I have been shocked at how many of my friends have called my favorite movie of all time “incomprehensible” or “really weird.” Well, let’s get this part out of the way: Yes, Spirited Away is my favorite movie. The top of all my Top 100 Movies lists. In a range from 1 to 10, I give it an 11. I honestly have a hard time imagining that another movie would ever beat it, but it’s possible. And Hayao Miyazaki is my favorite director. I have four of his films in my top 100.
Now, back to my friends. It stuns me how many people watch Spirited Away for the first time and just don’t get it. It’s too confusing, too gross, too weird. But I’ve never felt that. Sure, there have always been details I never got, but the heart of the film always made sense to me.
So I write this guide to assist those who don’t understand the film. Partly because I want you to love it as much as I, but mostly because I at least want the film to have a chance. If it’s just one weird image after another, that’s no fun. And Spirited Away IS fun. I just watched it again last night and I had a big silly grin on my face all throughout the film. Okay, let’s try to stick to the facts. I’ll try to calm my uber-geek down.
What is this world?
So Chihiro (the girl) and her parents wander into an abandoned theme park where there seem to be ghosts and weird creatures. And Chihiro runs into a large, beautiful building, which we are told is a “bathhouse for the spirits”, but what does that even mean? What is this place, anyway?
This is where your Religion 101 comes in handy... What? You never took a Religion 101? You were drunk when you went to Sunday School? Okay, let’s start from the beginning.
The basis of almost every religion is that there is an alternative world that we will conveniently call “the spirit world.” It occupies the same space that we do, but we cannot see it or feel it. Occasionally the spirits of this alternative world (which we can call “ghosts” or “demons” or “angels” depending on your spin) make small changes in our human world, but mostly they leave our world alone. They have their place, and we have ours. Oh, and they can see our world, but we can’t see theirs. That sucks, huh?
Hayao Miyazaki’s universe (an alternative universe to our own, which all his films are in) is deeply influenced by Shintoism, an organized folk religion in Japan. In fact, Miyazaki’s film My Neighbor Totoro is an excellent introduction to Shintoism. Like many other religions, every place, every body of water, every forest and desert has their own spirit. Totoro is a forest spirit, and the two girls are learning the way to respect and live comfortably with their local spirits, which summarizes what Shintoism is about.
What happens to Chihiro and her parents is they wander into a place where the spirit world and the human world intersect. You can read about these places in the Bible, too—ever hear of Jacob’s Ladder? That’s what happened to that lying thief when he stumbled across a cross point between the spirit world and the human world. Spirited Away is about Chihiro’s adventures in one of those crossover places.
Why do Chihiro’s parents turn into pigs?
When you have crossed over to the spirit world, one of two things happen. The first is you disappear. That’s because humans don’t belong in the spirit world, so they wouldn’t exist there. Haku has Chihiro eat a bit of the spirit world’s food, which gives her a place in the world.
Second, in the spirit world, you look like who you really are. So the beautiful cheerleader who teased you in high school? In the spirit would she’d be as ugly as her inner person was. Even so, Chihiro’s parents showed themselves to be gluttons, so they turned into pigs. The fact that Chihiro remained herself, shows how strong her character was.
Why does Haku help Chihiro?
Haku from the very first is concerned about Chihiro and her well-being. But why? As we find out more about him, we know that he isn’t a tenderhearted guy. Everyone talks about him as the kind of person who would see a baby on the ground, crocs coming to eat him and he’d cross over on the other side of the road. And maybe kick the baby a little closer to the crocs, just for fun. But he goes out of his way, even to get himself in trouble, to help Chihiro.
And that’s because, we find out later in the film, Haku is a slave to Yubaba. He’s stuck and he doesn’t know who he is, or where he came from. And his only clue is that he recognized Chihiro. You can see it as soon as he glances at her. So Chihiro is his only way to escape the slavery. Somehow, she is a clue to his identity, which he can use to escape Yubaba’s clutches. So he has to care for her until he is able to figure out how he can use her for his own escape plan.
So why is he so mean to her in the elevator? Because as long as he is in the bathhouse, under Yubaba’s influence, he has to be 100 percent henchman. If she suspects that he has some connection to Chihiro, his plan is lost. So this means that all those girls fantasizing about a romantic relationship between Haku and Chihiro… nope. He’s not interested. Besides, he’s a spirit—they aren’t even of the same species.
Why does Yubaba take Chihiro’s name and give her the name Sen?
Yubaba is the spirit/witch who runs the bathhouse with authority and a business-like charm. Her character is based on the Slavic folk story Baba Yaga, who was an old witch who lived in a house with chicken legs, who was sometimes mean and sometimes very helpful. Possibly Yubaba’s sister Zeniba is supposed to be the nice side of Yubaba? She just gets cranky around thieves.
In the ancient world, to have another’s name is to have power over them. So Yubaba has her workers sign away their names, so that she might obtain power. Not just the power of them forgetting who they are, but she can use the name to put curses or other magic on people through the use of their name. It’s interesting that Yubaba lifts most of Chihiro’s name off of the paper, leaving only the word “Sen” (because the writing style they were using is pictorial, not phonetic). This also means that everyone’s real name in the bath house is different from what they are called. And everyone in the bath house is desperate for money—is this so they can buy back their names and escape slavery?
What’s going on with Stinky?
