I recently watched Studio Ghibli’s film Spirited Away in the original Japanese with subtitles for the first time. Shockingly, I noticed a number of storytelling differences from the dubbed version of the film I’ve watched for so many years. Adding my rudimentary understanding of the Japanese language, I picked up a few more differences fans of the English version of the film wouldn’t know. I stand to be corrected by anyone with a better understanding of the Japanese language and the creative choices made by the dubbing team, but here are some little tidbits (that change one’s viewpoint a little) I’m excited to share with y’all.
Haku’s full name is Nigihayami Kohakunushi (“flourishing swift-flowing amber (river) god”) The dubbed version of the film tells us his full name is simply Kohaku River, but the original Japanese gives us a longer, more Kami worthy title.
Zeniba refers to Haku as Chihiro’s “dragon boyfriend” in a conversation between Chihiro and Zeniba
Meanwhile the English dub edges around the question, “Are Haku and Chihiro in love?” Way to jump to the chase, Zeniba!
Both Chihiro and Haku call Kamaji “Grandfather,” and Chihiro calls Zeniba “Grandmother” without being asked to.
Although it’s very common in Japan for children to refer to their elders as “Grandmother” or “Grandfather”, this adds an interesting boyish element to Haku’s character and gives Chihiro an extra level of maturity. She’s got this scenario, and she knows how to properly respond to her new acquaintances.
The bathhouse workers use the honorific “Sama” (the most formal honorific used to address guests, customers and divine individuals) when addressing Yubaba or Haku or any of the bathhouse guests.
This gives us an early hint at Haku’s River Spirit status and shows the respect he receives working his job as Yubaba’s accountant. (Yes, if you didn’t already know, according to The Art of Spirited Away, the position Haku holds at the bathhouse, beyond evil apprentice, is accountant.)
The final three lines of the dubbed film are only in the dub.
The dub ends with Chihiro’s parents asking her if she’ll be alright in a new environment and Chihiro responding “I think I can handle it.” However, this section was completely added for the English dub and the Japanese film simply ends with the family driving away. We’ve seen Chihiro handle it, we don’t need verbal proof.
Yubaba promises to kill Haku after he safely returns Chihiro and her parents to the spirit world.
It’s a really good thing Chihiro returned Haku’s name! After Yubaba realizes her baby is missing and strikes up a deal with Haku, promising to return Chihiro and her parents if she can pass a final test, Yubaba asks “What about you?” Haku doesn’t answer and Yubaba, out of vengeance, promises to kill him. That no longer applies when he has his name back, tho! (Luckily)
Instead of implying Haku became Yubaba’s apprentice out of the desire to learn magic, the sub suggests he became her apprentice due to his dragon instincts and claims dragons are drawn to magic and magic users.
Which puts a completely different spine on his character. Moreover, it gives you the feeling that maybe he’s a little bit more dragon than human (or a lot bit). This is an interesting piece of Studio Ghibli dragon lore to play with!
The river Haku presides over was redirected underground instead of filled in as the dub suggests. And at the end of the film, it’s implied Haku plans on returning to his domain.
So that’s a lot more hopeful than the dub’s implications of Haku’s homelessness by the end of the film. It also explains why returning Haku’s name frees him and gives us hope Haku and Chihiro’s interchange at the end of the film may become reality. They already met once in the human world, why not again?
Haku uses the Japanese word “Watashi,” meaning “I” (instead of the more masculine“Boku”)
Watashi can be used by both genders but is usually seen as feminine. Isn’t it a pity there’s no way to really replicate Watashi in English?
EXTRA: About the Voice Actors
The original Japanese voice actors for Chihiro and Haku (Rumi Hiiragi and Miyu Irino) were only 14 and 13 respectively in 2001 when the voice recording was recorded.
