Chihiro: “I can’t believe I forgot my name. She almost took it from me.”
Haku: “If you completely forget it, you’ll never find your way home.”
Spirited Away is not the first Studio Ghibli and/or Hiyao Miyazaki film to be included on this blog (The Cat Returns, Howl’s Moving Castle, Kiki’s Delivery Service), but it probably should have been. It’s one of the most thorough examples of the archetype, and it’s also a personal favorite. I’d just been waiting to watch it again before profiling it here, so it was fresh in my mind. Though I’m only going to give the salient points here from a GU perspective, since the film is too long and detailed to fully describe.
Chihiro is a 10-year old girl who is moving to a new town and is very unhappy about it. Her parents are sick of her complaining, and urge her to think of the move as an adventure – but a much bigger adventure awaits. Her father makes a wrong turn and they end up at the end of a dirt road facing a strange dark tunnel. Her parents goad Chihiro into going through to explore (in the beginning, she doesn’t have much volition of her own), and they end up in an abandoned theme park. Despite her many protestations, her parents sit down at the one booth that seems active (although empty of any proprietor) and start eating the food there – however, this is actually food for the spirits, and because of this her parents are turned into pigs. Chihiro is frantic as night falls and strange apparitions begin to appear around her. The theme park becomes a large bathhouse catering to otherworldly clientele (almost all of her experiences after this take place in the bathhouse, making this one of those examples which mostly take place within a single building).
She immediately finds a companion in Haku, a boy who tries to help her escape, and when that fails, gives her food from the spiritworld to keep her solid, and instructs her on how to enter the bathhouse and be allowed to stay there long enough to save her parents (and hopefully get home again). She meets several more folks who become, if not proper companions, at least helpful acquaintances along her journey. Then she must face Yubaba, the witch proprietress, who is her adversary… although not a wholly evil one, as Miyazaki gives his characters depth and complexity. (As a side note, she also encounters a talking doorknob – animate doors, doorknobs, and door knockers are an odd little recurring theme in Girls Underground stories, though I’m not entirely sure why. See Labyrinth, the Disney Alice, The Hollow Kingdom, and many more.)
Chihiro gets a job at the bathhouse, but must give Yubaba her real name in exchange. Fortunately, Haku helps her remember and keep hold of her name, as losing it would trap her there forever (Alice forgets her name too, and most Girls Underground forget themselves for a period of time). In quick succession, Chihiro begins to have an effect on this spirit world – she heals a polluted River Spirit, a perilous and lonely creature named No Face, and eventually Haku himself (caring for his physical wounds and helping him recall his own name). Empowered again, Haku intercedes on her behalf with Yubaba, and convinces her to let Chihiro go, after one final test – identifying her parents in a row of pigs – which she passes by recognizing that none are her parents (the classic “exposing a fraud” confrontation with the adversary). There is a frequent theme here of remembering – who she is, who her parents are, who Haku is – that is very important to the archetype.
In the end, Chihiro gets her parents back (still oblivious, in their way) and returns to her own world, now stronger and more prepared for the uncertainties ahead.
(For an exploration of the fascinating Shinto influences evident in Spirited Away, see this article in the Journal of Religion & Film.)
“It will protect you. It’s made from the threads your friends wove together.”