanied by a less-monstrous No Face, the rodent Bou, and a shrunken Yu-Bird, Sen sets off on a one-way train trip to Swamp Bottom. There is no return train, and Sen will not be able to fly back because the only member of their party who can fly is the tiny Yu-Bird, who struggles to carry even Bou. Sen is so determined to help Haku, however, that she goes anyway in a gesture of self-sacrifice.
Meanwhile, at the bathhouse, Yubaba continues to act selfishly. She becomes enraged when she discovers that all of the gold given to her by No Face is worthless and that her baby Bou is missing. For the first time in the film, Yubaba seems to have absolutely no control over anything, as she frantically looks for Bou in the nursery. When Haku enters the nursery, the mere sight of her rejuvenated henchman infuriates Yubaba, who spews fire from her mouth and tries to fly at Haku exactly like she flew at Chihiro earlier; but, instead of flying, Miyazaki deliberately denies her the power of flight because Yubaba’s tyranny and greed has left her friendless and empty-handed. Yubaba is shown running at Haku with the rapid pitter-patter sound of her little feet on the floor. The final blow to her authority comes as Haku informs her that her son is on his way to return the seal to Zeniba with Sen. This news of betrayal literally extinguishes her flame and she bashfully walks away from a defiant Haku, who demands that Yubaba return Sen and her parents to the human world in exchange for the safe return of Bou. Yubaba agrees, but threatens to destroy Haku upon his return because she believes that she still has power over him. However, her sudden inability to fly, in light of Haku’s regained powers, suggests that she will in fact be powerless to execute her threat.
At Swamp Bottom, Sen discovers why Zeniba said Bou would have more freedom as a rodent. Bou not only gains the freedom to travel outside of his nursery all the way across the sea to Swamp Bottom, but he also flies for the first time, aided by Yu-Bird. Furthermore, when Yu-Bird gets too tired to fly with Bou and Sen offers to let them ride on her shoulder, Bou refuses. This is a significant moment because as a giant baby boy, Bou was so spoiled by Yubaba and mysophobic that he spent his entire life thus far surrounded by fluffy pillows in the nursery, crying for attention and too afraid to go out into the world where there were germs. But now, as a tiny rodent, Bou has been empowered with a newfound independence from his mother and control over his mysophobia, and so he would rather walk on all fours on the dirty ground of Swamp Bottom than be babied and carried. When their party finally meets Zeniba, Sen asks her to turn Bou and Yu-Bird back to their original sizes, but Zeniba informs them that the spell has long since been broken and that they can change back at any time. Bou and Yu-Bird would rather stay small and transformed, however, because they are now free from Yubaba.
Sen returns the seal to Zeniba and asks her to forgive Haku, which she does. Zeniba rewards Sen’s altruism by offering Sen a “hint” that the key to freeing her parents and Haku from Yubaba lies within her subconscious. She tells Sen that “nothing that happens is forgotten, even if you can’t remember it.” When Haku triumphantly arrives at Swamp Bottom as a dragon once again to fly Sen, Bou, and Yu-Bird back to the bathhouse, Sen announces to Zeniba that her “real name is Chihiro.” It is this proclamation of her true identity that enables Chihiro to fully awaken a memory that she had thought to be long-forgotten. As she flies off on Haku’s back, Chihiro begins to remember when she first met Haku. At first, she only remembers fragments of memories, but then she recalls an indirect memory of what happened, in the form of a story that her mother told her about how Chihiro fell into the Kohaku River when she was little. Through her mother’s recollection of the incident, Chihiro is able to remind Haku of his real name, Kohaku. Haku, the boy who can turn into a flying dragon that swims through the air and looks remarkably like the Stink/River God, is, in fact, himself – the River God Nigihayami Kohaku Nushi. Upon hearing his real name, Kohaku, he is reminded that his name has been taken from him by Yubaba and that he has been under her control ever since. Instantly, Kohaku’s dragon visage disintegrates into reptilian scales mid-flight and he begins to fall through the air, with his passengers in tow. Holding hands as they fall, Kohaku and Chihiro piece together their memories of when they first met. Chihiro had accidentally dropped her shoe into the river, but fell in when she tried to retrieve it. However, Kohaku carried Chihiro to the safety of shallow water. Only after fully awakening their shared forgotten memory do the two begin to fly again. This time, it is not merely Chihiro riding Haku as he flies, but rather, it is Chihiro and Kohaku, holding hands and flying side-by-side. They are now both empowered with awareness, confidence, freedom, friendship, love, and understanding.
These powers, symbolized in their flight, enable Chihiro and Kohaku to confidently confront Yubaba, who no longer controls them. When Chihiro faces Yubaba’s test and must pick out her parents amongst the other pigs, she is able to correctly conclude that her mother and father are not among the offered pigs at all. In an interview, Miyazaki states that Chihiro makes the right decision because she has awakened “her hidden adaptability and patience” and she realizes for the first time that “she has the power of life for good judgment” (Kumi). Eventually, even Bou stands up to Yubaba, literally. In fact, Yubaba is surprised to see Bou stand on his own, which is a symbol of his independence. Thus, Yubaba’s unyielding authority over the workers of the bathhouse has begun to slip, and Chihiro returns to the human world with her parents after taking a climatic and empowering flight.
In Miyazaki’s earlier films, anime scholar Susan Napier has noted that “the image of the flying girl sends a message of boundless possibility in which emotions, imagination, and sometimes even technology […] combine to offer hope of a potentially attainable alternative world that transcends our own world” (138). Miyazaki has expressed concern that “children are losing their roots, being surrounded by high technology and cheap industrial goods” (Drazen 278), but he offers Chihiro, the flying girl in the world of Spirited Away, as a moral paradigm for the real world. The villainess, Yubaba, begins the film as a very powerful force, and her authority is symbolized by her almost exclusive ability to fly. She abuses her power, however, by being tyrannical and greedy, and so, Miyazaki punishes her actions visually by making Yubaba earthbound for the latter part of the film. Conversely, Chihiro starts off powerless and unable to fly, but she undergoes a spiritual awaking that reveals her compassionate altruism and enables her to soar high over her obstacles. Ultimately, Chihiro triumphs as both the heroine and the moral victor.
Drazen, Patrick. Anime Explosion: The What? Why? and Wow! of Japanese Animation. Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press, 2003.
Kumi, Kaoru. “Kamikakushi: Anime Master Miyazaki's New Ambition.” Animation World Magazine. 31 Dec. 2001.
McCarty, Helen. Hayao: Master of Japanese Animation. Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press, 1999.
Napier, Susan. Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke: experiencing contemporary Japanese animation. New York: Palgrave, 2001.
Miyazaki, Hayao, dir. Kiki's Delivery Service. Toei Japan. 1989.
–––. Laputa: The Castle in the Sky. Toei Japan. 1986.
–––. Lupin III: Castle of Cagliostro. Tokyo Movie Shinsha. 1979.
–––. My Neighbor Totoro. Toho. 1988.
–––. Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind. Toei Japan. 1984.
–––. Porco Rosso. Toei Japan. 1992.
–––. Spirited Away. Toho. 2001.
 “Ghibli” is an Italian word meaning “a strong Saharan wind.”