The title of Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away,” which in this case is the anglicised English translation of the original Japanese titleSen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi, gives the audience their first impression of the film. The two given names of the child protagonist of the movie are “Sen” and “Chihiro”; the emphasis is on “given” because her parents and boss give them to her along with her fate on a moment-by-moment basis.
The movie serves as a hot crucible for shaping Chihiro’s persona by teaching the importance of perseverance and the dangers of greed and losing oneself in the pursuit of material achievement. In reality, the word “sen” in Japanese means “thousand,” and the 1,000 yen note is the smallest denomination available.
Work also acts as a means to a goal, assisting Chihiro in maturing and gaining the knowledge and experience she needs to succeed on her own in the world. It is incidental that it is an akamior “spirit” world. If all the vibrant creatures were gone, “Spirited Away” and its bathhouse (which was modelled after Alonsenon Shikoku) would resemble a miniature version of the real world.
The second essential word in the title, kamikakushi, connects Chihiro’s tale to Japanese folktales in which a person can vanish or die, therefore being “spirited away,” if their deeds or outlook earned them the wrath of the gods. Chihiro, a pampered youngster, makes a deal with the sorceress Yubaba and agrees to do indentured service in the bathhouse in order to learn a valuable lesson.
Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushim might be difficult for non-Japanese speakers to understand, but it paints a more complete picture of “Spirited Away” and its conclusion.
Alone with No-Face
According to Miyazaki, the sequence in “Spirited Away” where Chihiro boards the train by herself “constitutes the end of the film.” She is technically seated next to No-Face, the unauthorised bathhouse patron who turned into a monster and devoured everything in his path, so she is not alone.
No-Face is said to as “the richest man in the whole wide universe” at one point in “Spirited Away.” The bathhouse staff beg for his gold as he takes more bath tokens than he requires, and Yubaba remarks to them, “Your greed attracted quite a guest.”
No-Face stands for capitalism’s insatiable need, a theme that is first mentioned in the movie when Chihiro and her parents cross a mysterious, temple-like gate to enter the spirit world. Her father describes the area inside the gate as “an abandoned theme park.” “In the 1990s, many of them were constructed. However, as the economy collapsed, they became bankrupt.”
This is a reference to the Japanese economic bubble burst in 1992, which was less than ten years prior to the creation of “Spirited Away” by Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. The Japan Times summarised the bubble era in the first of its 12-part “Defining the Hesei Era” series with the word “excess.” When materialism was out of control, as Miyazaki described it, humans “turned into pigs.”
Free the dragon
This metamorphosis is literally depicted in “Spirited Away” with Chihiro’s parents, when her father follows his nose to an abandoned eatery and instantly starts stuffing his face with food. He assures Chihiro, “Don’t worry, your father is here.” “I have cash and credit cards.” Like that will make things better. Chihiro, on the other hand, declines No-gold Face’s offers and tells him, “You can’t give me what I desire.”
The mouse version of Bo, an enlarged “butterball” of a baby who was earlier concerned that contact with the outside world might make him sick, is on the train with Chihiro and No-Face (who is simply tagging along and has regurgitated everything he’s eaten at this point). Before Zenibaba, Yubaba’s sibling, transformed Bo into a mouse, all he wanted Chihiro to do was stay in his room and play with him as they hid under soft pillows.
Bo is now clinging to Chihiro in a similar manner to how Chihiro did at the beginning of “Spirited Away,” when she clutched to her mother’s arm to avoid being left alone outside the tunnel. As she grows more independent and self-reliant, determined to handle significant worldly matters like saving her “dragon boyfriend” Haku, he might be considered as her hyper-infantilized adversary.
This is what causes the third act of “Spirited Away” to transport Chihiro and friends to Swamp Bottom by train. She has come a long way from the first time we saw her, when she was curled up in the backseat of her parents’ car, totally dependent on her father’s driving. She is currently in charge of the effort to recover the hankostamp that Haku stole from Zeniba while he was under Yubaba’s control.
Haku appears in the form of a dragon and offers to drive Chihiro back to the baths.
‘Wait, what do I do…?’
She thinks back to a forgotten childhood event her mother had told her about as they travel: “I once had a minor river accident when I was young. It is now covered with construction. It circulates belowground.”
The statement made by Zenibaba that “everything that happens stays within of you even if you can’t remember it” is echoed by this. Chihiro discovers that the name of the river was Kohaku; it is Haku’s real name and has the ability to set him free from Yubaba’s control.
Even Bo has learnt to stand on his own two feet by the end of “Spirited Away,” much to Yubaba’s amazement. Meanwhile, Chihiro has reached adulthood or perhaps she has simply gone within and discovered the old soul she has always held.
She was initially scared of her parents leaving her, and when they did, she quickly became attached to Haku and resorted to him as her compass. When she became intangible and was in danger of turning into a ghost, he helped prevent her from dissipating. He hid her in the hydrangeas outside the bathhouse and sent her to the lowest floors, where she encountered the six-armed Kamaji, a self-described “slave to the boilers,” who served as her first employer reference.
A legion of soot sprites known as susuwatari serve Kamaji. When Chihiro picks up a chunk that has been squashed, she is forced to hold it because they are carrying the coal for the furnace over their heads. What should I do with this, she wonders?
‘It will be hard work’
It’s a situation that makes you feel uncomfortable about entering a new job or a strange environment and being left to figure everything out on your own. Chihiro does have assistance; she also has hersenpaiLin, who refers to her as a klutz and instructs her in the proper use of the words sir and ma’am, please, and thank you. Chihiro must eventually learn to take care of herself and acquire responsibility through labor-intensive tasks like preparing the bath for a foul spirit who turns out to be a guardian of a polluted river.
Many of us experience a similar transition to adulthood as we start living on our own, begin making our own financial decisions, and perhaps have a deeper understanding of the sacrifices our parents made in order to provide for us.
In order to create an imaginative animated universe, Miyazaki said during the 2001 European premiere of “Spirited Away” about defying logic and going “deep into the well of [his] mind.” This involved storyboarding before the script was finalised, letting the plot and characters develop naturally, and coming to a conclusion that was not planned. However, some aspects of it, such as the featureless seascape outside the train that keeps the focus on Chihiro’s first interior ride “alone,” fell into place perfectly, as if the intent was there all along.
In order to discern that none of the pigs are her parents when Yubaba presents her with a lineup of them as a final test, Chihiro, like the stubborn Miyazaki, learns to trust her intuition. The conclusion of “Spirited Away,” as well as the entire cinematic experience, engages the audience on a similar level and enables them to interpret certain passages of this bizarre, fantastical story in retrospect, much as Miyazaki did.