When I booked a tour to Shifen and Jiufen, and told my family about it, no one appeared excited until I mentioned that Jiufen is, reputedly, the place that inspired Spirited Away, the 2001 Japanese animated fantasy film that both our girls love. Alex had been egging me to watch it but Japanese animation is not really my thing so I’ve been making one excuse or another not to see it. The mention of Spirited Away suddenly made the visit to Jiufen a big deal.
A short story about luggage tags
In Shifen, while waiting for the tour bus to take us to Jiufen, Speedy and I entered a store that was selling, among other things, luggage tags. There were so many and the designs were in varying degrees of cuteness. When I saw Gudetama, I immediately chose it for Alex. A black cat with a red ribbon around its neck was our pick for Sam.
The bus still hadn’t arrived so we went on browsing the luggage tags. There were several that had a black hooded figure wearing what appeared to be a strange mask. Speedy said it was a character from some film, but what film that was, he couldn’t recall. I had never seen it before. We paid for the black cat and Gudetama tags then stepped out of the shop just as the bus was slowing down to let the passengers in.
In Jiufen, we would see more luggage tags with the hooded figure. We didn’t buy them because we had already bought the black cat and Gudetama tags.
Later that night, at the apartment, I took photos of the luggage tags and sent it to the girls via messenger. Of course they liked it. UNTIL someone (I think it was their father) mentioned the black hooded figure that we didn’t buy because we didn’t know what it was.
On video chat, Alex made a loud exclamation. Sam’s mouth dropped open. What the heck? What did we miss?
Mommy… that’s from Spirited Away…
I told you, I told you to watch it before leaving for Taiwan!
You have to go back to Jiufen…
“We’ll try to find something similar in Taipei,” I said.
Noooo… they were available in Jiufen because it’s the location of Spirited Away…
To make a long story short, on the day before our flight back to Manila, we did find luggage tags with the hooded figure in one of the malls underneath Taipei Main Station. We bought two, we even bought pens with the same hooded figure and, at home, I ended up with Gudetama which Speedy said should be his because the black cat with the red ribbon was too girly.
I have also watched Spirited Away and I know now that the hooded figure with the strange face is called No-Face.
Spirited Away director says its locale was not inspired by Jiufen
After watching Spirited Away, I started reading about it. I learned that it is critically acclaimed, that it’s the highest-grossing film in Japanese history and that there’s a Disney adaptation. And, for proper appreciation of the thematic content, I read about Shinto too.
But the real surprise was finding out that, despite the hype, Jiufen has nothing to do with Spirited Away. In fact, the film’s director has denied that Jiufen was the inspiration for Spirited Away. The denial is documented yet apparently underplayed if not ignored. Even our tour guide mentioned Spirited Away when she was briefing us about Jiufen.
Note, however, that director Hayao Miyazaki’s denial stems from a translation of an interview that he gave. If you speak Japanese, you can watch the video and decipher his words yourself.
Does that make me think less of Jiufen?
Part of me says, “That serves you right for falling into a tourist trap.”
But the other part of me says that even if I had known about Hayao Miyazaki’s denial at the time we were in Jiufen, I still wouldn’t have been immune to its charms.
Because, yes, Jiufen is a charming place. The view is breathtaking and its narrow streets are all Old World charm.
But that’s another story…