The National and Cultural Identity in Children's Films Toy Story 3 and Spirited Away

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About this sample


Words: 2218 |

Pages: 5|

12 min read

Published: Oct 4, 2018

Words: 2218|Pages: 5|12 min read

Published: Oct 4, 2018

Although it's a hotly contested subject, the credit for first entirely hand-drawn animation often falls to the Anglo-American Humorous Phases of Funny Faces (1906, James Stuart Blackton) (McLaughlin).To this day, America continues to have a major impact upon the animation industry, especially considering the Western media empire of Walt Disney kicked into gear by Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937, David Hand) (McLaughlin). In the last three decades the Walt Disney Company and their subsidiaries have seen their films transcending the boundaries of animation and being critically and commercially acclaimed, culminating with Toy Story 3 (2010, Lee Unkrich) getting nominated for Best Picture and raking in $1,063,171,911 worldwide (IMDb) (while Frozen (2013, Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee) has surpassed the film financially, Toy Story 3 retains more universal critical acclaim (Rotten Tomatoes)).

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Across the sea, Studio Ghibli enjoys the status of "'the Disney of Japan'", with its founder Hayao Miyazaki being regarded as "'the Walt Disney of Japan'" (Deadline). Having had its start around the same time as America with Katsudou shashin (1907, uncredited), the Japanese animation industry easily dominates the Japanese domestic market, with growing international fame and recognition, especially in America. To this day, Studio Ghibli's Spirited Away (2001, Hayao Miyazaki) remains the only foreign language animation to have won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, grossing $274,949,886 worldwide (IMDb). Toy Story 3 and Spirited Away are readily comparable as blockbuster animated coming-of-age stories dealing heavily with themes of nostalgia; however, in terms of national identity and cultural tradition they are exceptionally different, with Spirited Away's implicit message speaking out against the cultural domination that the West has historically enjoyed over Japan, with Toy Story 3 celebrating the powers and preeminence of the same.

First, the blockbuster status of the two films must be established. Featured prominently in both is the tell-tale characteristic "foregrounding of spectacle…[and] big budget and big box-office returns" (Shin and Stringer 58). While the budget of Toy Story 3 was an astronomical $200,000,000, the hand-drawn Spirited Away still required a large investment of $15,000,000 to produce (IMDb). As mentioned above, both clearly surpassed expectations of potential returns upon their release. As for foregrounding of spectacle, both feature colorful, kinetic worlds filled with action and adventure.

The characters of the spirit realm portrayed by Spirited Away are constantly on the move, whether it's escaping from No-Face, cleaning a polluted river spirit, or flying away on Haku's dragon form. The plot of Toy Story 3 makes full use of the impressive visual spectacle guaranteed by a Disney/Pixar production, most perfectly demonstrated by the attempt to escape Sunnyside Daycare and the concluding action sequence at the incinerator of the tri-county landfill. Both films are entirely "visercal, kinetic and fast-paced" (Schatz 29); while both films offer captivating worlds for the audience to lose themselves in, the plots are kept moving at a brisk clip constantly sprinkled with bright action sequences to hold the audience's attention.

"The aesthetic and commercial value of the respective forms" (Schatz 41) are continually enhanced and emphasized; Toy Story 3 offers the immaculate 3D-animation and advanced computer-generated special effects made possible by the film's "excessive budget…and state-of-the-art production values" (Schatz 18), while Spirited Away offers lovingly detailed hand-drawn slides, with special attention being paid to backgrounds and nuances of character depiction (take note of the exceptional attention paid to the shadows on Yubaba's face). Finally, both films are "mainstream A-class star vehicles" (Schatz 40). With actors such as Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, Don Rickles and Michael Keaton, Toy Story 3's cast speaks for itself. While they may not be known in the West, Spirited Away features the prolific talents of Rumi Hiiragi, Miyu Irino and Mari Natsuki, all of whom have had several roles in film and television in their native Japan (IMDb). Well-known in their respective home countries, these impressive casts, coupled with the prestige of the studios that produced the films, ensured that the films filled seats in the theaters and generated pre-release buzz.

