Learning from the deceptive exteriors of Hayao Miyazaki’s ‘Spirited Away’

movie still from Spirited Away
Studio Ghibli/Courtesy

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Some will tell you that “Spirited Away” is a film about a young girl who endeavors to save her parents after a witch turns them into pigs. But that description only scratches the surface of the focus of Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece — much like its subjects, the film’s appearance has only a cursory relationship with its deeper internal meaning. 

“Spirited Away” is, among many things, a film about persevering empathy. It’s about looking past people’s ugly, tortured exteriors to see the light inside them. It’s about what happens to us when we lose control of our circumstances and fall into unfamiliar environments that turn us into ferocious, unrecognizable versions of ourselves. And most of all, it’s about what happens when one gracious person gives us a closer look, reminding us that on the inside, we’re always more than our most hideous outsides let on.

Early on in the film, the protagonist Chihiro huddles in a dark corner, desperate and terrified without her parents to protect her. On the verge of vanishing into nothingness, she is found by Haku, a fierce, mysterious boy who offers her solace. Haku gives Chihiro strength by recognizing the wind and water within her, acknowledging that she has a wellspring of magic inside her fragile mortal form. While the other spirits are happy to ignore her, Haku sees something more in Chihiro, and his faith sustains her as she enters Yubaba’s bathhouse. 

Like everything else in the film, the bathhouse’s appearance is deceiving: It looks beautiful on the outside, but on the inside, its owner and most of its employees are cruel, unsympathetic spirits who see only the worst in others. When a stink spirit — a pungent, oozing blob — comes in for a bath, the entire staff tries its hardest to keep him away. Chihiro isn’t oblivious to the spirit’s disgusting stench and appearance, but she serves him anyway, and as she’s giving the spirit a bath, she realizes he needs help. Chihiro yanks on the bicycle handlebar protruding from his side like a thorn, letting loose a deluge of junk that had been stuck inside him for far too long.

The blob was no stink spirit — he was a powerful river spirit who had been deformed by years of pollution. It didn’t require any complex spells or potions to restore his beauty; the solution was simple. All Chihiro had to do was pass on the sympathy Haku gave her, and look just a little bit closer at a creature the rest of the world deemed unworthy of its help.

She then directs her attention to No-Face, the gentle spirit who turns into a grotesque monster after Chihiro lets him into the bathhouse. When Chihiro confronts him, she doesn’t judge or chastise, she just helps him by giving him medicine. Like the river spirit, No-Face expels the sludge that plagues him. Chihiro’s friend Lin isn’t convinced that the spirit is redeemed, but Chihiro tells her that No Face isn’t the problem — the bathhouse is. She remembers the kind spirit who helped her before he went mad and decides that the evil he exhibited wasn’t his fault; it was just his reaction to being trapped in a toxic place where he didn’t belong.

For everyone else, the bathhouse is a force of corruption — it takes noble souls and transforms them into something awful. But Chihiro is unafflicted. She remains true to herself, and as a result, is able to remind others of their true selves as well. 

Chihiro’s final redemptive act comes at the film’s end when she remembers Haku’s true name and frees him from Yubaba’s world. Despite the warnings of the bathhouse staff, Chihiro never loses faith that there’s good inside of him. Faith saves them both. Chihiro returns to Haku what he gave her at the beginning of the film: the ultimate gift of being seen.

What if we were all like Chihiro? What would the world be like if we didn’t mistake people for how they behave on their worst days; when they’re in an uncomfortable place; or when their inner light has been dulled by years of hardship and neglect? It’s not as difficult as it sounds — after all, Chihiro saved the spirits around her not through violence or cunning, but through love. 

We owe it to our loved ones to never forget their true natures and to always look beyond their sometimes cold exteriors. Oftentimes, our savagery is not an inherent trait, but an acute affliction that can be relieved by someone who loves us enough to remind us of who we really are. We are all capable of giving this charity to our friends. We all deserve it, too.

Matthew DuMont is the arts & entertainment editor. Contact him at [email protected].