On Identity, Miyazaki, and Japanese Bathhouses

Still from Studio Ghibli's Spirited Away

There are countless things to love in Hayao Miyazaki’s body of work — from the lushness of the drawing to the subtle ways in which his films reference and comment on earlier literary texts. What I admire the most, though, is the way his movies typically revolve around a crossing of a threshold between worlds — and how these worlds resist any easy binary split. There’s cruelty and kindness, beauty and horror, reality and fantasy in both. Characters have to make tough ethical decisions and work hard (often through grueling physical labor) before they find any semblance of harmony within (and between) the worlds they occupy.

In her Catapult essay on growing up as a mixed-race child in the U.S. and Japan, Nina Coomes finds inspiration in Miyazaki’s films to come to terms with her own personal narrative — one that resists clear-cut definitions and predictable plot twists just as the stories of the young girls at the center of movies like Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind or Spirited Away. Chihiro, the protagonist of the latter, spends the bulk of the movie in a labyrinthine, monster-and-spirit-frequented bathhouse. In a powerful sequence in her essay, Coomes recounts her own experiences as a kid in Japanese bathhouses, and how her visits there, both before and after her family had moved to the U.S., highlighted her growing doubts about where she belonged and who she truly was.

Born significantly underweight, I had always been a long, spindly child. A bundle of elbows and knees, I was constantly tripping, hitting my head, ambling about like a colt learning to walk. I was, by American standards, painfully thin. By Japanese standards I looked identical to my peers. I knew this because of our annual school trip to the bathhouse, where we would all gather around the steaming tub, our bodies present and accountable, held in front of all—all of us with our skin thinning at the ribs, each vertebrae visibly poking out of our backs. It didn’t matter that I had an American father, or that we spoke a hodgepodge English-Japanese pidgin at home; standing at the bathhouse with my peers, I retained a steadfast assurance in my place among the other children, my bodily equality.

After her move to Chicago — a threshold crossed — things get complicated.

That summer, I frequented bathhouses similar to those in Spirited Away with my mother and sister. One day I stood under a showerhead, rinsing my body of dirt and grime before entering the bath, and noticed that the arc of my stomach was jutting softly from my sternum. I had never seen my stomach before, not from this vantage point, with my chin tucked and hair wet. I had always been concave, a pocket of negative space ballooning between my ribcage and hips. To see my stomach take up space was new and strange. As I stared, water ran into my eyes and questions churned in my head: What was I becoming? Was I becoming an American? Was I not Japanese anymore? Had I ever been Japanese?

A steady, fluttering shame took root in my chest, and I was reminded of the ambiguous existence Chihiro entered into when eating the food of the spirit world. By eating the food of a foreign land, I had lost the ability to recognize my own body.

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