Sen and Chihiro’s Spiriting Away

“Chihiro…what a nice name. Take good care of it, it’s yours.”

– Zeniba

Chihiro09The first thing to notice is the title of the film from Japanese to English. In Japanese the film is called Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi which translates as Sen and Chihiro’s Spiriting Away. The title of the film’s original translation is telling that this is a film about Sen and Chihiro. This can be a little confusing as Sen and Chihiro are the same character. Chihiro is always present but Sen is the identity given to her once she becomes employed in the Spirit world’s bathhouse. It’s already easy to see that Chihiro’s identity is flexible, and changing.

Chihiro’s identity changes over the course of the film, sometimes they are small changes that are due to her own environment and others are large changes due to others. To fully understand Chihiro’s journey, we have to take a small pause from looking at her to her parents.

Chihiro’s Mother and FatherChihiro04

Chihiro’s parents are instrumental in her journey and the reason she ends up in the Spirit world to begin with and become her working energy so she can save them. Chihiro’s mother remarks that they are travelling and moving to “the middle of nowhere” and that will mean she will have to “shop in the next town.” These comments easily show that she is used to a certain way of life that requires her to have nice things, and convenience in her everyday life. We can already see Chihiro’s mother is heading towards greedy consumption. Her father is optimistic and cheerful about this new “adventure” they are going on. Even when he believes he missed the wrong turn, he continues further along an unmarked dirt road into the forest. Chihiro’s mother remarks that this is how he gets lost. It almost feels like we are watching an American film with the stereotypical man who won’t listen to his wife to ask for directions.

Chihiro03To make matters worse, he starts speeding along the rough road, crashing past tree limbs and nearly crashes into a stone statue. This man does not have any love for nature with his reckless driving nor does he notice the little shrines or the stone statues that represent this place as sacred.
Despite, Chihiro’s desperate whining and worries about going into the building and further into this strange place, Chihiro’s parents don’t seem to take notice of the groaning building or the signs that state ‘demon’ or giant’[i]. Despite all the warning signs, Chihiro’s parents find a restaurant Chihiro05open with large bowls full of food. No one is around but without a worry they start eating because they have “credit cards and cash” to pay when someone returns. Chihiro still wants to leave but is ignored. Then the unthinkable happens to her parents, Chihiro returns to where they were eating without ceasing, only two find two giant pigs in her parents clothing.

Chihiro06Chihiro’s parents are greedy, and self-serving. Their consumption of food in the excess literally turned them into pigs. We start to
see the message Miyazaki is trying to convey. Consuming in excess without ceasing, without worrying about saving for another day or worrying about someone else, is going to turn people into greedy pigs. There was a moment, I felt that this might have been an allusion to the East’s view of American’s who simply consume vast quantities of food (and often wasting even more) without
considering those who do not have enough and do not think about tomorrow. Ultimately, Chihiro’s parents’ greed and lack of respect force Chihiro into the circumstances that alter her identity.

Chihiro

Chihiro02Chihiro is a 10 year old girl. She appears apathetic, whiny, and upset about moving away from her friends and her school. She is even a bit depressed that the first bouquet of flowers she receives is a goodbye. She’s also childish by sticking her tongue out at her new school to show how much she disdains this move. She’s also foolish as she’s not wearing a seatbelt in a moving vehicle. Despite all of this, she does appear to have some curiosity: asking about the little shrines, following her father out of the car when arriving at the station-like building and even wandering away from her parents to the bridge to see the train going underneath. Although she’s curious, there is a cautiousness to her actions, she seems to feel something is off about the “amusement park” as her father calls it. This cautiousness also keeps her close to her parents who place her in this bizarre world and circumstances. She also refuses to eat any food while her parents gobble it up. So far, Chihiro’s identity appears to be that of an ignored, whiny child to self-serving, greedy parents. Her identity also shows a possible sixth sense to the spiritual supernatural presences that she cannot yet see.

Chihiro08Chihiro’s identity through a series of events is about to unravel. Her meeting with Haku alerts her to the dangers she’s already sensed but ignored; and she comes to realize that this odd and somewhat rude boy is trying to help. She’s forced to run and whines about Haku’s attitude towards her (which may point to being a bit spoiled and privileged due to her parents). Still, fear has finally set into Chihiro as shadowy figures start to appear in her race to get back to her parents. Of course, she finds two pigs in their place and believes they have left her behind. Running scared, she tries to return to the real world, only to find she can’t.

This scared 10 year old girl’s life gets worse when she literally starts to disappear. Her whole identity, the person she is, no matter how bratty, is disappearing before her own eyes and she’s more scared than ever. In this moment, we see how fragile one’s identityChihiro07 is. That in a new place, or a new scary situation, who we are can disappear or fade to the background. The Chihiro that the audience has come to know is in jeopardy of disappearing from the world because she is too afraid to take action because she has no idea what to do. This is also suggestive that in a new place, our identities are not apparent to those around us and only with acceptance of our new circumstances and from others, can our identities start to show once again.

