East Asian Tropes in Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away

Dennis Redmond © August 2004

 

A compressed version of this talk was presented at ASPAC’s 2004 conference on June 18, 2004 at the University of Oregon.                                                                                                   

 

            Before I start talking about Miyazaki’s wonderful film, I want to mention briefly a couple of raised by the title of my talk. To speak of East Asian culture invites two immediate misunderstandings. The first is the thought that East Asia is somehow the reiteration of the ghastly “Greater East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere” coined by Japanese imperialism in the early 20th century. This is most evident in the egregious techno-Orientalism of the US business press, which seems to reinvent the same lurid tales of an unstoppable Asian economy every ten years or so (Japan in the 1980s, Korea in the 1990s, China in the 2000s). East Asia today has about as much in common with Imperialist Japan as the European Union has in common with Nazi Germany – that is to say, nothing at all. No single nation-state, national economy or cultural matrix dominates East Asia today, nor are national models of culture particularly helpful in understanding Miyazaki’s work.

            The second misunderstanding is the notion that East Asia is limited to the wealthier Pacific Rim economies, i.e. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore – or, put another way, that the East Asian media culture is an exclusively Chinese-Korean-Japanese affair (something retailed by the thesis of the cultural Confucianism of Northeast Asia). In reality, deep networks of trade, investment, finance and immigration link the wealthier economies of Northeast Asia to the semi-industrialized ones of Southeast Asia. At the same time, breakneck urbanization, jet travel, tourism, the mass media and the Web are spurring a variety of intra-Asian cultural exchanges, something especially noticeable in (though hardly limited to) the major cities of the region.

            One of the most surprising features of Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (2001) is its extraordinary multinationalism, or put another way, its capacity to narrate the conflicts and contradictions of the East Asian region by using a truly multinational aesthetic vocabulary. I should note that I am not arguing that nation-states have ceased to exist or that national cultures don’t matter anymore. The point is that both are increasingly integrated into larger frameworks, namely the economic, cultural and political networks of multinational capitalism – frameworks which are crucial to understanding Miyazaki’s works.

            The most obvious example of this logic is not an aesthetic document, but the political construct otherwise known as the European Union, the world’s newest and, by some measures, mightiest superpower.1 Twenty-five nations have already joined the EU, and at least a dozen others, ranging from Romania to the Ukraine, are officially committed to joining them over the next decade. The EU’s long road to statehood did not happen overnight, but was preceded by decades of cultural contact, cross-investment, and trade integration. Very much like the European Union, contemporary East Asia is an economic powerhouse which is just beginning to translate its economic might into geopolitical muscle. Like the EU, it is a highly integrated multinational region which trades mostly with itself, without a single national center. Unlike the EU, however, East Asia is just beginning to develop its own multinational political and cultural institutions (arguably, one the single greatest achievements of Spirited Away is its acknowledgment of this geopolitical reality).

            To understand why this is so important, it’s worth pausing for a moment to reconsider East Asia’s structural position in the contemporary world-system. Since the 1960s, East Asia has slowly but inexorably shed its status as a semi-industrialized periphery of the world-system, heavily dependent on US markets and technology, and blossomed into an autonomous center of multinational capitalism. Today the region is a genuine economic superpower, with world-class firms in industries ranging from computers to autos, and from semiconductors to videogames. East Asia is also a self-financing economy, unlike the US, which is addicted to inflows of foreign capital. Here are the numbers for the East Asian region, compared to its competitors, the US and the EU:


Table 1. Global Core and Semiperiphery

Data: Eurostat, World Bank, ECB 2003 publications (calculated at May 2004 exchange rates)

Region

GDP

Population

North America total

€10.3 trillion

485 million

Of which: North American core (US)

€9.1 trillion

290 million

Of which: North America semi-periphery (Canada, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama)    

€1.2 trillion

195 million

Europe total 

€9.5 trillion

500 million

Of which: Europe core (Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland)

€6.8 trillion

271 million

Of which: Europe semi-periphery (Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Slovakia, Slovenia, UK) 

€2.7 trillion

229 million

East Asia total

€5.7 trillion

754 million

Of which: East Asia core (Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore)

