In the beginning of Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away (2001), the family drives past a dumped pile of neglected "houses for the guardian spirits".

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There are two other instances of guardian spirits that are important in the story, these being the scene in which the Unnamed River Spirit is cleansed of all the junk and pollution, and, later on, near the end of the movie, Chihiro revealing to Haku his true name (Nigihayami Kohaku Nushi), which is where he discovers he was a river guardian - Chihiro also says the river now runs underground, since a road was built over it (this could be seen as mankind neglecting nature (and in this case, by extension, a guardian spirit) by haphazardly constructing over a river).

Knowing all this, it seems far-fetched to me that this clip where they drive past the houses is just a random, insignificant shot.

What is the significance of the houses for the guardian spirits? Does it tie into a larger theme in the movie?

2 Answers 2


They illustrate that they are nearing a very spiritual place

This question was answered in a Reddit post:

They're called Hokora, and they're small roadside shrines in the Shinto tradition. Here's picture of a real one:

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The heavy clustering of them in Ghibli movies tends to be unusual, as they are often solitary or spaced out, rather than awkwardly placed right around each other. This is a subtle way to acknowledge to Japanese audiences that the characters are in a strange place. Witness how Chihiro's expression intensifies when she notices them as her dad passes by in the car.

Since those shrines are supposed to house kami, or spirits, a huge cluster of them indicates an area of high spiritual activity. This is something that is likely lost on western audiences in such a specific way, but yet they still retain a strong feeling of mystery about them, even without knowing their meaning.
—tomrhod, r/Ghibli (Reddit)

The magical world they enter is inhabited by spirits, and the main location, a bathhouse, is dedicated to having the spirit guests relax and set their minds off toil and stress. Whether these houses represent a neglection of spirituality (which would be further supported by the theme reinforced in the question), or whether the spirits are there out of their own volition to "take a break", and so they possibly abandoned those houses/shrines, or whether those shrines were placed there by people aware of the nearby spirituality, or whether they got there by mystical methods, as a consequence of so much spirituality - that's left unclear.

The goal of showing the audience the pile of hokora was to indicate that the family is approaching a strange, mystical place with a lot of spirituality, since we see a giant amount of them, rather than the typical few.


Notice that chihiro didn't know that 'those things' were shrines. She's a millenium kid. She's detached from her roots. And as Ghoti and Chips mentioned, it signifies that they are approaching a spiritual place. Chihiro is about to encounter something completely new.

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