Emerald Cities and Scarlet Queens
Miyazaki’s Spirited Away—A Pastiche of Oz and Wonderland
Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away is largely regarded as a modern classic, but the influences from the works of Lewis Carroll and L. Frank Baum cannot be ignored. Here we see which characters are takes on memorable figures from Wonderland and the Land of Oz, and we discern which themes carry through between the stories.
In 2006, Hayao Miyazaki reached mainstream, international renown when his animated film Spirited Away won an Oscar for Best Animated Feature. Although he was a respected name in the industry even before that, Miyazaki had proven that his movies were not just for children, but beautifully crafted epics to be enjoyed by adults across the globe. But, as is the case with any beloved classic, the film did attract its fair share of pedants. “It’s just Japanese Alice in Wonderland!” claimed anyone with access to the Internet. It is certainly true that Spirited Away and Lewis Carroll’s classic children’s novel bear similarities, but to boil them down to the same story is a needlessly reductive argument. Spirited Away pulls from many sources: Miyazaki’s imagination, his idea of the target audience, Japanese mythology, L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz and, yes, Alice in Wonderland, as well as its sequel, Through the Looking-Glass. These factors come together to make a truly unique experience and inform the themes that Miyazaki chose to explore in his film.
Theme: Trapped in a Dream World
In Spirited Away, our main character, Chihiro, finds herself trapped in a world of spirits and dreams, a world which is one part wondrous and two parts dangerous. Her early encounters with the denizens of the realm of spirits are framed as frightening, such as her first run-in with the many-armed Kamaji, who runs the boiler, or when she first sees Boh, Yubaba’s child. While no harm comes to her during these early encounters, there’s certainly an undertone of horror. This is not unlike the world of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. As Alice moves through Wonderland, she encounters people who she finds queer and confusing, and often outright frightening, culminating in the most horrid of all: the Queen of Hearts. It’s pretty easy to see Yubaba as a version of the Queen of Hearts; she is the uncontested ruler of the realm, in her case the Bathhouse. Yubaba is drawn with a cartoonishly large head and squat body, as many illustrations have depicted the Queen of Hearts over the years, and she is a cruel and controlling ruler, who has little concern over the lives she takes and ruins. She is the closest thing the film has to a villain, and defeating her (or at least escaping her) proves to be the key to escaping the Dream World that the girls are trapped in.
However, while the Queen of Hearts may be the obvious example, Yubaba is very clearly also inspired by The Duchess in Alice in Wonderland. Many of the traits she shares with the Queen of Hearts are also shared with the Duchess (her large head, foul temper, and controlling leadership), but she also has the added bonus of a supporting cast that resembles that of the Duchess. Boh, naturally, is the Baby, but a case could be made for Kamaji as the Cook, who is best known for slinging utensils over his shoulder in much the same gesture with which Kamaji’s many arms flail about while working the boiler. The primary difference, then, is that the Duchess, after her first appearance, is treated as a benevolent character, who actually opposes the Queen of Hearts in Alice’s favor during the trial in the book’s climax. In this way, the Duchess could be compared to Zeniba, Yubaba’s identical sister (sometimes theorized as being the same person), whose first appearance is as an antagonistic force, fighting Haku, transforming Boh into a mouse, and causing a lot of trouble for Chihiro, or “Sen,” as she’s then called. When she appears later, Zeniba has apparently been freed from the curse which kept her evil. In the case of the Duchess, she is initially described as foul tempered and nearly as unpleasant as the Queen but is later described as being much friendlier to Alice when she appears in the book’s final chapter.
When it comes to sisters in Wonderland, though, the better source is Wonderland’s sequel, Through the Looking-Glass, with the Red Queen and the White Queen, who, while they are not explicitly sisters, have been interpreted as such in adaptations, including Tim Burton’s 2010 film[ 1 ]. Indeed, in her presentation, Yubaba is much more comparable to the Red Queen than the Queen of Hearts with whom she’s often conflated. The Queen of Hearts is short-tempered and full of rage, while the Red Queen is furious in a colder, more calculating manner. As per Carroll’s own words,
“I pictured to myself the Queen of Hearts as a sort of embodiment of ungovernable passion—a blind and aimless Fury. The Red Queen I pictured as a Fury, but of another type; her passion must be cold and calm—she must be formal and strict, yet not unkindly; pedantic to the 10th degree, the concentrated essence of all governesses!” [ 2 ].
