Guide to the Japanese Language in the Animated "Spirited Away"

Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi

Shen stands near her parents, who have been turned into pigs

Studio Ghibli / Disney

Hayao Miyazaki's critically acclaimed movie "Spirited Away" (千と千尋の神隠し) won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film at the 75th Annual Academy Awards ceremony. It tells the story of 10-year-old Chihiro, who is accidentally thrown into another dimension, a spirit world. While working at a bathhouse catering to spirits and gods, she tries to rescue her parents from a spell that transformed them into pigs.

It is the highest grossing film in Japanese box-office history, surpassing "Titanic." When it was shown on TV in January 2013, it had the highest audience rating ever for a movie. 46.2% of households in Japan tuned in.

Reading subtitles would distract viewers from the amazing visuals, and the English dubbed version features a voice cast and translators who did their jobs with sensitivity. Although the overall atmosphere of the film endures, "Spirited Away" is deeply rooted in Japanese culture, so something gets lost in translation for viewers who miss out on the sounds of Japanese in the original Japanese dialogue. Understanding the Japanese language a little better can help you better appreciate certain aspects of the film.

Understanding the Japanese Title

The Japanese title is "Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi." "Sen" (千) and "Chihiro" (千尋) are the names. "To" (と) is a particle which connects nouns. It translates into "and." "Kami (神)" means "god" or "spirit," and "kakushi (隠し)" is the noun form of the verb "kakusu (to hide)." "Kamikakushi" (神隠し) means "hidden by spirits," hence the English wordplay of "Spirited Away."

How Does "Chihiro" Become "Sen?"

When Chihiro is forced into slave labor at the bathhouse which Yubaba rules, she writes down her name, Ogino Chihiro (荻野千尋) in the contract. (In Japanese the family name comes first.) Yubaba steals three characters from her name. The one character left (the third one) becomes her new name. The reading of this kanji character is "sen" (千) as well as "chi."

Translating Significant Japanese Characters

The character written on the curtain at the front gate of the bathhouse is the hiragana "yu." It means "bath." The kanji character for "yu" is also seen on the chimney of the bathhouse.

The bathhouse is called "Aburaya" (油屋). ("Abura" means "oil," and "ya" is the suffix used for a store.) The kanji sign "Aburaya" is seen above the gate of the bathhouse. The flag on the bathhouse also has the kanji character for "abura" (油).

The Theme Song, "Itsumo Nandodemo"

Here are the lyrics of the theme song “Itsumo Nandodemo" (いつも何度でも) for the movie. “Itsumo” means “always,” amd “nandodemo” means “any numbers of times.”

呼んでいる 胸のどこか奥で
yondeiru mune no dokoka oku de

いつも心躍る 夢を見たい
itsumo kokoro odoru yume o mitai

かなしみは 数えきれないけれど
kanashimi wa kazoekirenai keredo

その向こうできっと あなたに会える
sono mukou de kitto anata ni aeru

繰り返すあやまちの そのたび ひとは
kurikaesu ayamachi no sonotabi hito wa

ただ青い空の 青さを知る
tada aoi sora no aosa o shiru

果てしなく 道は続いて見えるけれど
hateshinaku michi wa tsuzuite mieru kedo

この両手は 光を抱ける
kono ryoute wa hikari o dakeru

さよならのときの 静かな胸
sayonara no toki no shizukana mune

ゼロになるからだが 耳をすませる
zero ni naru karada ga mimi o sumaseru

生きている不思議 死んでいく不思議
ikiteiru fushigi shindeiku fushigi

花も風も街も みんなおなじ
hana mo kaze mo arashi mo minna onaji