Miyu Irino Haku’s voice actor went on to voice a number of other roles in Japanese including Shoyo Ishida, the lead from the anime film A Silent Voice (currently on Netflix) and Koushi Sugawara from the smash hit anime Haikyu!! (the first two seasons of which are also on Netflix.)
As a Studio Ghibli enthusiast, exploring the world of modern Anime outside of Ghibli can be a tricky endeavor. Movies and shows just don’t ring as true as Ghibli’s masterpieces, whether the original Manga outshines the film adaption, or the overly active franchise boasts poorly handled gender portrayal. So when I do find a non-Studio Ghibli Anime that pulls me in and leaves me breathless, liberal feminist artist me (who watched every Ghibli movie and can recite their titles in chronological order) has found the gates to paradise. Below is a list of my 5 favorite non-Ghibli Anime in no particular order (and I’ll add, I excluded any series or movies which I found were outshone by their original Manga, so that’s why a few titles aren’t present)
A Silent Voice (PG-13)
When it comes to the Shojo (Anime and Manga aimed for a female teenage audience) slice-of-life genre, we can expect a level of drama and darkness to underlay the pastel narrative of (most commonly) a highschoolers’ coming of age. A Silent Voice, however, delves deeply into the effects of childhood bullying, and makes us as viewers really think about the effects of our actions instead of simply using the difficult topics of the character’s pasts to invest our interests. Surprisingly, while taking the time to address it’s darker side, the film still manages to retain a hopeful message and stuns with gorgeously detailed animation and a relatable and broken cast. Similar to Only Yesterday, From Up On Poppy Hill, or When Marnie was There, A Silent Voice takes a deep look at our everyday lives. And as a fan of the Manga series (the film’s basis), I can attest to the power and success of this adoption which I personally find is only occasionally rivaled by adaptations of other works. Currently available on Netflix and rentable on Apple TV and Amazon Prime
I have to make a confession. I haven’t read the Manga that forms the basis for this two season Anime. In the future when I’ve succeeded in finding myself a copy, I’ll come back and write a comparison post. But, even without that knowledge, I really believe this is one of the best examples of storytelling in Anime outside of Ghibli. If you’re not familiar with the series, Mushi-shi (set in between the Edo and Meiji periods) centers around a main protagonist, Ginko (seen in the image above) and his occupation as a Mushi-shi or specialist in a strange branch of life forms known as Mushi. What makes the series's storytelling truly intriguing however, is the fact that every episode (or chapter in the case of the Manga) stands alone as a complete story including a climax and resolution. And to me as an aspiring storyteller, the level of narrative success achieved in each 20 minute instalment can't help but blow me away. I’d compare Mushi-shi to Princess Mononoke, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, and My Neighbor Totoro. Watch season 1 free on Tubi or on Hulu with subscription and season 2 free on Crunchyroll (if you have a good ad blocker, you won’t even have to deal with ads!)
Patema Inverted (Not-Rated but it fits under the Rating PG)
Where the last two Anime were based off of manga that were published prior to the adaption’s release, Patema Inverted (GKIDS) is a completely original film. I find that an admirable quality from an animated film, but not only is Patema Inverted original, it manages to tell a pure and clever story that kept me fully invested, and stays completely away from adult anime stereotypes (making it the ideal film to share with your Ghibli loving young friends). Set in an alternate version of the future where half of earth’s population have their gravity reversed, Patema Inverted follows Patema, a young inverted girl (person with reversed gravity) who struggles to uncover the reason for the hatred between her people and earth’s non-inverted population. This film fits in the vain of Miyazaki’s classics Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and Laputa: Castle in the sky, while bringing us something completely new. Available for a small fee through Apple TV and Amazon Prime or watch through Hoopla Digital (a program available for free through some libraries)
Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit (TV-14)
Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit, based off of a YA japanese fantasy novel of the same name, is a hidden treasure among Anime and desperately needs more attention. This 26 episode fantasy series is by far one of the most empowering Anime I’ve seen to date, and is an epic example of brilliant world and character building. Following Balsa, a female spear-wielding bodyguard in her early thirties, this Anima details her mission to protect her newest charge, the young prince Chagum (see image above), who, because of a mysterious water spirit's curse, is being hunted by the emperor, his father. Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit has the epic sweeping storytelling of Princess Mononoke and the radiant beauty of The Tale of the Princess Kaguya with overlapping themes on gender and the environment with Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. A must-watch (or read) in my book for any feminst anime or high fantasy fan. Unfortunately the only way I know how to watch Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit right now is to buy a copy of the DVD. However, there may be other options available out there.
