Finding Your Strength
Paola Coimbra Sanabria
My family moved to the United States from Belgium when I was about four years old. A drastic move like that at such an age is already a difficult transition and adding to that mix the fact that I didn’t understand English at all made for a pretty isolating experience that made me incredibly reclusive as a child. So when I watched Hayao Miyazaki’s film Spirited Away for the first time I related a lot to the protagonist Chihiro as she was thrust into the spirit world and struggled to navigate the strange world and rules of the bathhouse. Of course, the movie didn’t flip some imaginary switch that automatically turned me into a more confident and kinder person, it gave me a framework on how to do that using my own strength with the help of those around me and how to manage difficult transitions in life.
Spirited Away, one of Hayao Miyazaki’s most well-known films, tells the story of a 10-year-old girl who, when moving with her family to a new town, stumbles into the Spirit World. After her parents were turned into pigs by the witch Yubaba for disrespecting the spirits Chihiro must find work at Yubaba’s bathhouse to save her parents and herself from being swallowed up by the Spirit World. At the bathhouse, Chihiro befriends various spirits, including the mysterious Haku, who help her along her journey, and she is able to find the strength and confidence to save not only herself but her parents and Haku from the bathhouse. Not only is Spirited Away a good film on a technical level with its lush, hand-drawn animation and scenery, beautiful soundtrack, and a captivating story for all audiences, it takes a nuanced look at the transition between childhood and adulthood, especially for young girls, in a way that younger audiences can engage with. While this film was not intended to be a Feminist Film™, I’d argue that for a film that was created for young girls, and children in general, its depiction of complex female characters and the importance it places in retaining one’s own identity and the values of bravery, ingenuity, and respect make it a feminist story.
The topic of the underrepresentation of women in media has long been discussed, with it entering the popular consciousness in the 1960s. It’s not exactly a radical statement to say that media representation is overwhelmingly male and white. This discussion is especially important in children’s media as that is how children are introduced to new concepts and experiences outside of their own and their immediate social circle. A 2008 study examining 101 of the top-grossing children’s films from 1990 to 2005 by the Annenberg School for Communication and The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media found that they were mostly centered around male characters and their experiences with only 28% of the speaking roles being female characters in all 101 films. Not only do many of Studio Ghibli’s films have female protagonists, but their treatment of female characters in general also makes them stand out, especially compared to other animated children’s films of the time.
Chihiro, also referred to as Sen when she works at the bathhouse, is a fairly realistic depiction of your typical 10-year-old girl. She starts off the film whining about having to move to a new town and away from all of her friends, rebuking her parents’ attempts to make their new home more appealing to her in the way that most 10-year-olds would. As Chihiro stumbles into the Spirit World, her panicked reactions to having her world turned upside down by encountering spirits and curses are very relatable, especially for young children. However, even though she is terrified, she begins to find the strength to face her journey and with the help of those around her, is able to tackle the obstacles along the way.
Like in Japanese folklore, the appearance of this human family within the Spirit World is both unusual and an unwelcome intrusion especially in a bathhouse made for spirits to relax and replenish themselves. When Chihiro first enters the bathhouse, most of the spirits are openly hostile to her, refusing to help her and sometimes mildly antagonizing her. Yubaba and her workers see Chihiro as just an annoying human who will only ruin things for the spirits, constantly dismissing her as “just a human” similar to how children, especially girls, are dismissed and treated as inherently incompetent and not worth any attention. The only spirits that are friendly to her from the start are Haku, Rin, and Kamaji the boiler man as they help her get a job at the bathhouse and throughout the film. Rin in particular becomes Chihiro’s friend and helps her adapt to life at the bathhouse, protecting and supporting Chihiro when the other workers try to antagonize her. It’s only when Chihiro proves herself as a kind, hard-working person after helping a particularly difficult customer at the bathhouse that the spirits treat Chihiro better.
The fact that she is just an ordinary girl makes her stand out from other fantasy films, she doesn’t have any secret powers or lineage that she discovers nor is she given a magical McGuffin that gives her the ability to overcome her trials. In the climax of the film, Chihiro is able to help No-Face, a side character turned minor antagonist, by luring them out of the bathhouse, which was causing them to become aggressive and swallow the bathhouse workers, threatening to eat her as well. While Chihiro does use medicine that was gifted to her by a river spirit she helped to make No-Face throw up the people they had swallowed, Chihiro is able to handle everything as a result of her courage and quick thinking. By the end of her journey, Chihiro has used her own strength to become more confident in herself and ready to face any future struggles she faces with the help of the guidance or support of others. Showing the audience that you can overcome any obstacle with your own determination and the help of a supportive group of friends and allies, an important (if a little simplified) lesson for children. For young girls, in particular, it recognizes their strength as something to be valued and nurtured and shows the importance of friends who actually respect and value you as a person.
