A Strange Visit

Earlier on I mentioned the transforming supporting cast. These characters although sometimes small parts in comparison to the heroine, hero and villain still play a role either in one of those three archetypes lives or affect the story in some way. Despite their roles being small in comparison to others, their identities go through changes physically but sometimes also mentally within a short amount of time.

The Stink God/Spirit

“Well done.”

– River God

 Stink GodNo one likes this guy as he comes squelching along as they close up shop so as to not deal with him and to escape the overwhelming disgusting smell that ripples off him. The town’s people quickly close up their shops, turning off lights in his wake. The bathhouse workers try to tell him they are closed but he just simply keeps coming. Yubaba still being greedy and also believing that this god isn’t a stink god at all, orders Sen to deal with him. Every worker is running to avoid the purple ooze pouring out of him and the brown sludge that seems to pervade his being. He even ruins Sen and Lin’s food just by walking by. He never speaks but simply hands money over to Sen and climbs into the bathtub, only opening his mouth (to Sen’s disgust) to indicate he wants more water. His stench makes Sen fall into the water.

Up to this point, this guy is unliked, unwanted and scares everyone away from him. He is simply an oozing, disgusting, brown sludge Stink god that must be served as a customer should. His true identity is hidden behind this outside layer of gunk. He is a guy/spirit who in his current form is unpleasant to be around. This is one of those times that the clichéd saying of “you can’t judge a book by its cover” comes in handy. His outward appearance and smell make people avoid him and thus he becomes “othered” by society, an outcast, garbage that doesn’t deserve support or help. As an audience, we are making assumptions about who this character is simply based on how he looks.Thorn

Yet when Sen finds the “thorn” in his side and Yubaba orders everyone to help pull, everything begins to change for the god. The things that come out of him start with a bicycle but include a lot of odds and ends of garbage. The spirit that emerges from the now clean water is a wrinkled mask-like face with bushy white eyebrows and missing teeth. He congratulates Sen with “well done” and emerges from the water as a white dragon – a famous River god.

The Stink god’s transformation into a dragon/River god shows how what is on the outside of someone’s physical appearance may not be who they truly are on the inside. This god’s true identity was revealed by someone who was willing to help, willing to reach out and touch him to find that there was something wrong. Due to a stranger’s help, he was able to return to his River Godformer self and get back up on his feet. If we would all just take a moment of our time in this busy world to get to know someone, or ask them their story, or see what’s wrong then the “othered”, “ugly” “outcast” that society has created can heal, grow strong once again and become a friend.

We also come face to face with one of Miyazaki’s favourite recurring issues about society: pollution to our environment. This River god was once clean, pure and beautiful and over time, humans transformed him into “a slimy, fetid monster by its unintentional absorption of heaps of junk metal of precisely the kind one would expect to find at the bottom of many of today’s streams”[i]. Thus we could state that humans’ impact on our environment is suggestive of how an identity can be changed for the worse by others. Someone who was once strong and beautiful, over time can be transformed into an outcast, a monster or a traumatized survivor by society, by family, and friends, or circumstances.

Boh (Baby)

“Baby had such a good time.”

– Boh

Boh01Boh is actually the Japanese word for baby. The character Boh is essentially a giant baby. Boh02He is confined to his nursery by his mother Yubaba, and believes that going outside will cause him to get sick. He is spoiled and gets everything he wants. He is very strong which we see when he grabs Sen’s arm and she cries out that he is hurting her. He threatens her that if she leaves him and doesn’t play with him, that “if I cry, Baba will come and kill you.” By utilizing his mother as a threat, he has learned in the past that he can get his own way. Yet the sight of blood scares him and he screams. Boh soon is able to follow Sen outside of his nursery, demanding once again that she plays with him, and crying loud sobbing tears. This giant baby should probably be more like a toddler but knows like any baby if they cry, they get what they want but Sen has no time for Boh’s antics. It doesn’t help that his own situation is turned upside down when he is turned into a fat mouse by Zeniba and the three green heads take his visage to make things more complicated. NotBoh04 knowing what to do, he follows after Chihiro and even uses her as a kind of teacher when he copies her movements in the boiler room when surrounded by the soot creatures. Children learn best by copying others, what they say and what they do, teach them how to act and how to behave.

Boh’s road trip or journey starts by leaving the nursery with Sen which teaches him new things along the way. Timothy Iles states, “The road trip is indeed an accurate metaphor for the journey of life that brings us from a point of departure to a point of destination and (hopefully) teaches us something along the way”[ii]. The departure from the safety of the nursery and Boh’s transformation into a mouse rockets his journey off. Boh’s behaviour starts toBoh05 change as he begins to realize that maybe his mother was wrong about keeping him locked away. His identity suddenly has a new influence to take into consideration: Sen. The final straw that places him on taking on Sen as a role model is when his own mother doesn’t recognize him. At first he is devastated but soon gets mad. This causes him to protect Sen from No Face when he seemingly tries to strangle her and to follow her to Swamp Bottom. Along the way, he is curious and excited about seeing all the new things around him.

Over his short journey or road trip with Sen, his identity changes. He tries not to be spoiled by walking on his own instead of riding on Sen’s shoulder, and by running on the spinning wheel to make thread for Sen. He has also become gentler from being transformed into a mouse as he kisses Zeniba goodbye on the nose before they head home unlike his earlier treatment of Sen. His transformation has forced him to look at the world differently and start to evaluate what he has learned in the past. This evaluation of his identity allows him to shed the influence of his mother and become a better person.

When he returns to his baby form, he’s not as impressed with his mother as he was before. He tells his mother, “Baba, what a miser. Just can it. Baby had such a good time.” He has grown to realize the type of person she is and that by leaving his sanctuary she placed him in, he has learned she was wrong that the world won’t make him sick and that the world is a wonderful place. The only thing that still remains is his knowledge of how to manipulate his mother into giving him almost anything he wants. He says, “if you make Sen cry, I won’t like you anymore, Baba.” Boh has made his first friend in Sen and thus feels protective towards her for all that she has shown and taught him. In childlike fashion, he wants Sen to “come and see us” so that perhaps he can see more and be taught more by her.

Boh06Although, Boh’s identity changes are based on his transformation and the circumstances it places him in. The changes that occur after his mother not recognizing him are all done by choice. He realizes that the identity he has known so far isn’t quite the right fit. He realizes that his identity lies outside of what his mother wants it to be and so he chooses to change. Boh’s character suggests that children start in an identity that is influenced by those surrounding them but with the opportunity to leave the family unit, they may become an individual. Boh embodies the struggle many Japanese individuals have with trying to balance the western identity of the self with the needs of the family, and his “nation”. In the end, Boh’s identity seems to have turned out for the better.

Conclusion

The Stink god and Boh are unique in their transformations. The Stink god is “othered” by society while Boh is sheltered from society. It is only with the help of Sen that the two characters finally able to transform into their new identities. Both characters suggest that sometimes outside help can allow for healing or growth in one’s identity which allows for a choice in change rather than a forced change.

End Notes

[i] Cavallaro, Dani. The Anime Art of Hayao Miyazaki (London: McFarland & Company, 2006), 141.

[ii] Iles, Timothy. The Crisis of Identity in Contemporary Japanese Film: Personal, Cultural and National (Boston: Bill’s Japanese Studies Library, 2008), 135.

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