When push comes to shove, I love something wildly original. And if there’s one Anime that embodies the word wild, that film would have to be Studio Trigger’s Promare (a GKIDS film like all of Ghibli’s works.) Promare isn’t like Ghibli, not really. But when it comes to masterful storytelling, majorly complicated characters, and animation that leaves you speechless, Promare, like Ghibli, has you covered. Animated with a combination of traditional cell animation (like all the classic Ghibli films) and modern computer animation techniques, one of the best comparisons to this film might be Sony and Marvel’s smash hit Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. However, Promare retains it’s Anime authenticity and also brings to mind American animated (Amerime) shows like Voltron: Legendary Defender. Like Patema Inverted (also on this list), Promare tells a completely original story (set in the world most of this studio's works are in, the Trigger Verse). From 2019 and to date the newest work on my list (the third American theatre showing was cancelled due to Covid-19), this work is in my opinion an Anime for the future. This story brings to mind Laputa: Castle in the Sky, and (through a bit of a stretch) Spirited Away, while holding similar themes to Princess Mononoke. (I’ll also be clear to note, while this film has a good number of awesome female characters, their designs aren’t great, tho not the worst in the industry. This in my mind is the lowest point of this film.) Watch through HBO Max with subscription, on Apple TV or Amazon Prime with a small fee, or through Hoopla Digital (a program available for free through some libraries)
As a young person navigating the gender and relationship confines of the modern world, I've latched onto storytelling as a why to process and except my identity. I go to stories to find characters I relate with so they can teach me to feel comfortable in the body I was born with. Below, I'm going to share a few (of the many) characters who have spoken to me as unique examples of self-confidence. Incidentally, all these characters are from Japanese Anime or Manga.
Lio Fotia from Promare...
Is the first on my list and a character who has spoken to hundreds of viewers since Promare's debut in 2019 (Maybe including you.) But what I personally think makes Lio really stand out as a unique character beyond his flashy armor or flame wielding prestige is the sense of confidence in his identity he emits even when standing with the much more masculine men sharing the screen with him. A confidence that leaves viewers who may have like me assumed he was female from the film's poster no longer questioning his identity and chosen gender.
Koushi Sugawara from Haikyu!!...
Suga brings something completely different to the male gender. Laid back and often apologetic, Suga moves through the world with a level of grace and a lot less force then his teammates on Karasuno High-school's boy's Volleyball team. As shown by his nickname Sugamama, Suga is highly valued by his teammates no matter if he looks or acts differently. And even after losing his place in the team's starting lineup he won't stop fighting for a chance to prove himself worthy again. Sometimes it takes a mix of perseverance and patience to make a character great and Suga has ample supply of both, and a confidence to be himself no matter what.
Tamaki Suoh and Haruhi Fujioka from Ouran Highschool Host Club...
These two take gender in a completely different direction. The main two characters in Ouran High school Host Club, a Shojo comedy full of gender commentary, they're both comfortable taking gender roles a little more lightly than your average character from a romantic comedy. Haruhi, the heroin of the series, spends all her time at school cross-dressing as a boy. But instead of limiting her male counterpart's attraction, Haruhi's masculinity adds to her appeal, and gives her the space to act the way she wants which is decidedly un-Disney princessy. I'm still blown away each time I'm reintroduced to the manga that she was created over 12 years ago.
Snowbebe form Cats of the Louvre...
