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Belonging is an intrinsic human need, existing on both a physical and psychological level. It is one’s sense of connection with people, objects or places, and consequently many consider that achieving a sense of belonging enables one to live a more positive and optimistic life. As such, belonging is a value which society holds paramount. However, despite the constructive influences formed by belonging, it inevitably coexists with its destructive reciprocal, alienation, simply because wherever one belongs, they are elsewhere alienated. Raimond Gaita’s 1998 biographical memoir Romulus, my Father and Hayao Miyazaki’s 2001 animated film Spirited Away both thoroughly explore the concepts of belonging and alienation, employing various literary and filmic techniques to express these ideas. They both ultimately emphasise that through experiencing belonging, one can peacefully exist in a community through being granted an essence of self-security.
A sense of belonging is integral for an individual to function properly in a given society, and is catalysed by interactions with and acceptance by others. A simple impression of acceptance gives one the feeling that their existence is acknowledged and that their life has purpose. In Romulus, my Father, Romulus’ selfless treatment of Raimond “he denied himself so that I would have more, he fainted on more than one occasion”, establishes a strong paternal relationship between the two, allowing them to continue living despite enduring hardships as “times were hard, with severe shortages of everything”. We see that although Gaita is disregarded by his mother Christine, his firm connection with his father allows him to continue living unhindered and with little psychological impact. The juxtaposition of “my father’s devoted care” with “her neglect” contrasts Christine’s treatment of Gaita with that of Romulus and emphasises how it strengthened their bond. Thus, he accentuates how he matured with an optimistic psyche because of Romulus’ positive treatment during his youth.
Similarly, the scene in Spirited Away where Rin helps Chihiro find work in the spirit world’s bathhouse emphasises Rin’s acceptance of Chihiro despite Chihiro being a human. This is expressed through the concerned tone in her question “are you feeling okay?” depicted in the wide angle shot capturing her gently caressing Chihiro. A sense of belonging culminates from such acknowledgement, and thus Chihiro is able to live properly in this completely different society despite her rejection by everyone else. This hostility is captured through the mise en scene of Chihiro standing in front of a group of workers looking at her disgustedly, reinforced by one worker’s use of hyperbole “she’ll stink up the whole place”. Chihiro’s ability to endure the hardships of her seclusion is evident in her confident tone when she repetitively asks Yubaba for work, “Please, can’t you give me a job?”. Her sense of belonging with Rin despite being excluded by the others is similar to Gaita’s connection with Romulus regardless of Christine’s neglect. Both texts effectively reinforce the importance of interactions with others in achieving a sense of belonging.
One of the fundamental aspects of belonging is the essence of self-security that it offers, and it is through this that one is protected by the psychological distress brought about by alienation. Gaita’s early reciting of his grandmother’s words “this child I am carrying will suffer” foreshadows the devastation of Christine. It is later alluded to by the metaphor “a dead red gum…became for my mother a symbol of her desolation”, which juxtaposed with the succeeding mention of trees from her European homeland, “peppercorns and cypresses surrounded the house” emphasises her alienation and disconnection with Australia. The destruction of Christine caused by her segregation is exemplified through the repetitive allusions to her mental state, such as “the torments of her hallucinations”, ultimately leading to her suicide, “she killed herself only days after their conversation”. Furthermore, Gaita contrasts the fall of his mother through the security he felt by belonging with Romulus. He reminisces Romulus’ “strong, bare, sun-darkened arms on either side of me”, utilising the symbolism of his arms as a defensive barrier against the ruin brought by isolation. This is reinforced by how his “muscular arms protected me from their terrible meaning”. Gaita ultimately shows us that self-security is a vital characteristic of belonging through demonstrating the effects of both his mother’s dissociation and his own sense of belonging.
In the same way, Chihiro experiences suffering in Spirited Away from the alienation she faces living in the spirit world. The scene where she signs the contract to work for Yubaba, the bathhouse owner, highlights the importance of belonging in shaping one’s identity. As a condition of the contract, she is forced to effectively relinquish her name, which is essentially her identity to Yubaba, delineated by the highly modal tone “So your name’s Chihiro? What a pretty name…and it belongs to me now”. The high angle shot capturing Yubaba magically erasing Chihiro’s name from the contract is symbolic of one’s loss of identity. The impact of this is illustrated shortly after, when Chihiro, now under the new name Sen, realises she has already forgotten her real name, portrayed in her incredulous tone “I can’t believe I forgot my name”. The mental trauma she experiences from this realisation is evident in the close up shot depicting her uncontrollably sobbing, which is coupled with non-diegetic piano music to generate a melancholic atmosphere. Miyzaki uses this scene to evoke pathos from audiences as they empathise with her. Hence, he highlights the consequences of Chihiro’s loss of identity, similar to Gaita’s recount of the mental degradation of his mother resulting from her alienation. Both Miyazaki and Gaita exemplify the pessimism of a lack of self-security, which results from failing to achieve a sense of belonging.
As such, we can see through the deconstruction of Raimond Gaita’s memoir Romulus, my Father and Hayao Miyazaki’s animated film Spirited Away how the complex nature of belonging results from its significant influence in shaping an individual’s life. Both the constructiveness of achieving a sense of belonging and the destruction resulting from belonging’s reciprocal, alienation, are evident in both texts, portrayed through a variety of literary and filmic devices. Ultimately, both composers effectively exhibit the importance of an individual’s sense of belonging as it rewards them with a positive attitude towards life, accompanied by a feeling of self-security.
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