This description of the Red Queen is much closer to the impression we get from the grumpy and cruel Yubaba than the Queen of Hearts. Zeniba, then, would make the most sense as the Red Queen’s polar opposite, the White Queen. Besides their opposition toward Yubaba and the Red Queen, there is not much that unites Zeniba and the White Queen, although there is something to be said for the only feature that distinguishes Zeniba from Yubaba being her glasses, and the White Queen is very explicitly described as transforming into a “bespectacled sheep.” While a minor detail, it’s also worth noting that Zeniba spends much of her second, longer onscreen appearance knitting, which could be a reference to the White Queen knitting so much that, in her sheep form, she’s said to resemble a porcupine because of all the knitting needles.
Then there’s the character of Lin, or Rin (depending on your localization). While she initially has a great deal of disdain for “Sen,” stemming from the Spirit World’s dislike of humans, she gradually warms up to her, even becoming something of a big sister figure, not unlike Ursula in Kiki’s Delivery Service. While the idea of a big sister mentor is a familiar trope in Miyazaki’s films, Lin in particular is actually a spirit, specifically that of a weasel. She’s portrayed as sarcastic and something of a trickster, in keeping with the cultural persona of weasels, and in this sense, is not unlike the Cheshire Cat in the Alice books. Both are undeniably trickster archetypes but are also among the most helpful characters in their respective stories; in the case of Alice, no one at all is as helpful as the Cheshire Cat. However, in Spirited Away, it seems less like Lin was directly inspired by her Alice counterpart, and more that the “benevolent trickster” character was a natural addition to the setting.
Another example of a Carroll character who sneaks into the story comes in the form of Haku, the river spirit who helps Chihiro through the movie. There are two characters who he may serve as an analogue for; the first example is the Caterpillar. The most notable thing the Caterpillar does for Alice is to give her power over Wonderland, in the form of the mushrooms which cause her to shrink and grow. There is no shrinking and growing in Spirited Away—perhaps that would have been too on the nose—but Haku does present Chihiro with the advice that she should not forget her true name, else she will be forced into Yubaba’s employ for eternity. The Caterpillar also offers Alice advice, and it is her complaints about having difficulty remembering that prompts him to demand she recite Carroll’s famous poem, “You Are Old, Father William” (which the Caterpillar says she recites incorrectly; this is because Carroll’s version is a parody of a long-forgotten poem, “The Old Man’s Comforts and How He Gained Them”) [ 3 ]. It is this help from the Caterpillar and Haku that eventually helps our protagonists escape the Dream World, as Alice uses the mushrooms in her pocket to grow nearly two miles high and intimidate the Queen, and only when Chihiro remembers her real name is she able to escape the Bathhouse. More importantly, both the Caterpillar and Haku undergo transformations. In Carroll’s original novel the Caterpillar’s transformation takes place offscreen, as does Haku’s initial transformation, although Chihiro is still able to recognize him as Haku, even in dragon form.
All that aside, Kamaji, with his spider-based design, brusque manner, penchant for giving advice, and many limbs could also be an analogue for the Caterpillar. In that case, there is another character to whom Haku bears a stronger resemblance from Alice’s dream world, and that’s the White Rabbit. It goes beyond the fact that the White Rabbit and Haku, in his dragon form, are white; for starters, both are the only characters from the Dream World that our protagonists meet in the “Real World.” Alice (although it’s unclear whether this was the beginning of her dream or not) sees the white rabbit while she’s supposed to be studying and climbs down the rabbit hole to follow him. In the case of Spirited Away, it’s not until the end of the film that we learn of the connection between Chihiro and Haku, that he, as the spirit of the Kohaku River, saved her from drowning as a little girl. Sooner or later, Haku and the White Rabbit are each put in the employ of the matriarch of their respective stories.