€4.1 trillion

139 million

 Of which: East Asia semi-periphery (South Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia, Thailand, 10 richest Chinese provinces, metropolitan Manila, Jakarta, Hanoi, HCM City)

 €1.6 trillion

615 million


 

 


Note that my classifications of core and semiperiphery are occasionally arbitrary, and should be taken only as the most general guide to the national economies in question. What is not arbitrary at all, however, is the existence of these three larger regions themselves. They exist because they trade mostly with themselves, rather than with the rest of the world. East Asia’s trade patterns look like this:

 

Table 2. Trade Exposure as Percent of Country or Region GDP in 2000

Data: Eurostat, IMF Direction of Trade Statistics 2000

 

Country or Region

Trade Exposure, East Asia

Trade Exposure, all non-East Asia


of which:

US


of which:

EU (excl. UK)

Japan

7.4%

12.9%

5.6%

3.0%

China

23.5%

18.7%

5.8%

5.3%

South Korea

29.8%

43.8%

16.0%

8.7%

Indonesia

34.3%

23.0%

7.4%

8.6%

Philippines

54.7%

49.4%

27.1%

11.9%

Taiwan

54.2%

56.2%

27.3%

13.9%

Vietnam

58.7%

31.4%

1.8%

11.8%

Thailand

71.8%

67.4%

22.9%

20.4%

Malaysia

130.2%

75.4%

37.5%

23.9%

 


I want to caution readers against assuming that these numbers mean that the East Asian region is heavily exposed to the vagaries of foreign trade. This isn’t the case, for two reasons: first, Japan and China, the two largest regional economies, are still relatively self-enclosed. Second, trade statistics measure flows of goods, while GDP measures a final stock of output, so comparisons between the two are significant only in a comparative sense. In other words, it matters less that Malaysia’s trade-to-GDP ratio is two to one, than the fact that Malaysia’s trade dependence on East Asian markets is three times greater than its trade dependence on US markets, and five times greater than its dependence on continental European markets.

            This proviso has an interesting corollary. Although the 1990s billed itself as the epoch of globalization, the reality was that the world economy was experiencing an unprecedented type of regionalization. What was new about this regionalization was that it was centered not within nation-states, on the model of Piore and Sabel’s theory of industrial districts of northern Italy and southern Germany or Michael Porter’s theory of industrial clusters, but around three vast geopolitical blocs: the US, the EU and East Asia. Here are the relative trade exposures of East Asia, continental Europe, and the US with each other in 2000:



Table 3: Trade Exposure by Region (Total Trade as % GDP, 2000)

Data: IMF Direction of Trade Statistics, 2000

Economic Region

Trade Exposure to US

Trade Exposure to continental EU

Trade Exposure to East Asia

US

---

3.3%

6.1%

Continental Europe

4.0%

---

4.9%

East Asian region*

9.0%

5.4%

---

 

* Japan, China, Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand


 

What these numbers mean is that the East Asian region has finally regained, for the first time since its colonization by Western European imperialism in the 16th century, its economic autonomy. What makes the East Asian media culture so fascinating is that many of its greatest achivements – video, anime, and videogames – are meditations and critical reflections upon that autonomy.

            Though the full story is far too complicated to describe here, the basic timeline can be summarized as follows: Japan became a media culture in the 1960s, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore followed suit in the 1970s, while the remainder of the East Asian region mediatized in the 1980s. What made this process especially interesting was its additive nature. During the 1960s, Hollywood films and the US consumer culture provided the key templates for their Japanese and East Asian equivalents. By the 1970s, however, the influence of the US lessened considerably, thanks to the appearance of truly indigenous aesthetic forms. Local culture-industries began to trade with and learn from each other, rather than relying on US models. By the 1980s, East Asia was producing distinctive aesthetic forms which clearly surpassed anything in the US or EU – e.g. Nintendo’s classic console games, or John Woo’s state-of-the-art thrillers. Put another way, the process of Americanization typical of the 1960s and 1970s gave way to a more complex process of “Asianization”.

