Spirited Away Themes, Motifs, and Symbols: Growing Up Is Hard - VRGyani News and Media

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Thursday, August 12, 2021

Spirited Away Themes, Motifs, and Symbols: Growing Up Is Hard

It's been 20 years since Hayao Miyazaki's mystifying animated film Spirited Away made its debut. Written by Miyazaki and inspired by the 10-year-old daughter of a close friend, Spirited Away follows Chihiro, voiced in the original Japanese by Rumi Hiiragi (Netto Koshien) and in English by Daveigh Chase (Lilo & Stitch), down the Japanese Shinto folklore spirit realm known as Kami. To save her parents from the powerful witch Yubaba, voiced by Mari Natsuki (Nobuta o Produce) and Suzanne Pleshette (The Birds), Chihiro will face more than trials along the way: She will face herself.

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Spirited Away is a manifestation of fears and anxieties as seen through the lens of its young lead female character, Chihiro. How Chihiro chooses to react to the ever-changing circumstances around her, even the most horrifying ones, defines this film's central moral. It’s the terrifying fear any child could have, perhaps their biggest fear of all: being separated from her parents. However, it’s conquering that fear and finding her parents that spur Chihiro's journey into adulthood.

Disregarding Chihiro's warnings of eating food not meant for them, the powerful witch Yubaba punishes her parents by turning them into pigs. Chihiro must venture into the bathhouse and overcome the reality of this new child/adult role reversal to save them. She is not so much tested as she is provided the space to resolve her anxieties about moving to a strange new town. Mostly, it’s concerns of the unknown that prompt Chihiro’s journey and metamorphosis — personified by the aberration of finding herself trapped in a spiritual realm that could eventually keep her there forever.

When Chihiro first works within the bathhouse under Yubaba to free her parents, she is overwhelmed with doubt. In some of the first few scenes, we see Chihiro trail after her parents, clutching her mother's arm with a firm grip in terror. In the end, it’s Chihiro who leads her parents out of the bathhouse, across the bridge, and back to the human world. The in-between, the journey there, makes Chihiro brave enough to cross that metaphorical bridge from childhood to adulthood.

With the help of Haku, voiced by Miyu Irino (A Silent Voice) and Jason Marsden (A Goofy Movie), Chihiro realizes that growing up is not about your age but about how you love, understand, and show compassion to others. Chihiro’s love for Haku is what saves them. She defies Yubaba, risking her own life, by returning the magical seal she stole from Yubaba's twin sister Zeniba, voiced by the same actress who voices Yubaba. Spirited Away anchors adulthood in Chihiro’s acts of selflessness. In doing so, she overpowers those same anxieties that once rendered her powerless to Yubaba.

Despite being an animated film centered around the practical issues of a young girl’s moral ethics and fears, Spirited Away isn’t afraid to use horror and fantasy elements to expand these issues. Maybe its most terrifying manifestation of these anxieties is the spirit of No-Face, voiced in Japanese by Akio Nakamura (Princess Mononoke) and English by Bob Bergen (Tiny Toon Adventures). No-Face is a multifaceted entity representing so much of Chihiro’s fears of abandonment, loneliness, and identity. It is, in its vacant form and need for friendship, that No-Face mirrors Chihiro’s crisis. No-Face begins a rampage that consumes both food and people in the promise of unlimited gold as a symbolic parallel to Chihiro’s own need to feed her loneliness.

While Chihiro rejects the boundless gold No-Face offers her, she expels the fear of being alone on a deeper level, of being unknown to herself and others. By the time the film ends, Chihiro not only saves her parents but gains a sense of selfhood and belief that was otherwise not there. Yubaba, herself a double as a twin, uses the threat of identity to control Chihiro and everyone who works at the bathhouse. As her last act of resistance and love, Chihiro gives Haku back his identity. Recapturing her and Haku’s identity from Yubaba becomes a symbol of autonomy and maturity that crystallizes Chihiro’s turn into adulthood, a release from both Yubaba and Chihiro’s fears.

What drives Spirited Away is not just the fantastical nature of the narrative but wanting Chihiro to triumph despite her circumstances. Her resilience is the true driving force behind the film that has withstood the test of time. People go back to this film because it takes them back to their childhoods, where the anxieties of being unloved, abandoned, judged, and criticized were always present. Chihiro is not that different from the child everyone once was. As the weight of Chihiro’s ever-changing world festers her anxieties, audiences are invited to that feeling through the nature of their own world. They feel comforted in Chihiro’s triumphant final moments, as she crosses the bridge and never looks back.

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