Only with Haku’s help does Chihiro become solid again but danger is lurking in the form of Yubaba. Chihiro, now stuck in the Spirit World, has to follow Haku’s lead and orders to survive. When Haku leaves her with instructions, for the first time, Chihiro must do everything possible on her own now until she can get a job in the bathhouse. This includes going down the suicide staircase along the outside of the bathhouse to Kamaji’s boiler room. Despite, Chihiro’s hesitance to approach Kamaji (who is a spider demon) due to his appearance, she tries timidly to ask for a job but persists. When one of the soot creatures (susuwatari) is cChihiro10rushed, she picks up the coal and is quickly told to “finish what you started”. She starts a bit of a rebellion by the soot balls who want her to do their work thus aiding her in acquiring a job like Haku told her to. With Kamaji speaking for her and Lin agreeing to help, Chihiro takes a journey to Yubaba. Along the way, she is forced to be polite and follow orders without letting her curiosity get the better of her. Privilege has no place here for Chihiro; hard work, rules and dedication is the only thing that lies ahead.

When Chihiro finally mets Yubaba and demands a job, she is turned down because she’s weak/scrawny, seen as lazy, can’t seem to stay quiet when given an order and although she is insulted, she continues to persist in getting a job. Suddenly Chihiro’s identity is forcibly removed and she becomes Sen.

SenChihiro11

When Chihiro’s name is taken from her, she loses entirely who she was. She becomes Sen and runs the risk of forgetting her true identity and true name due to Yubaba’s magic. Sen is from my understanding a unisex name whereas Chihiro is most often used Chihiro becomes Senfor girls. This indicates that Sen has lost her gendered identity. She is immediately treated differently by Haku (who we will discuss more later) with her new identity. She is just another worker for Yubaba. Sen has no control over the situation, and has no power to change the circumstances to save herself and her parents at the moment.Chihiro12 Sen is soon brought to see her parents by Haku, and realizes that she almost forgot that her name was Chihiro. She had nearly lost who she was because of Yubaba’s control on her. This new identity is polite, follows orders, and works hard. Chihiro knows that she has to be Sen in order to survive but that if she forgets her name, she won’t be able to get home. To survive, she tries to keep up with the cleaning and does manage to impress Yubaba with Chihiro13how she deals with the Stink god/River god. However, we do see that she is a bit clumsy as she is still too small to do the work of adults.
All the events cause Sen to have a dream that she can’t recognize her parents. She worries that Sen has changed Chihiro too much that she won’t recognize them and that they won’t recognize her. She can’t dwell on things for too long as a white dragon that she realizes is Haku is being attacked. She acts quickly as possible to save his life, although the interruption of No Face trying to get her attention does not help, nor Yubaba coming home, Boh wanting her to play with her or Zeniba’s presence and persistence that he will die because he stole from her.

Through all of this, we can see how much Chihiro has changed thanks to Sen’s forced identity upon her. She’s no longer lazy, she’s polite, caring and stronger than the scared little girl we started with. She’s become more persistent as she persists to Boh that “somebody I really Chihiro14care about got hurt very badly so I’ve got to go.” In her pursuit to help Haku, we see that her identity has completely changed as she’s both Sen and Chihiro. Determined to save Haku, Chihiro/Sen know they must go to Zeniba but she must do one last task as Sen for Yubaba. She manages to return No Face to himself thanks to the medicine the River god gave her that also helped her save Haku. The chase out of the bathhouse is gutsy and almost perfectly planned which makes Lin apologize “I know I called you a klutz, I take it back.” Sen really has changed.Chihiro16

Chihiro/Sen

“Don’t you see? It’s called…Love.”

– Kamaji

Chihiro17This final identity we get at the end of the film is a new one that has resulted from the identity forced upon Chihiro. Without the experiences, surroundings and people from the time she spent in the bathhouse, Chihiro wouldn’t have changed. Also, her past with Haku and her love for him has managed to create within her a courageous girl. This all leads her to being able to remember Haku’s true identity to give back to him as well as free her parents and return home. In the end, Chihiro makes Haku promise that they’ll see each other again, and there is a suggestion that she will return to the Spirit world as the hair tie in her hair sparkles withChihiro18 magic. She stares back into the tunnel for a long time and we can see how much she has changed.

Lindholm states, “The journey of self-discovery thus has a profound effect on the life courses of many”[ii]. Chihiro’s presence in the Spirit world has not only changed her identity but has had an effect on Haku, Yubaba and Zeniba, Boh, the River god, and No Face’s identities. This world that Chihiro entered has a profound effect on people’s identities as it can change them so drastically that they lose who they are because they are forced to take on a new identity, forcibly change their identity due to their environment and sometimes are given a choice to accept the changes that has occurred to their identity along the journey. Therefore, Chihiro’s identity changes from a whiny, lazy young girl who is forced to become Sen, a hardworking, polite, sexless worker to a strong, determined and loving individual through her spiriting away.

End Notes

[i] Cavallaro, Dani. The Anime Art of Hayao Miyazaki (London: McFarland & Company, 2006), 135.

[ii] Lindholm, Charles. Culture and Identity: the history, theory and practice of psychological anthropology (Oxford: Oneworld, 2007), 6.

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