            By Asianization I mean something very different from what Koichi Iwabuchi calls the “popular Asianism” endemic to the Japanese mass media.2 Iwabuchi is referring to cultural exchanges between two East Asian nation-states or cultures (Vietnam and Japan, South Korea and Japan, Taiwan and Japan, and so forth). Asianization refers to the emergence of a genuinely multinational cultural space, which is able to access, cite and pastiche a wide array of national forms and mediatic genres. This space is closely tied to the arrival of multinational consumerism, i.e. the arrival of the mass media, as well as plebianized (and plebianizing) consumer electronics and information-processing devices of all kinds.

            Perhaps the closest analogy to Asianization is the Euroization of the European Union. As late as the 1970s, the consumer cultures of Western Europe were classified in terms of brusquely national economic typologies – the stereotypes of German cars, Swiss watches, French wine and Italian fashion. Nowadays, world-class firms such as STM, Nokia, SAP and Infineon have no such latent national connotations; they are multinational through and through. The same is true of the European cinema traditions, where specifically local phenomena such as Poland’s “cinema of moral anxiety” and the French New Wave gradually gave way to multinational productions, everywhere from Krzysztof Kieslowski’s dazzling Three Colors (1993-94) trilogy to the stylish and inventive video techniques of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro’s City of Lost Children (1995).

            Similar processes are at work in East Asia, where writers, artists and directors have drawn upon an increasingly multinational palette of styles, techniques and symbols. Japan’s anime culture has always borrowed freely from US animation, Western European science fiction, and Japan’s own indigenous comic strip culture. Similarly, the Hong Kong films fused elements of the Hollywood action-adventure film, the Japanese samurai thriller, and the traditional Chinese folk opera into the visual marvel of the wuxia (martial arts) thriller.

            Miyazaki’s own contribution to Asianization has been twofold. As a manga (comic strip) artist, he created the long-running series Nausicaa (1981-1994), one of the most thought-provoking and subversive works of the manga culture. As a film director, Miyazaki created everything from entertaining action capers like Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986) to visually sumptuous children’s fables such as My Neighbor Totoro (1988), all the way to sophisticated explorations of video forms, such as On Your Mark (1995), a five minute video which touched on many of the themes explored in Hideaki Anno’s epoch-making TV series, Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995).3 In the late 1990s, Miyazaki went in a new direction, by fusing the visual forms of the children’s fable with those of the adventure epic, generating the complex ecological symbolism of Princess Mononoke (1997).

            What Miyazaki did in Spirited Away was to transform Mononoke’s post-nationalism into a full-fledged multinationalism (why this is so is a vexingly complicated argument, which cannot be dealt with in the space of this talk – suffice to say that my forthcoming book-length manuscript, “Silicon Asia”, will analyze this issue in the detail it deserves).4 His key strategy was to leverage two of the linchpins of East Asian integration in an unexpectedly new way: the movement of narratives through East Asia’s mass media, and the movement of people through East Asia’s multiple national cultures.

            Though we tend to take the movement of cultural texts via broadcast TV, cable and the Web for granted, it’s important to note that the information revolution arrived a bit later in East Asia than in Western Europe or the US. This was partly due to geopolitical factors – the bloody conflicts of the Cold War, xenophobic cultural nationalisms, or else brutal repression by wealthy oligarchies or authoritarian one-party states – but mostly to mundane economic realities. Until the 1990s, most citizens of rural China, Indonesia and the Philippines had limited access to the multinational media culture. This is no longer the case, thanks to the wildfire spread of TV, broadcasting, cellphones and affordable electronics of all kinds, and one of the most interesting features of Miyazaki’s work is that he explicitly identifies the subversive possibilities of this vast new cultural marketplace.

            The massive expansion of cultural texts circulating throughout East Asia has been accompanied by an equivalent expansion of mobility. First, all of the East Asian nations have experienced massive urbanization in the past fifty years. Literally hundreds of millions of people have moved from the countryside to towns and cities, transforming themselves from peasants and farmers into factory-workers and consumers – a process which continues unabated to this day. Second, immigration within East Asia is rising very quickly indeed, albeit from a very small base, and should approach US and EU levels in another decade or so. Third, mass mobility in East Asia is gradually shifting away from extra-regional migration (i.e. to the US and EU) and towards intra-Asian migration. Significantly, this trend is most prevalent in semi-peripheral economies such as Malaysia or Taiwan, or entrepots such as Hong Kong and Singapore. Large numbers of Filipinos work in Hong Kong and Taiwan, while hundreds of thousands of Indonesians labor in Malaysia and Singapore. The International Organization for Migration, the leading authority on world immigration, estimates total intra-Asian immigration as follows:


Table 4. Intra-Asian Labor Migration. Data: estimates for 2000, from World Migration 2003, International Organization for Migration, Table 11.2 (Chapter 11). Note that the IOM classifies migrants from South Asian countries such as India and Bangladesh as Asian.