Yubaba claims that a stink spirit” is coming to the bath house and everyone does their best to dissuade him away, but it’s no use. He comes in, smells up the place like a porta-potty that no one has ever drained, and he takes his bath with Sen helping. Sen then finds a “thorn”, which Yubaba figures out, and after Lynn ties a rope onto the thorn, everyone in the bath house has to pull it out, which is a bunch of garbage. Yubaba then declares that it is a river spirit, and he provides everyone with wealth. Okay, what?
So a river spirit would be a spirit that lives in a river, but is also identified with the river. So whatever happens to the river, happens to the spirit. The river was polluted severely to such a degree that it smelled to high heaven. He came to the bath house to get the human debris cleaned out of him.
The great thing is how everyone works together here. Sen had the compassion to see that something was wrong. Yubaba had the experience and smarts to put the pieces together. And it took Lynn and the rest of the bath house to clean the river and send him on his way. In this movie, the little girl doesn’t do all the saving herself—she is simply the key through which saving can be started. But it takes a community to make peace. Or to clean up a stinky river. Pretty clever parable, there, huh?
What’s the deal with No Face?
Although it’s kind of a side story, the plot surrounding No Face takes up the center of the film and it is arguably some of the most dramatic parts of the film. And it is a key to the main theme of the movie. Besides, much of what happens with No Face is simply gross, and why is Miyazaki putting us through all that?
No Face first appears on the bridge as Chihiro is trying to get across. He notices her immediately. Later, Sen invites him into the bath house from a side window (oops, broke a rule there). In response to her kindness, he tries to help her out—stealing bath tokens, for example. He wanders about for a while, swallows a talking frog, offers some gold and demands food. A lot of it. All the food in the house, practically. All the while throwing gold about for everyone to get rich, while he turns into a huge, hideous monster. Sen stumbles across him, and he offers her a huge pile of gold, which she wasn’t interested in. Gold had nothing to do with helping Haku or her parents, so she didn’t care. No Face then goes in a rampage, swallowing other attendants and demanding Sen. Yubaba tries to help, but to no avail. Finally Sen comes in, tells him he has to leave, and gives him a piece of medicine. No Face starts vomiting all over the bath house, all the attendants and froggy comes out fine, and then he throws himself in the river, where he follows Sen to go to Zeniba’s house.
What is this insanity?
First, about No Face—he is a spirit without a center, without a base character. He, like Haku, notices her immediately, but not because he remembers her. He notices her because she has such a strong center. Chihiro/Sen, from the time she enters the spirit world is determined to save. She needs to save her parents, and then she needs to save Haku, and later she needs to save No Face. Her center is her compassion or “love” for all of these people. It is her determination to love that is her center throughout the film. No Face, being an empty, lonely spirit, recognizes this immediately and is drawn to her.
But once he gets in the bath house, he is turned away from Sen by the powerful center of the bath house itself, which is greed. Everyone in the bath house is infected by Yubaba’s greed. Some have the greed for gold that she does, but others have a greed for freedom, a greed for food (mmmm, roasted newt!), a greed for whatever they don’t have. Caught up by this gluttony and avarice, he (literally) ingests it, and demands more and more, using his magic to make dirt look like gold, and an orgy of greed ensues.
But what No Face really wants is a true friend, someone who really cares about him. So when Sen refuses his trade of gold-for-relationship (if only he had listened to the Beatles!), No Face is confused and goes on a rampage. Realizing that Sen is the only one in the bathhouse that will give him the love he needs, he demands her like a crying toddler after his mommy. Sen finally meets with him and realizes that he is sick, just as sick that Haku was with the paper wounds. So she offers him the medicine, and he begins vomiting out the illness—the greed. Only after the greed was completely expelled was he empty enough to accept the subtle but caring touches Sen offered him.
This greed v. love theme is the center of the film. Haku got trapped in a cycle of greed when he came to the bathhouse, coming to steal magic and becoming a slave to Yubaba’s greed instead. But he is set free from her curse by Sen’s love and compassion for him. The parents are trapped because of their gluttony to eat that which did not belong to them, assuming that their money would buy anything. Sen’s love and determination frees them.
Greed is a slavery that love delivers us from. Do you hear that, capitalist pigs?
What is Spirited Away about, anyway?
Ultimately, Spirited Away is a coming of age movie, not too unlike Miyazaki’s film Kiki’s Delivery Service. Like that movie, Spirited Away shows a girl who’s determination and hard work causes her to mature.
But Spirited Away goes further. At the beginning Chihiro was a normal pre-teen girl—grumpy, anxious, full of irrational complaints (apologies to my pre-teen daughter). The only thing that saved her in the movie was her determination to save others. Only when she realized that her parents, Haku, No Face and others depended on her to deliver them, did she have the power to grow up. Hard work is a factor, like all Miyazaki movies, but the hard work that makes changes in the world is the effort of compassion. That’s what makes the world better. That’s what makes US better people. Some people are lazy gluttons (the parents), and some people are hard working for their gold (bathhouse attendants), but to grow up, we have to determine to work for others.
I love this movie because I love watching the imagination just go crazy. I love watching the fanciful characters, and the adorable characters like the soot creatures, Kamaji the boilerman, and the Radish Spirit. Yes, the Radish Spirit. Love that guy.
But mostly I love this movie because I get to see Chihiro grow up. She becomes a confident young woman, ready to face the world. No longer naïve, but really understanding the power of compassion and how it changes people. So awesome.