Is on this list for a slightly different reason then the four above. For more then half of the one volume Eisner Award winning manga Snowbebe, the central character of the novel focused on the Louvre, is a small white kitten with long fluffy fur. Like something out of my 10 year old imagination, Cats of the Louvre follows a mismatched family of cats living in the recesses of the huge old museum. And there's something about Snowbebe that's just slightly different from other young male leads. He's freed from the confines placed on must young boys making him almost a male equivalent of Chihiro, the heroin of Miyazaki's Spirited Away. In the future I hope there's more examples of children given the chance to star their stories with the positive gender undertones expressed by Snowbebe From Cats of the Louvre.
In Pureland Buddhism (Jodo in Japanese), Amida Buddha, a monk who reached Buddhahood and earned his own pureland through his merit, is seen as a kind, compassionate figure who invites all who chant: “Namu Amida Butsu” (Hail to the Amida Buddha) to live in his Western Paradise after they die. His is often portrayed in a Raigo (“Welcoming approach”) which is an image (painting or sculpture) of him descending to earth to welcome the souls to the Western paradise. At the Ho-o-do (Phoenix Hall), a part of what was once a villa of the Fujiwara clan near Kyoto, Japan, images adorn walls and a door, showing scenes of the Raigo. This building was constructed in the 1000’s during the Heian period (784-1183 CE). The text in the book Art Beyond the West describes the imagery:
They include monks and bodhisattvas on clouds, and an orchestra-chorus of music-making and dancing Buddhist beings dramatizing the arrival of the Buddha. Together the many raigos, concentrated in this small, intimate space that was once a home, dramatize the compassion and glory of the Buddha in this popular sect of Buddhism (P. 164, Chapter 5).
At the end of the film, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, however, the almost identical image is interpreted in a vastly different way. While Buddha appears both kind and compassionate, and his many attendants exhibit a beautiful, peaceful air, they are coming to take the title character, Kaguya back to the moon, from which she had previously left after hearing rumors of earth and the emotions living there evoke. Kaguya, who has spent almost a decade on earth (though she ages faster) has come to love it and it’s natural world and people. When she is being taken back to the moon, her adoptive parents, as well as many people she knew and some she didn’t watch her leave and express a grief at her going. She too had become desperate when she realized she would have to return, saying that she did not want to forget the earth and the places and people there, and the emotions they had inspired. This is a stark contrast to the emphasized joy and celebration of Pureland Buddhism and seems to question the idea that there should be a place of greater joy and beauty for us than the earth on which we are born, live our lives, and die. It also seems to suggest that if the earth is awe-inspiring and worthy of contemplation, as many Japanese practices say it is, then the it should not be abandoned in hope of finding greater understanding and happiness elsewhere.
While the film The Tale of Princess Kaguya does not have to be viewed in a scholarly or even analyzed way, such an approach does present some fascinating and helpful connections. For instance, the film is set in either the Heian (784-1183) or Kamakura (1185-1333) period, which for those of us with a bit of (art) history knowledge, will quickly become clear. However, one of the most important things about watching any Studio Ghibli film, and specifically this one, is to enjoy yourself a little, to laugh at the simple charming moment, or to just let the beauty and sorrows and longing and hope present in any of these films catch you up a little and let you see a new way to look at the world, a way that is both distinctly Japanese, and broadly human.
Princess Kaguya, a young woman adopted by an old bamboo cutter and his wife, grew up in the country among the peasantry until her father deemed it wise to take her to the capitol to be raised as a lady. While being quite uncomfortable and unhappy there, Kaguya managed to flourish and not break down in frustration. During her coming of age ceremony, however, she overhears some drunken men mocking her father for trying to make her into a noblewoman. This is too much and she flees from the mansion and off into the countryside.