The White Rabbit that Alice chases through Wonderland is eventually revealed to be running to meet with the Queen and, in the courtroom scenes, is revealed to be working for the King and Queen of Hearts, much like how Haku is employed by Yubaba. On top of this, neither the White Rabbit nor Haku are particularly pleased with their job, as the White Rabbit is shown to do his work diligently but nervously, and Haku is held against his will because he’s forgotten his identity. More telling than this is the fact that both rabbits and dragons are animals in the Chinese Zodiac—in fact, according to certain myths of the Chinese Zodiac, the dragon and the rabbit encounter each other during the Great Race that determined the order in which the animals would be represented in the zodiac. As transcribed in Ryan Landes-Gilman’s essay, “The Great Race: The Origin of the Chinese Zodiac”:
The Jade Emperor stood awaiting the great creature. Why has the Dragon not come in first place? he wondered. When the Jade Emperor addressed the Dragon, he began to explain the circumstances that had befallen him. “Exalted Jade Emperor—on my way I saw several villagers that were in trouble … I also saw a tiny Rabbit in the river clinging to a log, so I used my breath to push it to shore” [ 4 ].
The helpful spirit of the Dragon is the only thing that prevents it from taking the first spot in the Zodiac, but so dedicated is it to its benevolence that it actually helps one of its rivals—the rabbit, who comes in just before him in the Zodiac. And if the reference were not clear enough, Haku is explicitly revealed to be a river spirit—tying him to the myth that connects the dragon and the rabbit.
The backstory behind Spirited Away is very similar to that of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Lewis Carroll famously told the story of Alice to the three Liddell girls on a boat ride, before writing it down and publishing it. In Miyazaki’s case, he described five girls of about 13 years old, who he met while in his mountain house and decided to create a film with them as the target audience. According to Miyazaki, he had done films for children, like My Neighbor Totoro; for young boys, like Laputa: Castle in the Sky; and for adolescents, like Kiki’s Delivery Service, but he had not yet made a movie specifically for young girls:
I felt this country only offered such things as crushes and romance to 10-year-old girls, though, and looking at my young friends, I felt this was not what they held dear in their hearts, not what they wanted. And so I wondered if I could make a movie in which they could be heroines … [ 5 ].
After reading the shoujo manga that the girls were interested in, Miyazaki set out to create a movie for prepubescent girls. After a few rejected proposals, he wrote a story centered around a childhood memory of a small door in a bathhouse and what might be behind it. Although this, too, was rejected, it inspired him to write Spirited Away [ 5 ]. Both Alice and Spirited Away present dynamic, active heroines, a little headstrong in nature, but self-sufficient and quick-witted. The stories also shy away from romance. While there are hints of it in Spirited Away, as Zeniba and Kamaji both reference Chihiro’s love for Haku, it’s never the central focus of the film, and other than those conversations, is largely unremarked upon [ 6 ]. Alice, similarly, cares nothing for romance, as Alice doesn’t even interact with any other humans throughout the story. More important is the two authors’ dedication to creating protagonists who are relatable to the target audience, which is very telling of how they saw young girls.
Both heroines are stubborn, a little spoiled, and obsessed with the trivialities of their youth when the stories start. As the stories go on, they are presented as the rational centers of their stories, forced to quickly become the adults to the childlike, simplistic creatures around them. In Alice, this manifests as our heroine rationalizing everything, including the most irrational aspects of Wonderland. In Spirited Away, while the intent is still there, it’s a completely different aspect of Chihiro’s personality that gets focus. She becomes a great deal more nurturing and thoughtful, compared to her selfish, sullen demeanor in the film’s opening scenes. Chihiro is said to be grumpy because she doesn’t want to move away from her family, but over the course of the movie, she learns to look outside herself and think past her own personal problems.
The main theme of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a world whose entire gimmick is that the there are no rules. “We’re all mad here,” the Cheshire Cat says, and this is the closest thing to the law of the land; Wonderland runs on nothing but madness. Parties are thrown for every day that is not your birthday, the body parts of cats slowly vanish, and it appears that the physics of the world seem to exist only so far as to facilitate Carroll’s famous plays on words. This, it can be discerned, comes from Carroll’s personal beliefs on the nature of dreaming, as written in his diary, transcribed by Gardner in The Annotated Alice.