Destination

Estimated Asian migrants in labor force

Migrants as % workforce (current stock)

Main countries of origin

Singapore

607,000

29.0%

Indonesia, Malaysia, China, Philippines, Thailand

Malaysia

1,050,000

9.1%

Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, Bangladesh

Hong Kong

310,000

8.4%

Philippines, Thailand

Taiwan

383,000

3.4%

Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia

Thailand

665,000

2.1%

Burma, Laos, Bangladesh, India

Japan

892,000

1.4%

Korea, China, Philippines, Thailand

South Korea

286,000

1.2%

China, Philippines


 

The ratios for Japan and Korea are quite low compared to the US and the EU, where migrants make up 10% and 8% of the workforce, respectively. However, it’s worth remembering that the total number of migrants continues to rise very quickly in the region, at annual rates of around 3-6%. What this means is that within ten years, all the major East Asian economies will have significant foreign populations – something which will undoubtedly generate new and interesting forms of identity-politics.

            Miyazaki is a keen reader of this fast-growing multiculturalism, and this is one of the reasons Spirited Away is set not in a scenic village or other national space, but in a spirit-world which is a fairly transparent allegory of the high-tech East Asian service economy. The main character of the story, Chihiro, survives in the spirit-world by befriending a local resident and working as a manual laborer in the bath-house – a rather shocking thought for a Japan which has come to think of itself as a self-contained, autarkic economy, but a quite realistic narrative for the hundreds of thousands of Filipinos and Indonesians who work as domestic maids, servants and laborers in East Asia.5

            This intriguing reversal of the roles of the metropole and semi-periphery is conjoined to one other reversal: the mass form of people-moving otherwise known as tourism. The best source of information here is the World Tourism Organization, which collates and collects data from a range of national sources into a set of global statistical indicators. The first thing worth noting is that North America, Europe and Asia comprised 87.2% of all international arrivals in 2002 (the most recent year for which data is available). Though the numbers for Asia may seem relatively small, it’s worth noting that the Asian tourist market is growing much faster than Europe or North America:



Table 5. Global Tourism 2002


Data: World Tourism Organization website


Region

Millions of International Arrivals

Percent of all arrivals

Europe

399.8

56.9%

Asia

131.3

18.7%

North America

81.6

11.6%

World

702.6

100%



A closer examination reveals that East Asian tourism is, just like its trading relationships, largely regional in nature. Approximately 71% of all nonresident visitors in the below countries were from East Asia (the listed countries, plus Australia and New Zealand). For the sake of comparison, it’s worth noting that total nonresident visitors per resident in 2001 was 15.7% in the US, 101.9% in Switzerland, and 47.4% in Jamaica.


Table 6. East Asian Tourism, by Region.

Data: World Tourism Organization Annual Report 2003

 

Destination

All visitors per resident in 2001

East Asian visitors per resident in 2001*

European visitors per resident in 2001

US visitors per resident in 2001

Hong Kong

185.6%

149.4%

14.4%

12.7%

Singapore

179.7%

120%

31.5%

8.66%

Malaysia

55.3%

46.9%

3.05%

0.63%

Thailand

15.8%

9.66%

4.05%

0.82%

South Korea

10.7%

7.84%

0.94%

0.88%

Taiwan

11.6%

7.6%

0.65%

1.50%

Japan

3.75%

2.51%

0.50%

0.54%

Vietnam

2.85%

1.76%

0.38%

0.28%

Indonesia

2.19%

1.63%

0.41%

0.08%

China

0.87%

0.53%

0.21%

0.07%

Philippines

0.53%

0.29%

0.06%

0.12%


*World Tourism Organization statistics include the countries listed in this table, plus Australia and New Zealand, in this category.



