Chihiro’s journey starts with an unfortunate – for the girl – relocation to a different town. She is shown clutching at a bouquet of flowers – the last present from her colleagues at the school she used to attend previously. When her parents decide to explore a randomly found tunnel she reacts with apprehension, but follows suit after realizing she would be left alone. From this point, her apprehension seems to rise – unlike her parents, who are amazed by the discovery of a seemingly abandoned place. Despite their daughter’s pleas, they begin to devour the food in the open buffet, not questioning the situation in the slightest. Soon after, Chihiro is met with a horrifying realization – her parents turned into pigs, and she is now stuck in the spirit world. All alone. Or maybe not…?
Fortunately for Chihiro, she manages to find help in a mysterious boy who claims to have known her already. Under his help, she manages to reach the bathhouse, and following his instructions – gets a job at the place. Working was the only way to protect her from Yubaba – the witch in charge of the bathhouse. Yubaba agreed to let her work under one condition – a change of her name. Getting rid of the second kanji of her name, she was left with “Sen” – her new identity.
Chihiro – under a new name – works for Yubaba, makes new friends along the way, and finally, ends up saving and freeing Haku – the boy who helped her at the start. By telling him his true name – Kohaku – she frees him from Yubaba’s reign. She remembers Kohaku as a river she fell into when she was much younger. By the end, she reclaims her name and frees her parents. Before the three of them leave the area, Chihiro is shown staring longingly into the tunnel, ignoring her parents’ urging to enter the car.
And that’s about it – told in the most stripped-down nutshell. A huge part of me feels shame for telling Chihiro’s story in such abridgement. It’s a beautiful tale of love, challenge, and determination, and deserves to at least be told in full. However, my main focus are the interpretations of this story, the context behind it and finally, acknowledging the beauty of the animation and voice acting. I wouldn’t be able to focus on all of these in this review otherwise.
Starting with the interpretations – Chihiro’s journey can be anything the viewer makes it to be. Miyazaki mentioned that he made the character of Chihiro after a daughter of his friend whom he spent every summer with. He wanted her to have a character to look up to and made Chihiro with this in mind. Considering that we don’t know much of Chihiro’s backstory nor personality outside of what was shown, I think this qualifies Chihiro as an everyman type character. She is relatable mainly because we can see ourselves in her, and our struggles in her situation.
The possible interpretations are as numerous as there are watchers of this film. I am particularly in favour of the theory according to which Chihiro’s journey is purely a visual representation of her psyche and having to deal with a sudden change of lifestyle. The struggles depicted on her way are merely challenges that come with growing up – her parents becoming pigs being merely a metaphor of how she started to view them. I’ve also seen someone compare her journey to the five stages of grief. One easter egg in particular seems to hint at the fact that her journey is mainly internal – the characters for “yu” and “me” can be seen in the background. Combining them together gives us the word – “yume” – or, in translation – dream. Spirited Away wasn’t successful just for its magnificent plot and characters – the film is well known for its beautiful hand-drawn animation. Other than that, similarly as to Studio Ghibli’s previous films, the studio experimented with computer animation – in moderation, to enhance the world created by Miyazaki. The film is filled with scenes known as “ma” – in translation “emptiness”. These are known as the scenes where nothing happens, and yet, they are known as the most beautiful and engaging moments of the film. Instead of following a constant action, the audience gets to become a part of the fantastical world themselves, to become submerged with the magic of the scenery and the character’s routine. Personally, I am a huge fan of the scene in which Chihiro travels aboard a train with her friend. Such a tranquil moment,