Query: when we are dreaming and, as often happens, have a dim consciousness of the fact and try to wake, do we not say and do things which in waking life would be insane? May we not then sometimes define insanity as an inability to distinguish which is the waking and which the sleeping life? [ 7 ].
While Carroll may have believed this was a natural facet of dream worlds, it contrasts sharply with Spirited Away, in which, as the film progresses, we learn that Miyazaki’s spirit world has very clear rules, and that, by following them, one can keep safe. No-Face is completely harmless so long as no one takes money from them—at which point they are free to eat that person. Chihiro is free to leave the Spirit World and return to the “Real World” but has to do it by sunset of her first night. After that, Yubaba can control anyone who forgets their name. There are rules to the dangers of the Spirit World, and those rules are strictly followed. This is in keeping with the Japanese mythology the movie builds off of. The Bathhouse in Spirited Away is not just meant as a fantasy world, but a congregation of the myths and legends of Miyazaki’s culture, with many gods and spirits making cameos as the residents of the bath house. From Vera Rule’s article, “The Gods Must Be Hazy”:
[Miyazaki] staffed the bathhouse with plebby not-of-this-worlds familiar in Japan as clay toys—frogs, sullen girls who are the spirits of slugs and a low comedy duo as middle managers. He gave shape to venerable spirits: some traditional, like the radish—god of the home, shown as the standard white root veg but bigger and more baleful than a sumo wrestler; others with divine names like the Otori, bird spirits, whom Miyazaki sees as cartoon cheepers splashing in their bath [ 8 ].
Rule also points out that while Spirited Away features “super-good guys,” it has “no total villains, since even divinities in Japan have a divided nature, both brutal and benevolent” [ 8 ].
Taking into account this difference in culture and the similar origins of the two works, it seems that Spirited Away is, in some ways, a version of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, filtered through a very different culture. The core idea seems to be to create a dynamic, relatable heroine for girls, and then put her in an unfamiliar and dangerous world that she must navigate carefully, without antagonizing the volatile natives. Part of the theme, then, is to put the girls in a position where they have to act like adults. It’s more than just growing up, though; both Alice and Chihiro are forced to learn how to process and control their emotions, to know when to hold their tongues as well as when to lash out—because neither girl comes out of their story a demure shrinking violet. They both find some merit in speaking up and being bold, as well as in being polite and following the rules. It’s almost as if Carroll and Miyazaki are saying that the time for going through life carelessly is at an end, and that in the real world, being crass will get you in trouble. The difference, then, comes from the different cultures the two works are written it. Carroll’s notions of whimsy giving way to rationality are perfect for the little girls of Victorian England, while Miyazaki’s themes of compassion and thoughtfulness spoke to the Japanese millennials who made up his audience. They present these quandaries through their Dream Worlds, which force the protagonists to face their flaws head-on, be it Alice’s whimsy, through a world without rules, or Chihiro’s selfishness, through a world full of greed.
There’s another famous story about a young girl trapped in a fantasy world that comes to mind when we think about Spirited Away, and that’s L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Some scholars insist that it is more like Miyazaki’s film than the Alice books are, although its similarities to Alice are too obvious to ignore. That being said, where there are deviations in fundamental concepts in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, we find some stark similarities with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The Land of Oz has its own set of seemingly arbitrary rules that must be followed. While they lean more towards whimsy than mythology, some rules, like the poppy field that you must not fall asleep in, do exist to keep the characters safe [ 9 ]. There’s also a missing piece when it comes to Yubaba and Zeniba: neither the Red Queen and the White Queen nor the Duchess and the Queen of Hearts are ever described as being capable of magic, while Yubaba and Zeniba are powerful witches, and much of the plot hinges on Yubaba’s spell on Chihiro. In addition to this, there is the overarching theme in Wizard of Oz of missing abstract pieces of oneself. The Scarecrow misses his brain, the Tin Man has no heart, and the Lion has no courage. These come up in Spirited Away as well, with Chihiro and Haku missing their names, and thus causing them to be trapped in the Bathhouse. Much as with Dorothy, the thing Chihiro needs to get home is with her the entire time, although in her case, she needs to remember her name to break the spell, whereas Dorothy simply didn’t know how to use the ruby slippers. Within the film, Chihiro does meet three characters who aid her on her journey—Haku, Lin, and Kamaji—although the characters do not form a group as they do in Wizard of Oz. Nor do they necessarily line up as analogues for the individual characters; a case could be made for Lin, the schemer, as the brainless Scarecrow, and Kamaji, initially gruff and cranky, as the heartless Tin Man, and for Haku gaining the courage to stand up to Yubaba, but this would be a stretch. More important is the character of No-Face, who suffers from loneliness, and, through whom Chihiro is able to form a relationship with Zeniba and earn himself a companion.