What’s especially interesting is that EU tourists greatly outnumber their US counterparts in most East Asian countries, despite the fact that the population of Western Europe is only a quarter larger than the US. In fact, Miyazaki has a long history of quoting, citing and pastiching European culture, ranging from the Mediterranean towns of Kiki’s Delivery Service to the Welsh miners of Laputa: Castle in the Sky.6 (The opening moment of Spirited Away contains a clever reference to Central Europe: the family car is an Audi.)

            With all of these statistics and data in mind, let’s look at three specific sequences in Miyazaki’s film. The first is a clip showing Chihiro’s shock and disorientation at being trapped in the spirit-world:


Ghostly spirits begin to materialize in the resort town all around Chihiro. She cries out for her mother and father, and then races back to portal to the human world. Close panning shot of a mysterious frog statue, water pouring out of its mouth. Reverse shot of frog, Chihiro passes behind, rushes down stone steps and discovers her way is blocked by a vast ocean.

Chihiro: “It’s water!” She scrambles back to the stone steps and gazes at the horizon. Far off, the lights of a city waterfront gleam. A stylized green neon eye is visible to the left, a European clock-tower is in the center, and various kanji characters appear on the right. A steamboat approaches.

Chihiro: “It can’t be... I’m dreaming, dreaming!... Wake up, wake up!... wake up...” Ship continues to approach. “It’s just a dream, it’s just a dream... go away, disappear... disappear...” She realizes with a shock that her hands are becoming transparent, and that she herself is beginning to fade away: “I can see through! It’s a dream, it’s got to be...” Ship lands. Doors open magically, and what look like stylized playing cards float gently. Eventually, the bodies of spirits materialize around the cards, which turn out to be their faces. Sound-track swells, as they make their way to visit the bath-house. Chihiro cries out and runs off. (Spirited Away, DVD 0:12.47-0:14.30. In the Disney release of the film, this is Clip 2: It’s Just a Dream.)


In this wondrous passage, Miyazaki taps into one the deepest anxieties of Japan’s post-Bubble political unconscious: the fear that the wealth accumulated by decades of hard work, austerity and sacrifice will be washed away by fickle, incomprehensible market forces. The scene subtly evokes the psychological basis of xenophobia and racism – the shock and anxiety of encountering an unfamiliar culture, represented by Chihiro’s temporary fading and derealization – and then transforms this anxiety into a source of visual wonder and aesthetic delight. The boat itself looks rather like a steamboat, in a nod to the stage props used in Buster Keaton’s classic Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928), as well as the pleasure-ship in Inoshiro Honda’s Godzilla (1954), that great symbol of 1920s modernity derailed by the monstrous arrival of WW II. But Miyazaki is pushing further here than any national or even Cold War allegory: the strange, allegorical cards which turn into real bodies suggests symbolic passports and tourist visas. Just as the glowing city waterfront turns out to be a pastiche of several national cultures, so too do the faces of the spirits turn into ciphers of the East Asian tourist industry – objects of globalization on their way to becoming multinational subjects.

            In interviews with reporters, Miyazaki noted that he based the design of the spirit-town which Chihiro races through on an actual Edo-era historical museum near Studio Ghibli. Now this is the moment where one might expect the narrative to return of a thoroughly conventional set of national allegories, conveniently repackaged for the Japanese market. Instead, Miyazaki chooses this moment to pull the plug on the nation-state. The town is a classic false clue, an architectural Macguffin, to borrow Hitchcock’s famous term: the national entertainment park is displaced by Yu-baaba’s magical bath-house, a cipher of the multinational service economy.

            We’ll have more to say about the issue of corporealization and derealization in just a moment, but first I want to show a clip which reappropriates the aesthetics of the Hong Kong films and John Woo’s action blockbusters:


Chihiro, temporarily renamed Sen, tries to awaken an unconscious dragon (we later learn the dragon is Haku, in a magically transformed state). The dragon falls down a tunnel, escaping Zenibaba, Yubaaba’s twin sister, but dragging Chihiro along with it. Wonderful close shots of Sen clinging to the dragon, reeling in two accompanying characters to safety in mid-air (they have been transformed into a tiny bird and a groundhog). Sen then grasps the horns of the unconscious dragon.

