Reviewers of Spirited Away often comment on how visual stunning the film is. Indeed, in the film, Miyazaki and his Studio Ghibli offer stunning animation of magical places and creatures. Lost in all the phantasmagoric eye candy, it’s easy to walk from this film and have no idea what this popular film is actually about. Young girl visits strange place occupied by magical creatures and comes out alive. Ok, but what the heck is this film actually about?
In Roger Ebert’s review of the film, he notes that Miyazaki wrote the film for a 10-year old girl. While meandering, the film ultimately offers a child advice on how to be a good girl — a good person.
While it can be difficult to see the character motivations clearly amidst all the amazing cinematography, the young girl in the story, successfully navigates the world of spirits by being courageous, hard working, polite, and giving people the benefit of the doubt. Most importantly, she is able to demonstrate love and kindness. This is all that’s needed to succeed in life, the film suggests.
When the film starts out, a young girl, Chihiro, is driving to the suburbs where she and her parents will start a new life. When the family happens to make a wrong turn in the road, they cross the threshold into a spirit world that tests young Chihiro’s maturity and character.
As the story begins and Chihiro (who becomes “Sen” in this new world) finds herself in a ghost world full of haunting black wraiths, she is naturally out-of-her-mind scared. At first, she runs away from the ghosts. Her parents have just turned into pigs and she doesn’t know what to do. But later in the film, as she acclimates to this new world, she is able to muster her courage and pretend like there’s nothing to be scared of. And indeed, there is no reason to be afraid of the spirits unless you upset them. When she sees No-face on the bridge — right where she has to meet Haku, she composes herself, crosses the bridge, politely walks past the spectre, and soon meets Haku on the other side of the bridge. This world is testing Sen’s strength and she is finding out she can be strong and courageous.
Part of being courageous is being able to work hard, another important trait in this world and in life. When Sen is given the hardest jobs at the bathhouse, she is not afraid to roll up her sleeves and do the disgusting work given to her, getting squirted with something like vomit or excrement. Not only does she withstand this work, when she finds there is something wrong with the Stink Ghost — the guest everyone in the bath house is avoiding, she goes beyond the call of duty by noticing a blockage in his system and unplugging it. This hard work is rewarded. Not only does everyone in the bathhouse come to her aid to unstop the blockage, when the Stink Ghost is freed, the bathhouse is paid handsomely, something Yubaba, the owner of the bathhouse, is very happy about.
Sen comes to the rescue at the bathhouse again the next day when No-face is wrecking havoc, destroying and eating everything in sight. Although it is not Sen’s job to deal with the guests at the bath house that day and she is busy trying to save Haku, seeing that No-Face is not doing well, Sen give No-Face the herbal cake (which the Stink Ghost had given to her after she had performed her work so admirably). The herbal cake does the trick. No-Face throws up all that he has eaten and is back to his soft-spoken self. As Sen and the other bathhouse worker row away from the bathhouse and No-Face looks on, Sen is empathetic to him despite all the chaos he has caused. Sen says it was the bathhouse that brought out the worst in him. Again and again, Sen gives the seemingly evil, dissolute characters in the spirit world the benefit of the doubt, which only brings out the best in them.
Sen is also polite — a characteristic perhaps important to Japanese culture — but related to the idea of giving people the benefit of the doubt. When the Stink Ghost arrives, Sen wants to hold her nose but moves her hand away from her nose, because she must be polite to the guests. When No-Face wants to say Hi to Sen by giving her a handful of gold, Sen says very politely, Thank you, but I have other things I have to do right now. (She is in the middle of trying to save Haku.) Even at the end of the story after Yubaba has just tricked her into possibly staying in the spirit world forever — a test which Sen passes, Sen/Chihiro says, “Thank you!” Presumably, Chihiro is thanking Yubaba for giving her a job or for taking her on all these adventures. In general, Yubaba has been nothing but cruel to Chihiro, so it’s not clear why Chihiro would want to say Thank you, but Chihiro does. Her appreciation is genuine, another attribute Miyazaki suggests a young girl should demonstrate and cultivate.
Most importantly though, Chihiro/Sen demonstrates the capacity to be kind and loving. Although her kindness mainly extends to Haku who was the one to first show her kindness in the spirit world, Sen also demonstrates kindness to all the creatures of the world. When the little mouse and bird — and incarnation of Yubaba’s spoiled baby — fall into the tunnel with Haku and Sen, Sen makes sure to hold onto them tight to make sure they stay safe together. Yubaba’s baby had been nothing but a thorn in Sen’s side. Nevertheless, Sen gives the baby the benefit of the doubt and is nothing but kind to it. When No-Face hovers at the doorway of the garden at the bath house, Sen kindly leaves the door open for him, a kindness which No-Face repays with numerous hot herbal bath cards just when Sen needs them.
Sen’s kindness and tolerance for others result in the spirits of the world all rallying to support her. When Kamaji sees Sen wanting to help Haku, Kamaji says he sees “love” and he gives Sen the train tickets she will need to complete her task. He’d been saving them for forty years, he says, but he does not hesitate to hand them over to Sen. And when Sen takes the train to see Zeniba to return the stamp which Haku has stolen, she is accompanied by No-Face and the mouse and little bird, creatures who she could have dismissed but who now become her friends. When the four arrive at Zeniba’s house, a hopping lantern comes out to meet them to show them the way. And as she leaves Zeniba’s, Zeniba gives her a magical hair tie, made for her by her spirit creature friends. All the spirits in the world know that Sen is selfless and caring. As a result, they want to help her.
In the end, when Sen is riding on Haku’s back and realizes she’s met him before and knows his name, the spell on Haku is lifted. The two fall to the Earth holding one another. It’s not a love story exactly — Sen is only ten, but Sen has shown she cares for others. And her caring has resulted in tangible benefits for the people in her life.
When Sen/Chihiro leaves the sprit world, all of the employees of the bathhouse, who had been putting her down when she first arrived, cheer for her. She took on the hardest jobs and made the bathhouse a lot of money. She has done nothing but good in this world and has made many friends as a result. This is the kind of person Miyazaki implores young people to be.
Although seemingly meandering in its plot, Spirited Away is driven by Chihiro’s one goal throughout the entirety of the film: to free her parents and get back home. In order to do this, however, she is told, she must get a job. And while at work at the bathhouse, she gets pulled into everyone else’s stories, which take her shuttling from one errand to another. In order to keep her job, she must deal with the Stink Ghost. In order to help everyone at the bath house, she must help No-Face, who has his own story and is dealing with a little bit of loneliness. In order to save Haku, who is also trapped in the spirit world, she must return the stamp to Zeniba. These tangents are all a part of Sen’s getting along in the world and achieving her goal. But the movie tells us it’s not just about the character’s individual goal. Her story is wrapped up in everyone else’s story. This is life.
At the end of the story, when Chihiro has saved her parents and herself from the sprit world, her mother reminds her she’ll be starting at a school in a new place and that it might be a little scary. Chihiro looks out at the dark tunnel, leading to the spirit world and, says, “I’ll be all right.” Not only did Chihiro survive the spirit world, she nailed it. She made friends with all the ghosts. She’ll definitely be seeing Haku again. She knows she has the capacity to work and love and make friends. This is all she’ll need to get along wherever she goes.