An integral theme of the film is that of identity and the importance of retaining one’s own identity in the face of struggle and change. When Yubaba hires Chihiro to work at the bathhouse, Chihiro is stripped of her name like all of the other workers after signing a contract with Yubaba and given the name Sen (which is also the Japanese word for thousand) and is given worker’s clothing, integrating her into life at the bathhouse. With this Sen almost forgets her life as Chihiro and only remembers in a scene where Haku, Yubaba’s apprentice and henchman, returns her human clothes and belongings. It is in this scene where we learn that Haku has been completely stripped of his identity; we later find out that this is why he is so cold and robotic. He has forgotten his real name and almost all of his memories from before he signed his contract with Yubaba except for the fact that he had met Chihiro a few years ago which is why he helps her throughout the film. It’s important to note that while Haku does save Chihiro a few times, he is by no means a knight in shining armor there to rescue Chihiro. The film makes it clear that Chihiro is just as capable as she also saves him a few times, once by healing him from a curse and at the resolution where she remembers his real name helping him take back his identity. Neither Haku nor Chihiro are the saviors to each other’s story; they are just two friends who help save each other with their love for one another.
Another example of the importance of identity is the previously mentioned No-Face. As the name implies, No-Face has no face or personal identity, they’re just a shadow that floats around outside the bathhouse until Chihiro shows them kindness by letting them in the bathhouse during a storm. Once in the bathhouse, No-Face is influenced by the greed and self-centered nature of the people there. Seeing how much the staff at the bathhouse value gold, they emulate a generous rich patron to try to appeal to Chihiro and get validation from the other workers. It isn’t until Chihiro refuses these attempts to win her over that No-Face becomes distraught and then aggressive, eating some of the workers and forcing Chihiro to lure them out of the bathhouse. Once out of the bathhouse, Chihiro helps No-Face develop their own identity in a healthy way by helping them find a place to stay when she visits Yubaba’s sister Zeniba to seek forgiveness on Haku’s behalf for stealing from her. Not only is No-Face a cautionary tale of the dangers of basing your identity on what you think other people want, but it also provides a model for children on how to help toxic people in their lives get better. While Chihiro wants to help No-Face, she still prioritizes her own safety and health by not giving in to No-Face’s demands. This is important for young girls especially as women and girls often find themselves trapped in unhealthy relationships where the other person demands more and more from them to the point that they are metaphorically swallowed up by the other person due to women and girls being taught to shoulder most if not all of the emotional labor in their relationships. Chihiro demonstrates that it is better to run away from those relationships and if the other person makes the effort to become better and try to improve themselves, then there is ground to rebuild that relationship.
Throughout the film, Chihiro constantly deals with people’s assumptions of what she is capable of, from her parents trying to chide and coax her into accepting their new home and just chalking her refusal to her being a petulant little kid to Yubaba and hostile co-workers assuming that her difficulty getting used to the intense labor of her job is just because she’s a human. Even Rin, who helps Chihiro learn the ropes of her new job since she’s never done this kind of work before, teases her for being clumsy and slow. Chihiro never tries to argue back; instead, she just keeps working. This isn’t to say that she just passively accepts this perception that other people have of her; she often gets upset when spirits try to insult her. But she doesn’t argue back out of fear of retaliation against her parents. While this may not fall in line with the traditional Strong Female Protagonist that we’ve come to expect in feminist media or media for young girls, I think it’s important to acknowledge that sometimes there are times where you can’t fight back and that doesn’t make you any less of a person. This is another important lesson for young children as they’re often put in an environment where they can’t defend themselves or retaliate.
Compared to other fantasy stories where the child protagonist stumbles into a magical world, one of the biggest differences is that Spirited Away is a rather mundane take on that experience. Rather than venture into the Spirit World to rescue her parents and marvel at its wonders, Chihiro becomes Sen the fantasy cleaner’s assistant at the fancy bathhouse for spirits. Yubaba, the only constant antagonistic figure in the film, isn’t the traditional villainous witch that torments the main protagonist because she’s evil, she’s just a business/property owner. The audience’s first impression of Yubaba certainly makes her seem like a mysterious, threatening figure as she cursed Chihiro’s parents into pigs and her introduction scene takes place after Chihiro finally arrives at her opulent penthouse on the top floor of the labyrinthine bathhouse. But then we find that she had cursed Chihiro’s parents into pigs because they trespassed and broke the rules and the way she treats Chihiro/Sen isn’t that different from the way that people are treated by their bosses in real life. Even her identity-stripping contracts can be interpreted as just an exaggerated employer/employee contract. Yubaba is “humanized” by the way she dotes over her son Boh, a talking adult-sized baby, and the fact that Yubaba begins to treat Sen better after Sen makes her a lot of money serving a wealthy River Spirit. In the end, Chihiro doesn’t defeat Yubaba in some climactic battle. She is able to leave the bathhouse with her parents in a game with Yubaba where she realizes that Yubaba is trying to trick her into losing nulling her contract. While the film never excuses the harm that Yubaba does, by showing that she is just a person with a lot of power and resources, she is no longer the intimidating witch that Chihiro could never defeat or run away from. In real life, when you realize that an authority figure (whether they’re your boss, teacher, or guardian) is just a person and not some infallible being that can never be challenged, you start to realize that you don’t have to just accept the situation that they have put you in.
As stated at the beginning, Spirited Away was created with an audience of young girls like Chihiro in mind to help them deal with all of their different transitions in life. While this might be my nostalgia for the film talking (I actually watched Spirited Away a few days before starting grad school) I do genuinely believe that the film succeeds in providing a healthy, if fantastical, model not just for young girls but audiences of all ages and genders.