Sen: “Haku!” Three close shots of her next to dragon, they are apparently deep underwater. They fall into a vast underground chamber, and a vast crowd of spirits rise up from the deep to greet them. With a last, final effort, the dragon reawakens and carries them to safety. They careen through a narrow passageway and crash through a fan, landing with much clatter and commotion in the engineering room.

Kamaji: “What on earth is this? Hey! Just wait!” Dragon flails about, bleeding heavily from the mouth.

Sen: “Haku! Does it hurt?”

Kamaji: “This is serious...”

Sen: “Haku, don’t give up! Oh no, he’s going to die!”

Kamaji: “There’s something inside him that’s killing him.”

Sen: “Inside him?”

Kamaji: “It’s a good spell. There’s nothing I can do.”

Sen: “Haku, the River-God gave me this. Eat it, maybe it’ll help.” Close shot of animated dustballs watching. “Haku, open your mouth! Please, Haku, eat it! See, it’s safe...”

Kamaji: “Is it an herbal cake?”

Sen: “Open... that’s a good boy...” Opens mouth and thrusts magic cake down dragon’s gullet. “That’s it. Swallow!” Dragon unconsciously swallows. Cake has an emetic effect: dragon begins to vomit out the golden seal. Dragon thrashes about, sending debris everywhere. Finally the seal is ejected.

Kamaji: “He spit it out! That’s it!” A strange creature is wrapped around the seal: a small worm, which tries to escape. “The seal! It got away! There! Over there!” She chases it around the room. Finally she accidentally steps on it.

Kamaji: “Gross, gross, Sen! Totally gross!” Casts a purification spell. “Clean!”

Sen: “Haku took this from Yubaaba’s sister, Kamaji!”

Kamaji: “From Zenibaba? A witch’s seal? Precious loot, I’d say.” The ejection of the seal has broken the spell over the dragon, who returns to human form: the dragon was Haku, as Sen suspected all along. (Spirited Away, DVD 1:24.49-1:28.00. In the Disney release of the film, this is Clip 9: The Golden Seal.)

 

The brief underwater shots are actually a childhood memory triggered by the frightening experience of the fall; for those who haven’t seen the film, I won’t spoil the ending, but suffice to say that this is a key passage in the film. Miyazaki is actually doing two things at once here. First, the dragon is one of the key tropes of East Asian culture in its semi-peripheral phase, everywhere from the Godzilla movies to Bruce Lee’s breakthrough Hong Kong blockbuster, Enter the Dragon (1973). Second, the theme of accelerated movement through enclosed spaces taps into the visual energies of one the bedrock visual forms of the 1990s, the 3D videogame.

            The rift between semi-peripheral mythology and high-tech video narratives is replicated by the divide between Zenibaba and Yubaaba, the twin sisters who, as Zenibaba says to Sen at one point, form two halves of a whole which doesn’t add up. In fact, the sisters represent the two antipodes of contemporary East Asia: an industrializing semi-periphery and a high-technology service economy. The theft of the golden seal from the semi-periphery (read: the plundering of the semi-peripheries’ credit-markets) is thus a shockingly realistic denunciation of East Asia’s own indigenous neocolonialism. Sen’s role in the narrative is therefore to negate this neocolonialism – to quite literally squash it, like the bug it is, and thereby open up a space where a multinational cultural logic can take wing.

            The last clip I want to show is a key scene at the railway:


Sen is walking with Bird and Baby across the water-flooded rail track to the station.

Sen: “There it is!” Train is visible in the distance. “Train’s coming, here we go.” The character of Nakano, who was originally chasing Sen but who is now out of breath, sees the train coming too. Train arrives with a spray of foam. Sen gives tickets to conductor, whose face we never see.

Sen: to conductor: “I’m riding to Swamp Bottom.” Nakano arrives at platform. There are four tickets. Conductor counts off Sen, Bird and Baby, and then points inquiringly at Nakano.

Sen: to Nakano: “You want to come, too?” Nakano nods assent.

Sen: to conductor: “Him too, please.”

