A young girl finds herself in a whole new world-literally.
Released in 2001, Spirited Away tells the story of a young girl, Chihiro, who is about to move to a new place. While she and her parents are driving to their new house, they stop by a mysterious old structure and find themselves transported to the spirit world. A turn of events separates Chihiro from her parents, who have been transformed into pigs, and she must find work in the hostile environment of a bath house and figure out a way to get them all home safely.
Spirited Away was the film that re-introduced me to the films of Studio Ghibli. I first saw it in my 7th grade art class for good reason-I was instantly moved by the beautiful cinematography. The iconic watercolor landscapes are dreamy, ethereal and fantastical. I believe that in many ways, this film challenged my preconceived notions about what animation could look like.
Despite the artistry of the animation, I never really considered Spirited Away one of my favorite films due in part to the character development of Chihiro. She was younger than I was when I first saw this film and in many ways she seemed unsympathetic. She was childish and shrill and generally not an aspirational figure for me.
However, I’ve recently re-watched the film and although I may never consider Chihiro as one of my favorite Miyazaki heroines, I have a renewed empathy and respect for her seeing her struggles as a young adult.
I used to be frustrated with how spoiled Chihiro appears in the beginning of the film. It is certainly driven home that she has never really needed to work before so working in the bathhouse has a bit of a learning curve for her. Now, I can see that she is frustrated because she is in a situation she never asked for and is forced to make the best of it. And what alternative is there for her? Either she can struggle through it and maybe see her parents again or she could leave and be orphaned.
And struggle she does. Although she is a child, I find comfort in seeing her struggles be represented in a really visual and visceral way. In the first hour of the film, she has two honest-to-God meltdowns, in front of Lin and Haku. She manifests physically the petty frustration that I sometimes feel in my day-to-day life. Compared to Kiki’s general ennui, it is refreshing to see some real emotion and passion behind Chihiro-she’s been pushed to her limit and she is not holding back anymore. Is it still petulant? Perhaps but she did just have her world turned completely upside down and inside out so it makes sense that she is having some issues with the transition. Her confusion and frustration makes her more human to me and at least more relatable if not more sympathetic.
Chihiro also has to put a lot of faith into people that she does not know if she can trust. She asks Lin if there are two Hakus because she knows one to be kind and another to be Yubaba’s apprentice/minion. This theme of personality duality is also explored with No-face’s temperament (one moment is helpful, benevolent and generous and another he is vengeful) and a bit more literally with the dichotomy presented by Yubaba and Zeniba. Yubaba has been shown to be shrewd, greedy and harsh so it is unsettling to see Zeniba (her identical twin and animated in the exactly the same way), who is shown to be a prototypical grandmother figure. The characters at the bath house are literally the worst; I believe that they show the full spectrum of the worst human qualities. The staff are petty, greedy, form cliques and generally make it difficult for Chihiro to carry out her job. She doesn’t know who she can trust yet she never stops trying to be kind and positive, which is something that I have a much deeper understanding and appreciation for as an adult. Chihiro is savvy and her kindness and authenticity makes people want to help her, which is ultimately her saving grace rather than intelligence or cunning.
Chihiro’s main redeeming qualities are her grace in circumstances completely out of control and her resilience. She is ten years old when she is thrown into a world completely foreign, chaotic and downright hostile towards her, she is separated from her parents and she needs to step up to the plate and problem solve in an unprecedented way. She has a very limited amount of agency and choice in the beginning of the film. Honestly, I’m surprised she didn’t have more nervous breakdowns for that exact reason. Chihiro has to integrate herself into a community that is literally repulsed by her (they think she smells bad because she is human), she has to work hard to catch up to all the other girls who can clean faster than her and she has to prove herself by helping a guest that no one else wants to. She succeeds in the end but the audience gets a very real representation of her struggle.
As a side note, I think that the film also touches on some very real adult concerns. Yubaba stealing her name forces her to confront the issue of identity. Who is she now? Is she Sen, the girl who works in the bathhouse? Is she Chihiro, the whiny girl attached to her mother’s metaphorical skirts? Everyone in the spirit bath house was something or someone else before but they are trapped because they lost their former selves. Chihiro can leave because she doesn’t lose the girl she was before.
Overall, Spirited Away is a coming-of-age story that I believe can resonate with many audiences. Chihiro as a character is different from Kiki because she is thrust into adulthood rather than choosing it actively for herself. But, while there are moments of weakness early in her journey, she ultimately proves that she is tougher than she first thought and she never resorts to cruelty or aggression against those who have wronged her. Yubaba stole her name, imprisoned her parents and forced her into servitude yet Chihiro still thanks and hugs her in the end. Chihiro may never be my favorite Miyazaki heroine but in many ways she feels like the most real representation of what it feels like to be a fledgling adult and her grace is truly worthy of admiration.