Growing pains in Hayao Miyazaki’s ’Spirited Away‘

Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi, 2001) begins as Chihiro and her family take a wrong turn down a path as they drive to their new home in the country which leads them to an old abandoned theme park. Chihiro’s parents discover a restaurant, and while helping themselves to the ‘cursed’ food are swiftly turned into pigs. Chihiro enters a spirit world, where gods are bathed in a bathhouse. With the help of Haku, a mysterious boy, Chihiro has to get a job and find a way to save her parents and return to her world. In Japan Spirited Away was an absolute blockbuster, the highest-grossing film ever released in the country, however, in most Western countries Spirited Away was a much praised film but performed modestly, more art house than blockbuster.

Spirited Away is a throwback to Japanese traditions, taking place in a time-honoured bathhouse. Miyazaki stated that he made the film: “For the people who used to be ten-years-old and the people who are going to be ten-years-old.” It was therefore, no surprise to Miyazaki that adults felt so emotionally involved to it, Miyazaki stated that: “Many adults felt attached to the film, many even cried, just to see that kind of almost forgotten scenery. Perhaps they were reminded of their own childhoods.” McDonald argues that it is in Miyazaki’s films that he: “…Praises in order to warn. Miyazaki invites our admiration of gifts that come naturally to children: curiosity and openness to nature, a lively sense of adventure, the power that comes of trusting imagination… In a nutshell, the world has much to gain from children free to indulge their vivid imaginations.

Chihiro’s Transformation and Child Labour

Many of Miyazaki’s films are thematically similar, particularly between Spirited Away and Kiki’s Delivery Service as both make labour integral to the story. Likewise, both contain psychological parallels involving the loss of family, a similarity they share with My Neighbour Totoro.

Chihiro starts the film as the sort of teen who Kingston argues is plaguing Japan today.  She is listless and demanding, yet shows deep insecurities by being afraid of her future. Interestingly, Spirited Away features a flurry of transformations, such as various characters turning into pigs, a mouse, a dragon and origami paper, however, Chihiro never transforms, rather she grows into herself. This twist is an ironic contrast to Miyazaki’s next film, Howl’s Moving Castle, whereby the heroine is subjected to continual magic transformation, shifting from a girl to crone and back again. Former Ghibli producer Tanaka agrees about Miyazaki’s transforming characters: “Miyazaki’s main characters look to be about ten at the beginning of his films… By the end, they have the heart and mind of a sixteen-year-old. They grow and mature dramatically through his stories.”

A major turning point in the film has Chihiro clean the Stink God, Osmond notes that during this scene Chihiro suffers every indignity… she trips, stumbles, bangs her head umpteen times. She trudges through faecal slime, braving the god’s fetid breath. Her determination is shown not as cowed, robotic labour but as high heroism, taking every knock and standing tall. This scene is notable not because of the spectacle but because Chihiro is forced into dehumanizing drudge work and yet in a Herculean turning point, she makes it into her own mythic struggle. Miyazaki’s films suggest that child labour doesn’t have quite the negative historical connotations in Japan as elsewhere. For instance, Chihiro is forced to work all day in a bath house, in Kiki’s Delivery Service witches leave home to find work at 13 and in Castle in the Sky, Pazu is a fourteen-year-old mining apprentice. Miyazaki said that he didn’t want people to forget that children were sent out to work in Japan only a few decades ago, or that child labour continues elsewhere in the world.

Furthermore, it is in this scene that we are introduced to the new Chihiro, she is no longer listless and scared but instead acts from vivid, impulsive emotions and hence she has grown in character from a weak child into a strong one as Osmond explains: ‘The Chihiro in Spirited Away’s early scenes is scared and vulnerable. The Chihiro of the second half is a Miyazaki heroine’.

Japanese Children and Today’s Problem Youth

In Japan, it is thought that children should be ‘pampered not punished’ meaning that they are rarely made accountably responsible for what they do or say. This is reflected by Chihiro who acts like a spoilt brat for the first half of the film before her ‘transformation’; however, it should be noted that typically, ‘girls are indulged less, for they are trained to be mothers, thus to be giving rather than taking.’ So while Chihiro is spoilt and lethargic, she is a contrast to the older female characters. For instance, Lin’s design and dialogue establish her as sassy, confident; not a memorable character in the film, yet important, as Osmond notes: ‘Miyazaki often uses older women characters to compliment the young protagonists.’ Takahata, another director at Ghibli, says that he and Miyazaki both “Want the audience to feel that what they’re seeing on the screen really could have happened. We want to make animation that the audience can believe in.” Miyazaki has always aimed to create a universal language in his movies where anyone can respond to the protagonist’s feelings, regardless of culture. This is particularly present when Chihiro and Haku must cross a bridge of spirits without alerting anyone of their presence. Chihiro is warned that she mustn’t breathe, “even a tiny breath” to escape detection. It’s a serious children’s game, like ‘don’t step on the cracks’, implying in Osmond’s view, ‘a world based on the rules and rituals of childhood.’

