Miyazaki’s masterful storytelling and fine-tuned artistic vision is apparent in many if not all of the Studio Ghibli films, especially in one of the most iconic, Spirited Away. I remember watching Spirited Away for the first time in middle school. I had to ask my mom to buy it off the cable’s pay-per-view, patiently waiting as she fiddled with the remote’s buttons to punch in the proper code and purchase the movie. My sister and I sat down on the couch, popcorn close at hand, and began Miyazaki’s epic journey. To put it mildly, it was magical. Because, like other Studio Ghibli movies, it bewitched us with tales of triumph but with a hint of melancholy. We held our breath when Chihiro crossed the bridge. We grunted at each other, our hands outstretched, when No-Face came on the screen. Spirited Away holds and will always hold a special place in the depths of my soul.
Spirited Away is a movie about a ten-year-old girl named Chihiro who is moving away from her old school, her old house, her old friends, and is understandably irritated. She acts as a child is expected to act, with the grace of a cat just sprayed with water. Her panic reaches new levels when her parents decide to investigate an “abandoned amusement park” and go in without her (yeah, they told her to wait in the car if she didn’t want to come. Nothing bad could happen, right?). Frightened and probably a little tired, she protests that she doesn’t want to be left alone and rushes after them. Long story short, her parents eat spirit food and transform into pigs, so Chihiro embarks on a quest to save them (with help from friends along the way, of course). But there’s something even deeper here. Spirited Away isn’t just an anime movie drenched in fairytale flavor. It’s a story about accepting adolescence and eventually adulthood.
Chihiro exhibits many childish mannerisms, especially at the beginning of the movie. Frequently, we see her curl in on herself, afraid and lost without her parents to guide her. She’s frightened of many things, to the point where she stumbles over her words and visibly shakes during most of the first half of the movie. It isn’t until later that we see a difference in her. This is seen most notably when she confronts Yubaba for a job. Before this point, she timidly persists in asking an assortment of people for said job, just as shy and frightened as was previously described. It isn’t until she happens into Yubaba’s office and in the throws of Yubaba flying forward, screaming in her face, that Chihiro persists, head held high, eyes pinched closed, she once again asks for a job…and gets it. Adolescence and adulthood is filled with the need for persistence. Though Chihiro is afraid, she perseveres, no matter the consequences.
This is also the scene where Chihiro loses her name. Yubaba (her brand new boss and manager of the Bathhouse) issues her a new name, Sen, in the hopes that Chihiro will forget her true name entirely over time (thereby binding her to Yubaba’s side for all eternity). Even looking past the fairytale connotations of what losing your true name could mean, if we look closer, one can’t help but see how transition from childhood to adulthood is very much the same as transition from the mortal world to the spirit world. When teenagers are figuring out what they need and who they are, there is a sense that they’ve lost their true self. They don’t act like they used to, they don’t like the things they used to, they don’t even interact with the same people that they used to. They’re changing, it’s confusing. Teenage years are rough, man. But, Spirited Away reveals that anyone can find his or her true name again with time and patience and a little self-trust.
However, the transition from childhood to adulthood isn’t easy. Chihiro learns about life’s negative aspects too. Children often do as they grow. There are many people that she meets in the Bathhouse who brush off their responsibilities onto her, much like many people do to adolescents in their first job. She is given the most grueling, disgusting, and frankly demanding tasks. Becoming a teenager and eventually an adult results in hard work and the understanding that everyone is helping each other to make this world a better place.
There was even one point where Chihiro stumbles into the boiler room and she’s watching hundreds of soot spirits (they are seriously the cutest) each carry a piece of coal to the furnace, and one of these coal pieces happens to fall on a soot spirit, crushing it. She picks the coal up, helps the spirit back up and places the coal on the ground. Kamajī, the boiler room manager, looks up from what he’s doing and belts out that she should finish what she starts. A child will usually have help when they cannot do something, but an adolescent doesn’t always have that to fall back on. They’re expected to act like adults. They’re expected to learn to contribute and finish their work.
Adolescence is oftentimes when you find true courage, understanding that courage is not the absence of fear but the resilience of will even in the face of fear. Chihiro finds her true courage when she must stop No-Face, a spirit who wreaks havoc on the Bathhouse employees and guests. She is fearful, sure, but she doesn’t let it show. Instead, knowing that it is her duty to set things right, she marches into the room, tells No-Face to get a grip, and then proceeds to fix the problem by feeding him a gift from the River Spirit.
Spirited Away teaches us that it’s okay to hold onto your childhood wonder. Sure, you’ll learn the world works in unkind ways at times and yes you’ll have to do certain jobs you don’t want to or feel pain or loneliness even if you don’t want to, but Spirited Away also promotes the appreciation of nostalgia, friendship, bravery, and childhood innocence. Chihiro is the only member in the bathhouse that doesn’t take No-Face’s gold. She says that she has everything she needs and requests to leave instead. Greed is a powerful, extremely adult concept that Chihiro (who is teetering between childhood and adolescence) has yet to understand. There’s something powerful about that. Adulthood isn’t always pretty and sometimes needs the pure, bright outlook that childhood brings.
Near the end of Spirited Away, Chihiro nearly crosses into adolescence. This is when she begins to understand love in a more romantic sense. Though of course she’s nine and doesn’t pursue said love, there are seeds of it there, especially after she throws everything to the wind, even her life, to save her friend (maybe something more) Haku. As they float down to the earth, hands clasped together, there is a hint that Chihiro finds something more in Haku, a deeper resonance than friendship.
Spirited Away isn’t just a story about a girl who ventures into the spirit world to save her parents. It’s a bittersweet swan song to childhood. It’s the story of the monumental transition to adolescence and the importance of cherishing that childhood wonder deep within. From whiny, lazy, and afraid, to brave, dedicated and compassionate, Chihiro finally grows as a person. Life isn’t about the final destination. It’s not solely about saving your parents from their poor (piggy) decisions. It’s the journey. It’s about standing up to the Yubabas of the world, gathering a group of ragtag (spirit) friends, and finding yourself after a series of trials. Ultimately, growing up is an adventure just as grand as Chihiro’s journey.