I first saw “Spirited Away” when I was in college – risking dating myself here – about 12 years ago. I had just gotten into anime the summer before via some friends of friends, and I loved it almost immediately. The animation was superb, the detail exquisite, and – let’s face it – it had a dragon. A DRAGON.
Synopsis: Ten-year-old Chihiro is uprooted from her home and her school, presumably due to her dad’s job. On the way to their new home, amid Chihiro’s whining and grumbling, they take a wrong turn and end up at what they assume is a run-down former theme park. However, they find that someone still has a restaurant running, so while the mister and missus pig out on the delectable eats, Chihiro takes a walk and discovers a bathhouse…and a young man who most URGENTLY warns her away. Too late; darkness falls, and Chihiro rushes back to find her parents transformed. Chihiro desperately tries to escape the nightmare, but all her attempts fail until the same young man comes to her rescue and instructs her in how to survive. But can she hold her own against the mercenary proprietress of the bathhouse? Will she find a way to change her parents back and return home? Or is she trapped in a world of scary monsters, adorable soot-balls, Stink gods, and murderous No-Faces?
I like Spirited Away for several reasons, but the one that has stood out most to me over the years, and the one that may be quite relevant considering hot topics swarming around the internet, is that Chihiro is a self-saving protagonist. A FEMALE self-saving protagonist.
Not at first, no. Like most characters thrust into an unknown world, Chihiro flounders to understand what she’s seeing, to accept it, to alter her expectations of the norm, and then finally adapt to where she can function in her environment. However, though she does not know the rules governing this world, she is still subject to them. She cannot protect herself unless she has help, and that comes through a variety of supporting characters. Each in turn give her pieces of the puzzle, guide her through the realm of the bathhouse, until she comes face-to-face with her antagonist: Yubaba.
Yubaba is ferocious, intimidating, treacherous, and repulsive. She’ll hurt Chihiro if she can, turn her into an animal and possibly eat her, but using the few precious hints already given her, Chihiro steadfastly holds to the first rule – ask for work. Keep asking. Don’t stop. God knows why, but KEEP ASKING.
Thankfully for the audience, explanation of that rule comes in a side comment from Yubaba, one that betrays another rule of this universe – oaths MUST be kept. Even she who holds all the power must abide by that rule. And so Chihiro survives, but only just. In signing the work contract, Yubaba displays another rule of the bathhouse – names can be taken, and new ones given. Chihiro is thus dubbed “Sen,” and sent to work with Lin and her cleaning girls.
Haku reappears at this point, a stoic and arrogant figure, and shows no recognition of Chihiro/Sen, and even goes so far as to instruct her to call him “Haku-sama,” which in English is roughly “Master Haku.” The honorific “sama,” to those who don’t know, is a term of superiority, an acknowledgement that the person to whom you refer is above you, usually very far above you, and such a person is allowed to treat you as subjugate to them. This is a rather humbling position for Chihiro, especially since he had been so kind and protective at first; she wonders aloud to Lin later if there are “two Hakus.”
However, “Sen” accepts this treatment as part of her new identity. And it’s an identity too easily assumed, one that subjects her to harassment and insults by the other residents of the bathhouse. Later, when this same Haku comes to fetch her to see her parents, once again all compassion and patience, he saves her a second time by giving back her true name. In this short scene, we discover Haku is also under Yubaba’s control, having forgotten his real name, and so became her puppet.
Now, there’s another character whose existence in the film is both vital and somewhat enigmatic – the No-Face. There have been many interpretations as to what the No-Face symbolizes, among which is how some people cannot function without trying to please others, and in so doing, destroy the very thing they want to keep. Another interpretation is that he is the embodiment of what happens when greed is allowed to run amok, and can only be conquered once removed from the source(s) of temptation. Another yet is the identity question: is he his own creature, or does he represent the assimilation of external forces that cause a person to assume a new identity? Is this identity then something the person wants to keep, or something to be purged so as to return to their true self? You be the judge. Personally, I find No-Face a pathetic yet compassion-inspiring figure, and I believe his role in Chihiro’s development is possibly the most critical. He is both a monster to be defeated and a victim to be rescued. Chihiro does both. This entire situation evidences yet another rule – no one is who they first appear to be.
Except maybe the soot sprites. They’re just adorable.
One of my most favorite characters in this movie is actually the most surprising. She makes her entrance as a paper doll, one of thousands that actually attack and nearly kill Haku; she turns Yubaba’s baby into a rat and her harpie into a bird; and to top it off, she demands Haku’s life in exchange for something he stole. Conniving and homicidal, one at first thinks that Zeniba the Swamp Witch will be Chihiro’s final test, the boss at the end of the quest, as it were. Leaving Haku in the care of those she trusts, Chihiro chooses to leave the familiarity of the bathhouse and journey with three companions to Swampy Bottom to return what was stolen and ask Zeniba to lift the deadly curse ravaging Haku. But upon arriving, she discovers Zeniba is quite the opposite of her rival sorceress. She demonstrates hospitality, compassion, and a great sense of humor. While all the other supporting characters aid Chihiro in a hostile environment, Zeniba provides a safe harbor for rest, which is exactly what poor Chihiro needs. All crises resolve at Zeniba’s, or somewhere in between; Chihiro returns to Yubaba a different girl than the one who first begged her for work, ready to confront her ultimate trial, the one that will grant her freedom. Zeniba indirectly demonstrates the fourth rule governing this fantastical world – one can leave the bathhouse.
“Spirited Away” is one of the few movies, I think, that have a female protagonist truly transform from a victim into her own hero. No, she’s not competent at first. She complains and whines and resents her situation. However, being thrust into a supernatural and frightening realm, she must first learn the rules of her new world, to function within them, and then begin to exercise her own will against those rules. This is when she finds she can save the people she cares about, and ultimately, save herself. One would be remiss, however, to neglect those that gave of themselves to help her become stronger and more confident. We all have these people, the ones whose kindness and courage live with us and become part of who we are. “Spirited Away” is not just about a girl surviving a world of monsters; it’s about character and acceptance and love.