Chihiro and her family are moving into a new place, and Chihiro does not want any of it, as shown when she sticks her tongue out towards the new town in the very first scene. She is a young girl with no experience in work or responsibility. Up until her journey towards the spirit world, she is shown to be a spoiled and ungrateful child. It is through that spirit world that she learns, and understands, what it means to be an adult and what it means to grow up. Hayao Miyazaki’s artistic vision once again manifests itself into a film that is not only a feast for the eyes but also describes adulthood and its accompanying society in a meaningful way that can appeal to both children and adults.
Setting up the story with an endearing score and breathtaking animation, Miyazaki’s penchant for worldbuilding has marked its place into the old, seemingly-abandoned amusement park. Chihiro is bewildered at the sight of it; the windy breeze that grazes her and her parents’ clothes and the grassy area itself creates a setting that the viewer can be immersed in. Both her parents seem to have taken a fondness for the place, and find that it holds an abundance of delicious food. What unfolds next is the never-ending cycle of never seeming to have enough, with Chihiro’s parents relentlessly consuming the food until they turn to pigs, even after their hunger has been satiated; the associated symbol for gluttony, and what inevitably begins Chihiro’s journey into saving her parents while also learning what it means to be an adult.
Chihiro ends up staying in the spirit world for a time, serving at a bathhouse owned by Yubaba so that she can return home with her parents. This is where the plethora of characters are introduced, all of which have their own quirky personality and distinct appearance. While some take more screen time than others, each and every one of them still contributes to the film’s themes and messages of being an adult. The individuals that leave significant points of interest though, are Yubaba, No-Face, and Lin.
Yubaba is a hypocrite. She tries to hide her baby from the outside world and attempts to shelter him from corrupt forces when she does the exact same thing. The pursuit of money is a recurring trait in her character, as she represents the greed of a businesswoman. No-Face, on the other hand, represents loneliness, as he continues to walk around and wander through the world until he finds Chihiro. He takes an odd fascination towards her that borders on “creepiness”, but in its own quirky way. Because he lacks any experience with any sort of friendship, he awkwardly stumbles in trying to persuade Chihiro to “be with him”, or befriend him, giving her vast amounts of gold. Relying on materialistic value of course leads to nowhere, as Chihiro, at this point already “grown-up”, does not want any of it; ironically enough, the adult workers in the bathhouse do not seem to have learned the way she has, and get greedy with the amount of money that is being handed out. No-Face eventually lives with Yubaba’s twin sister, and finally feels a sense of belonging; the warmth of having a family. Last but not least concerns Lin. In one scene, she remarks on getting away from her work, trying to leave and find something she wants to do. Her prior circumstances are not known, but her life follows the carefree life of a person who has no real goal in mind; nothing feels more empty than having a career that you have no particular interest in, and being an adult at this point closes a lot of doors on wasted opportunities.
A major aspect to take note is that Chihiro seems to be the only “young” person in the spirit world. This helps her presence remain significant in her own coming-of-age story through a world filled with adults (i.e spirits; the spirit world might as well be the adult world). To save her friend, Haku, she takes a train ride to Yubaba’s twin sister, where the ride is filled with meaningful imagery. Each spirit that is blacked out and painted as a black shadowy mist is effectively shown to be a worker that works and goes home, along with the cycle of that loneliness. Japan’s controversial topics regarding extensive labor in the workforce is depicted in Spirited Away, as its strictly disciplined society forces an individual to find a passion or interest or else he/she will inevitably end up in the void of being a failed human being, sitting beside desks inside offices, filling out paperwork without rest, and most of all, losing purpose.
As per Miyazaki’s motif, painting each frame with detail is a repeated thing that is nice to see. There is always something little happening, as the camera focuses on each minuscule character expression. The animation is crisp and is shown to have aged well. Now, with recent popular anime movies filled with smooth and sterile animation that unfortunately lacks the depth of older “classics”, Spirited Away remains consistent in its tone and seeks to deliver a universal message directed towards the heart of the viewer in its own playful, yet mellow, way. Not to mention the subtle commentary concerning the health of the environment and the negative influences of the Western world, with Haku being a river spirit that forgets his “name and identity” because of industrialisation.
By the end of the film though, Chihiro evolves into a capable person that now has an idea of what the working world is like. The foundation of being an adult has been laid out for her, and she takes the right steps, away from greed and consumption. She forges her own identity and is now confident in taking more leaps towards the future. So, what does that mean for you?