Both films are coming-of-age stories featuring heavy themes of nostalgia, further increasing their accessibility. Audiences respond well to nostalgia, as "reminiscence displays growth and natural progression while also providing the safety we associate with childhood" (Kruzel). "Nostalgic content…makes us feel…content" (Kruzel), as "retro-themed entertainment feeds into our tendency to reflect back on the positive events that shaped our sense of who we are now" (Whitbourne). Spirited Away is a bit more direct in its approach; as a self-contained unit and not part of a series, the nostalgic coming-of-age story can be considered in and of itself. Regardless of one's respective culture, Chihiro is sure to remind the viewer of the innocent, energetic naivety of childhood. As she enters the bathhouse and is immediately put to work with Kamaji, the viewer can reflect upon their own journey into adulthood. Through her various trials and tribulations in which she falls in love, learns about loss and discovers that the world isn't painted in chromatics, we see her become a woman (figuratively rather than literally); adults will fondly remember their own journey, teenagers and young adults will appreciate the fact that they're almost done with their own, and young audience members will look forward to their

upcoming transition. As far as nostalgia goes, the setting of Spirited Away explicitly references "Meiji Japan in terms of architecture, during which time the style was a mix of Western and Japanese" (Suzuki). While it's likely that no Japanese members of Spirited Away's audience in 2001 directly remember the Meiji Era, the Japanese heavily value their heritage and identity, and the rustic settings portrayed trigger the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi, "the beauty of things imperfect, impermanent and incomplete…of things modest and humble…of things unconventional" (Koren). Spirited Away takes its audience back to a simpler, more authentic time that strikes a cultural chord "through its complex vision of a quasi-nostalgic fantastic realm threatened by pollution from within and without" (Napier 288). Even foreign audiences find themselves caught up in the beauty of rural Japan through Appadurai's "possibility of 'nostalgia without memory' in which 'the past becomes a synchronic warehouse of cultural scenarios'" (Napier 289).

Toy Story 3 is unique considering that the nature of its nostalgic coming-of-age story is dependent upon the past two installments of the series. Much like it did with Monsters University (2013, Dan Scanlon), Disney/Pixar is assuming that millennial audiences grew up with the previous films. While an individual who's currently a child can still lose themselves within the fascinating world depicted, part of the reason Toy Story 3 made such an astronomical impact was that many members of the audience experienced their own coming-of-age story right alongside Andy. We can immediately tell that the beloved world we grew up with is different; there are no children present (even Andy's sister Molly is all grown up) and the toys have been whittled down to the "core" group from the first film (with the notable absence of Bo Peep). This engenders a sense of melancholy nostalgia, but nothing can compare to the final shot in which Andy passes his toys on to Bonnie in an obvious metaphor for leaving childhood behind. Nostalgia is heavily present, as children and parents can easily associate happy memories with viewing the previous films in times they perceive as simpler and more innocent.

Although in terms of theme and reception Spirited Away is highly similar to Toy Story 3, the respective connotations of the two films are polar opposites. Ultimately, Spirited Away "[searches] for what might be termed cultural recovery, or perhaps cultural rehabilitation, in a corrupt postindustrial society" (Napier 289). Spirited Away explicitly references the atmosphere and anxiety of the Meiji Era. A period of rapid industrialization implicitly forced upon the Japanese by Western powers, "Japan's turbulent and phenomenal advance in both the economic and political realms inevitably created new pressures and demands" (Morton 164), chief of which is considered "cultural pollution, alienation, and fragmented or lost subjectivities" (Napier 288).

As many workers and families found their traditional culture and values eschewed in lieu of what was Western and modern, a loss of spiritual integrity was engendered that would eventually lead to the existential malaise that proliferates in post-modern Japan. The spirits, meant to echo those of the traditional Japanese Shinto religion, are completely cut off from and disregarded by the physical world. Consider the opening scene, wherein we see Shinto shrines crudely unearthed and thrown to the side of the road to ostensibly facilitate the construction of the amusement park.