All board train. The passengers are partly-transparent, silhouette-like figures. A close shot of luggage on left depicts a sticker with a stylized eye on it. Nakano hesitates, unsure of where to sit down.

Sen: indicates the seat next to her: “Come here. Behave yourself, OK?” Remorseful, Nakano sits down. Various shots of train zooming over water. Islands pass in the distance, and passengers depart one by one. At the next to last station, a little girl, half-transparent like the other passengers, gazes back at Sen. Nightfall. Outside, multicolored fluorescent icons zoom past, like stylized advertising logos. Close shot of Sen facing left, her face reflected in the window behind her. Train arrives in rural, undeveloped region of Swamp Bottom, Zenibaba’s home. (Spirited Away, DVD 1:37.40-1:41.00. In the Disney release of the film, this is Clip 11: The Train to Swamp Bottom.)



Trains are one of the most powerful symbols of contemporary modernity in East Asia, and the bullet train has much the same appeal for East Asia as the Airbus has for Europeans, or the space shuttle for Americans. (Both Korea and China have developed their own quite competitive bullet trains, while China has gone so far as to construct a magnetic levitation train between Shanghai and its airport.) Instead of trying to create a symbolic airship or other airborne transport vehicle, however – the strategy of Laputa: Castle in the Sky – Miyazaki taps into quite another feature of the East Asian region: this is its status as the center of the global shipbuilding industry. The spirit-train is thus a kind of water-borne shinkansen, if you will, symbolizing the trade, tourist and media connections which link the core economies of East Asia to the semi-periphery. It is less a train through space than a train through time, which links East Asia’s past as a semi-periphery to its present, as an autonomous geopolitical entity.

            This is confirmed by two important references to East Asia in this sequence. The first is a nod in the direction of Hideaki Anno’s magnificent anime Neon Genesis: Evangelion (1995): the sticker of the eye on the luggage is actually one of the aliens in episode 15 of that series. The second is the little girl at the next-to-last station, who looks back at Sen. She is Sen’s semi-peripheral double, the symbol of an East Asian semi-periphery which has developed its own mass mediatic forms, and is therefore no longer limited to being seen, but is capable of seeing others. At the conclusion of the film, Miyazaki will push this insight still further, by fusing this reflexive critique of visual forms to a critique of the economic narratives of East Asian neoliberalism (unfortunately, this requires a far more thorough-going analysis than this brief paper can provide).

            

 

 

 






Endnotes


1. For a more in-depth analysis of the post-Cold War world-system, see my online essay, Geopolitics in the 21st Century: <http://www.efn.org/~dredmond/Geopolitics.html>


2. See Koichi Iwabuchi, “Nostalgia for a (Different) Modernity: Media Consumption of ‘Asia’ in Japan,” Positions 10:3, Winter 2002 Duke UP (547-73).


3. This intriguing cross-fertilization of video forms is something which cultural critics need to take much more seriously. In 1995, Hideaki Anno’s ground-breaking anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion fatefully transformed the field of Japanese anime, sublating the mecha genres into one of the touchstones of multinational culture.


4. This is a project scheduled to be completed in late 2004, at which point I’ll put the full text online at <http://www.efn.org/~dredmond/SiliconAsia.html>.


5. One of the most productive ways immigration was reconceptualized in the 1990s was the notion of the diaspora. While early versions of the concept tended to focus on professional-class, First World specialists and globe-hopping professionals, theorists and activists later in the decade began to push the concept in a more radical direction, generating everything from new forms of cross-border labor, environmental and human rights activism to Hardt and Negri’s utopian motif of the “multitude.” Diasporas can take a number of forms, ranging from a single national or proto-national culture which annexes other cultural spaces – the colonization of Australia or the early US by Britain, for example – to complex diffusions across multiple national cultures, e.g. the millions of African slaves forcibly deported by Western European colonialism to the Americas developed unique diasporic cultures (African American, African Caribbean, and African Brazilian identities) for reasons of sheer survival.


6. The EU exerted an increasingly powerful cultural influence on East Asia during the 1990s. Part of the reason is the blossoming of the EU’s own media culture – e.g. the emergence of world-class videogame producers such as Finland’s Remedy and Croatia’s Croteam.