Hayao Miyazaki has a vivid imagination and Spirited Away is one of the most unique and influential films of the millennium. That’s not the same as saying he had no influences, though. Perhaps intentionally, or perhaps subliminally, Miyazaki created a narrative that runs parallel to the works of Lewis Carroll and, to a lesser extent, L. Frank Baum, and while his film tells a different story than either of those, and concludes with a different moral, an understanding of those classics can help to inform one’s viewing of the movie. Spirited Away is more than “an anime version of Alice in Wonderland”; it exists to take what Alice did in 1856 and do the same for modern girls.
- “While initial comparisons may seem banal and obvious, there are layers to the contrast and retranslation of tropes in Miyazaki’s narrative. Baum’s and Lewis Carroll’s influence is significant.” Source: https://4.bp.blogspot.com/-wZpyDrcsQnk/WNqnx38Q38I/AAAAAAAADDU/QniVO6fbVQs9CFCVJZ30WdfyUmtOyMmCgCEw/s1600/jump.JPG
- “Far more than thematic, Oz’s influence composition of scenes isn’t subtle.” Source: https://boudreaubooks.com/2017/07/08/spirited-away-to-the-wonderful-land-of-oz/
With a BA in English from the University of Massachusetts and his service in the public library system, Marcelo Gusmão’s considerable experience has served him and this endeavor well. Since joining Steam-Funk Studios in 2018, he’s demonstrated a blend of exacting, finely honed analysis, boundless creativity and skillful interpretation, all framed by a vigorous joie de vivre for all things nerd culture. A key member of SFS’ Intermediate writing and editorial staff, he’s penned several series.
- Carroll, Lewis and John Tenniel. The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass. Annotated by Martin Gardner. New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 2000.
- Carroll. “Alice on the Stage.” The Theatre, April 1887. Collected in Carroll, Tenniel, Gardner.
- Millikan, Lauren. “Footnotes: Father William.” In Curioser and Curioser: The Evolution of Wonderland. Carleton College English Department, 9 Feb 2021. carleton.edu/departments/ENGL/Alice/Footfatherwilliam.html. Accessed 9 May 2021.
- Landes-Gilman, Ryan. “The Great Race: The Origin of the Chinese Zodiac.” Pachamama Alliance Blogs, 19 Feb 2015. Archived at web.archive.org/web/20171215221506/https://www.pachamama.org/blog/chinese-new-years-blog Accessed 9 May 2021.
- “Interview: Miyazaki on Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi.” Animage, May 2001. Translated by Ryoko Toyama. Edited by Team Ghiblink. Hayao Miyazaki Web, 12 Jul 2001. nausicaa.net/miyazaki/interviews/sen.html Accessed 9 May 2021.
- Miyazaki, Hayao et al. Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (Spirited Away). Studio Ghibli, 2001, 2002.
- Carroll. Diary entry, 9 Feb 1856. Reproduced in Carroll, Tenniel, Gardner.
- Rule, Vera. “THE LONDON EYE: The Gods must be hazy.” Independent on Sunday, 14 Sep 2003, 6.
- Baum, L. Frank and Michael Patrick Hearn. The Annotated Wizard of Oz. New York: W.W. Norton, 2000.