Kingston notes how today’s youth could not be more different to those of their grandfathers and indeed fathers generation; ‘Young people are often described by their elders as ‘aliens’, and the contrast between the stolid gray-suited salaryman reading their newspapers on the trains and the casually dressed, blond haired, pierced, ear-phone wearing, keitai (cellular phone) – packing young has never been so vivid.’ Furthermore, a new phenomenon of hikikomori (‘withdrawal’) where an estimated 500,000 to one million youths rarely leave their bedroom has swept Japan. Interviewed by The New Yorker, Miyazaki despaired of an age where children stayed at home watching cartoons: “When I hear talk of children’s futures, I just get upset, because the future of a child is to become a boring adult. Children have only the moment. In that moment, an individual child is gradually passing through the state of childhood… but there are children in existence all the time.” Miyazaki had long believed that Japanese children were becoming listless as McDonald states: ‘Miyazaki clearly worries about the future of traditional Japanese childhood.’ This is particularly highlighted by such films as My Neighbour Totoro and Spirited Away where Miyazaki thought of it as his mission to bring children up to date with their heritage – “we must inform (Japanese children) of the richness of our traditions”.

While violence is still low in Japan compared to many other nations, it is still nevertheless on the rise as Kingston affirms, ‘not only are more of Japan’s youths committing crimes, more are also becoming victims.’ Violent attacks on the many homeless and violence during muggings and fights are also noticeably increasing. Furthermore theft, arson and vandalism have been at their highest in recent years. Likewise, problems arise in many schools whereby teenage do not respect their teachers. For those who do go on to university, the situation is on the opposite end of the spectrum but just as worrying.  McVeigh observes that students are quite the opposite of the rebellious youths the elders complain so much about but instead become oppressed and bored: “There is a dark spirit plaguing the Japanese University classroom. It is the ghost of opinions suppressed, voices lost, self-expressions discouraged, and individuality restrained. The ghost is malevolent, and in its vengeance demands silence, self censorship, and indifference from the students it haunts.”

The Youth Bureau of the Prime Minister’s Office endeavoured to unearth the attitudes of Japan’s young people between the ages of 15-19 by conducting a survey. Their findings brought to light the following results:

  1. 72% said they wanted an “individual lifestyle”, as opposed to 13% who aimed at personal distinction and 9% who wanted a life youthful to others,
  2. 23% of males and 15% of females said that they already consider themselves adults,
  3. 43% say that they “do not care about conventions.”

As much as today’s elders look with dismay at today’s youth, there are some encouraging signs. For instance, more than half continue education past high school unlike many of their parents and most are predominantly very tech savvy, perhaps by virtue of keitai unlike their technophobic elders.


 Appearances and Conclusion

Miyazaki comments that “Chihiro was a heroine not because she was pretty or clever, but because she found a universal inner strength”. This is further exemplified by Chihiro’s unconventional design, she’s not saccharine or adorable like a Disney youngster, and instead she features a sulky expression, a round baby face, pipe-cleaner arms and skinny legs.

Chihiro’s ‘sulky expression, round baby face, pipe-cleaner arms and skinny legs’


This transformation in character could be a representation of Japan, whereby the wild child of Japan’s youth converts to the head of household mother or workaholic father as Kingston explains: ‘Today’s wild child becomes tomorrow’s down-trodden conformist. Indeed, the prospect of the predictable, inescapable, and relentlessly stultifying life of the salaryman may well explain the displays and excessiveness of youth – a last gasp and groan before assuming the burdens of adult life.’


Indeed, children officially ‘come of age’ on 15 January, after their twentieth birthday, as Hendry explains: ‘They are now legally responsible for their own behaviour, and they may vote in local and national elections… they listen to speeches about the upright citizens they are expected to become, and reply with poems and essays about the adulthood which stands before them. Legally they have become adults.’

Miyazaki’s deployment of female characters provides a crucial potential for change, growth, and compassionate empowerment. He is clearly not only attempting to break down the conventional image of femininity but also to break down the viewer’s conventional notion of the world in general. It is therefore, not surprising that virtually all his female characters are strongly associated with flight because it is in images of flying that the possibilities of escape (from the past, from tradition) are most clearly realised.

On the other hand, children are perhaps finding in more of a conundrum with reference to Japanese society.  Children are either forced to study in order to achieve grades which will allow them to obtain a good job or they rebel leading to a rise in delinquency which has raised concerns with the Japanese public. Typical heroines tend to be part of a larger group while Miyazaki’s heroines are usually on their own, habitually orphaned (San, Sheeta), or with absent mothers (Nausicaa, Mei, Satsuki), or without parental support (Kiki, Chihiro). Furthermore, unlike the classic female character in anime, who is usually characterised by an ultra femininity that is often passive or dreamy (or perhaps ditzy), Miyazaki’s josei and shojo are notably independent and active, courageously confronting the variety of obstacles before them in a manner that might well be described as stereotypically masculine. For instance, the journal Eureka characterises Miyazaki’s young female characters as simply youths wearing shojo masks.


Works Cited

Buruma, I. (1984) A Japanese Mirror: Heroes and Villains of Japanese Culture, London; Jonathon Cape

Hendry, J. (1998) Understanding Japanese Society, London and New York; Routledge.

Kelts, R. (2006) How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S., New York; Palgrave Macmillan.

Kingston, J. (2004) Japan’s Quiet Transformation: Social Change and Civil Society in the Twenty-First Century, New York; Routledge.

Osmond, A. (2008) BFI Film Classics: Spirited Away, London; Palgrave Macmillan.

Tames. R. (1982) The Japanese, London; Batsford Academic and Educational Ltd


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