Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Element of Nostalgia in Pan’s Labyrinth and Spirited Away

The element of nostalgia plays a key role in both Pan’s Labyrinth and Spirited Away. In Pan’s Labyrinth, Ofelia’s story operates within the framework of the Spanish Civil War’s aftermath, in which rebel forces struggle to regain their grasp on the pre-fascist Spain of the recent past. Ofelia’s personal experience mirrors this, as she longs for the happy childhood she once knew while being forced to adjust to her sadistic stepfather and the surrounding chaos. As a coping mechanism, she imagines herself the protagonist in her own fairytale despite her mother’s insistence that she is too old for fairytales. Powerless in her real-world surroundings, Ofelia constructs a mental cocoon of childhood fantasies—an alternate reality in which she has the autonomy to regain the feelings of security and love that she so lacks beyond the confines of her imagination. Brief glimpses at the tranquility her "brother" enjoys inside the womb act as a foil to the harsh reality of Ofelia's life in the real world.

The element of nostalgia is an integral part of Japanese culture, and is equally pervasive in Spirited Away. On her journey, Chihiro leaves behind the overt gluttony that Miyazaki seems to perceive in modern Japanese culture, and she enters a world in which even the most minute inanimate objects have spirits—an idea that is consistent with pre-twentieth-century Japanese beliefs (which, on some level, have enjoyed a revival in recent decades).

In Michael Dylan Foster’s essay “Introduction to the Weird,” Foster discusses the difficulty that Westerners encounter when attempting to grasp the early Japanese belief in spirits as part of day-to-day reality (15-17). To elucidate this belief, Foster suggests that early Japanese culture viewed the existence of spirits as something that was supernormal (reality on steroids, basically) rather than something that was supernatural, or unreal. In Spirited Away, Chihiro enters a world in which the existence of spirits falls into the supernormal category; consistent with early Japanese traditions, she interacts with the spirits matter-of-factly as if they were part of her daily reality.

The element of nostalgia in Spirited Away is probably best exemplified in the “Train to Swamp Bottom” scene. As Chihiro and her traveling companions make their way to the train, the No-Face spirit is nearly washed away in the train’s wake, which is symbolic of passing time and shifting cultural beliefs. The train is a little time capsule in itself: its interior is made of wood rather than steel, its conductor operates outmoded equipment, and its faceless passengers are depicted as the silhouettes of nineteenth-century immigrants. All of the silhouette immigrants disembark at a time/place in the past, leaving Chihiro and her traveling companions to journey alone into the present/future. From the rear window, the train tracks—and therefore the past—disappear under the sea, and the quaint seaside towns once seen from the side windows are replaced with modernity, which is represented by an abundance of neon signs. Thus, Chihiro moves into a new phase of her life just as the whole of Japanese culture moves into a new phase of its own.

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