The bathhouse is the only thing that cheers them up, but the bathhouse represents a class-oriented capitalist society (with the implication that capitalism is the key to fulfillment and success) domineered by the cruel Yubaba. Yubaba represents the West with her Western dress and décor, only doing paperwork, living in a luxurious room and flexing the capital to hire lower-class labor. While the bathhouse "emblemizes cleansing and purity of a quintessentially Japanese kind" (Napier 290), the spirits are only offered a brief respite, eventually having to re-enter a world that doesn't respect or acknowledge them. Capitalism inspires a reassessment of efficacy and identity, further emphasized when Chihiro literally gets her identity reassigned upon entering the world of the bathhouse. Haku also experiences this loss of identity, and Haku is only freed from Yubaba's control when he recalls his true identity as the spirit of the Kohaku River. Clearly, the film "revolves around the tension between Japanese cultural identity and otherness" (Napier 288) and delivers the message that a return to the authentic and the traditional will benefit the nation (Suzuki).

In contrast to Spirited Away's implicit criticism of Western ideals and actions, Toy Story 3 continues the trend of the series and offers a subtle but convincing glorification of the same. While Toy Story 3 deals specifically with America, America can easily be extended to represent the entire West. First and foremost, establishing a cowboy as the main character immediately puts an American tint on the proceedings, as the cowboy is the archetypal American hero. Having the secondary protagonist as an astronaut continues the trend. While the astronaut is not unique to America, the proliferation of space culture in America and the former preoccupation of the nation with getting into space still insists that the astronaut is a central figure in the nation's history.

The enemy that the toys overcome, Lotso, can be seen as "the other", he who does not agree or comply with Woody and Buzz's philosophies or plans. While in Toy Story Woody and Buzz were opponents (a struggle between traditional American culture and new American culture), they quickly got past their differences to team up and conquer in the next two installments. America, as represented by Woody and Buzz, always emerges triumphant. While it is portrayed in a subtle manner, this sense of "the other" can also be glimpsed when Buzz gets reset to Spanish mode. Buzz's Spanish mode consists of a stereotyped portrayal of the Latin American as an exotic lover. Buzz flirts precariously with Jessie, all the while inspiring the audience to laugh at his exaggerated words and actions. Indeed, to "fix" Buzz, the other toys must reset him to his English-speaking mode. In a more general sense, the digital sheen and production qualities of Toy Story 3 can be seen as a glorification of America.

Hollywood is home of the blockbuster, and no foreign nation would have the resources to produce something as technically advanced as the computer animation seen in Toy Story 3. By flexing the full financial might of the industry (and nation) backing it, Toy Story 3 sets an unprecedented American accomplishment for computer animation. Furthermore, there is inherent reflection in the piece considering that the film is a sequel. Audiences either consciously or subconsciously consider the other two installments of the series, all of which were milestones of computer animation, ensuring that we recognize that America is the king of the medium.

Furthermore, as a point of slight consideration, there is an undeniable excess in terms of how many toys proliferate the world. Generally regarded as a gluttonous culture with a distinct lack of restraint, it can't but help to be wondered whether there would even be enough toys in foreign cultures for the narrative to possess any semblance of verisimilitude. Though it may appear as harmless and innocent, we'd do well to remember that "'soft power' lies in a country's capability [to] 'co-opt people rather than coerce them'" (Su 317) and even something such as Toy Story 3 can guarantee that America "maintains its legitimacy, consolidates its power, and imposes an ideological hegemony over…society" (Su 321).

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Spirited Away and Toy Story 3 are landmark achievements in animation that prove that animated films can contend with live-action blockbusters. Furthermore, their powerful narratives are easily relatable and impactful, regularly meeting or surpassing the precedents set by their live-action counterparts. Rightfully considered films for children or for families, the aggressive contrast between their conflicting themes is a fascinating study. While many viewers will miss their latent messages about national identity and cultural tradition, both films clearly present opposing viewpoints under careful consideration. All films, no matter how seemingly inconsequential, are vehicles of culture, disseminating the viewpoints of the nations that produced them.

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This essay was reviewed by
Dr. Oliver Johnson

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The National and Cultural Identity in Children’s Films Toy Story 3 and Spirited Away. (2018, October 02). GradesFixer. Retrieved February 28, 2024, from
“The National and Cultural Identity in Children’s Films Toy Story 3 and Spirited Away.” GradesFixer, 02 Oct. 2018,
The National and Cultural Identity in Children’s Films Toy Story 3 and Spirited Away. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 28 Feb. 2024].
The National and Cultural Identity in Children’s Films Toy Story 3 and Spirited Away [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2018 Oct 02 [cited 2024 Feb 28]. Available from:
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