The Stink Spirit

Japan has had to endure far more than its share of natural and human disasters and far too much of the lethal wreckage they bring with them—as if one disaster alone wouldn’t be too much. Watching the deeply horrifying tsunami footage, I kept remembering images from Hiyao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away in which characters repeatedly face horrifying dark tides of filthy detritus that overwhelm everything in their path. Though the tides are framed as the result of greed and human pollution, they always take on a form that now looks all too familiar, almost as if the imagine of past tsunamis continually emerges from deep in the imaginative memory.

The film’s story takes place at an otherworldly bathhouse where nature spirits come to be cleansed. One day a”stink spirit” appears, or so it seems, but with the help of the young female heroine Sen, the spirit turns out to have been an afflicted river god. Cleansed, the river god awards Sen the gift of a powerful healing substance and returns to his realm. (Unfortunately the clip below cuts off the climax of this story.) I wish this current disaster could be healed with the same magic.

Miyazaki’s animation studio is situated in the ancient Tokyo neighbourhood of Kichijoji, where I also have close friends. They were okay in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, but I think may have since fled to Osaka. I can’t find them now. [Update March 17: they are in Osaka with family.]

I don’t have any more words for the unimaginable disaster that has hit Japan. It would be very helpful if everyone could support reconstruction in Sendai and area by giving at least $20 each or as much as you can afford to Architecture for Humanity, Red Cross or charity of your choice.


Above, a photograph by Sergio Canobbio titled Stink Spirit shows how the film has entered popular consciousness – it shows a polluted river in Italy (see comment below) reminiscent of Spirited Away.

Below are stills from Spirited Away via ejumpcut: The stink spirit arrives at the bathhouse; Sen pulls a “thorn” from its side releasing a deluge of human wreckage; the cleansed river god is released from its affliction and flies back to its realm.


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3 Responses to “The Stink Spirit”

  1. Sergio Says:

    The “real world” photo is from a destructive oil and wastewater spill that occurred in a Italian river in early 2010. this shape immediately remembered me of the Okusare, because I’m a fan of Miyazaki movies.

    The photo is from my flickr account:

    My best wishes to the Japanese people in this tragedy.

  2. LB Says:

    Thank you, Sergio. It’s interesting how so many of us all over the world have understood these horrifying tragedies in terms of imagery in Miyazaki films. I have friends in Tokyo’s Kichijoji neighbourhood where Miyazaki’s studio is also located, and I’ve been worrying about all of them as the reactors become more unstable. It’s unbearable.

  3. Trash villans and garbage superheros in popular media (just a taste) « Discard Studies Says:

    […] many cases, though certainly not all, the trash-monster is either an environmental payback (think, Stink Spirit in Spirited Away that was once a River Spirit, or Hexxus, the bad guy in Ferngully), or the […]

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