The animation here changes distinctly from the previous gentle ink style, becoming wild, desperate, and quick making it almost impossible to distinguish figures from landscape. This sudden switch seems to reference a style of ink painting that was introduced to Japan from China during the Muromachi (Ashiga) period (1392-1573 CE) known as haboku (“broken ink”) painting. This style, based off of the Chinese Song dynasty style of the same time, was rooted in Chan (or Zen in Japan) Buddhism and embraced spiritual inspiration and spontaneity. This is clearly seen in a work such as Haboku Landscape for Soen by Sesshu Toyo, which is an incredibly simple, yet deeply expressive work. The ink tones vary beautifully, creating a vague impression of a small island with huge rock pinnacles behind, almost as if it is being seen through a mist.
According to the book Art Beyond the West: "Painters working in this style believed there were traces of spiritual inspiration to be found in the accidental and spontaneous patterns formed by ink splashed onto the paper in this way. In [the painting], Sesshu uses very loose brushwork, yet by creating sharp tonal contrasts through a variety of washed and strokes, through a few carefully placed marks, he is able to capture the spirit of an entire landscape with its rocks, mists, and deep spaces. Although careful analysis might reveal how each mark contributes to the representation, the picture is not the product of any kind of premeditated calculation of this sort" (P. 171, Chapter 5).
This spontaneous and abstract approach to representation fits perfectly (and devastatingly) into the scene in Kaguya, which later turns out to have been a dream. The emotion and desperation, while not the original intent of the painting style, is clearly visible when used in a storytelling context and with the added touch of animation, it reaches another level of movement very literally. While this style does not match the time period Kaguya is set in, it brings in some important stylistic qualities of Japanese paintings and aesthetics.
The film The Tale of the Princess Kaguya begins, in the manner of older western movies, and as many studio Ghibli movies do with the credits of filmmakers and cast over a unique background. However, for this film the animators noticed a chance to place the movie in a specific historical context and display the credits over a sheet of woodblock printed paper (See the image on the left). This kind of decorated paper was often used during the Heian period (784-1183 CE) for anthologies of poetry which had been beautifully rendered in calligraphy. This technique, called Chigiri-e involves handmade paper which is torn and aligned on other paper and additionally decorated with flecks of metallic dust or colored pigment. After completion, a calligrapher could write poetry over it, creating a beautiful, almost rustic look. As the textbook Art Beyond the West states:
two pages of the collected poems of Minamoto no Shigeyuki (?-ACE 1000), Artist Unknown
In these upcoming posts I will point out some particularly interesting parts of the film that tie into important aspects of Japanese aesthetics and techniques of art-makingOf all of the Japanese animation film studio, Studio Ghibli’s films, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is arguably the most rooted in Japan’s secular and religious history. Full of references to traditions in both artmaking and society, it not only celebrates Japanese religious and secular culture but also looks at and brings up important questions about certain less than perfect parts of that culture.
I also will address the broader philosophical ideas that shaped Japan’s culture, connecting these concepts from the film with quotes from the textbook Art Beyond the West by Michael Kampen O’Riley. The film Princess Kaguya is a visual masterpiece created appropriately in the popular Japanese anime style, an animation style which incorporates many historic Japanese illustration tendencies and traits of the past. This seemingly small yet incredibly effective choice for the movie, as well as the Studio's other films, makes it clear that this film’s intent is not just to look at and analyze the past but also to examine the present and elude to the future. While the movie may take on more complex meanings to those familiar with the artistic traditions and culture of Japan, Kaguya also lets those who have no such context appreciate and connect with the film and come away with new enlightening ideas about the world, life, and being human. I will begin by examining the Chigir-e torn paper artistic technique, then take a look at the Haboku (Broken Ink) painting technique, and finish with Pureland Buddhist imagery and philosophy. Together these different historic and cultural tie-ins will highlight some interesting aspects of the film, providing a fascinating context for The Tale of the Princess Kaguya.
Each of the Silverfists take turns sharing their thoughts about illustration found in graphic novels, games, album art, and more...