What Is the Message of Spirited Away?

by Hazel

Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away” is a masterpiece of animated cinema, celebrated for its rich storytelling, breathtaking visuals, and deep thematic content. Released in 2001 by Studio Ghibli, the film has captured the hearts of audiences worldwide and continues to be a source of fascination and inspiration. At its core, “Spirited Away” is a coming-of-age story, but it encompasses much more, delving into themes of identity, consumerism, environmentalism, and the clash between modernity and tradition. This article explores the multifaceted messages embedded within “Spirited Away”, offering a comprehensive analysis of its enduring significance.

A Journey of Self-Discovery and Growth

One of the central themes of “Spirited Away” is the journey of self-discovery and personal growth. The protagonist, Chihiro Ogino, starts as a ten-year-old girl who is initially portrayed as whiny, fearful, and reluctant to embrace change. The transition from childhood to adulthood, or more specifically, the loss of innocence, is a significant aspect of her character development throughout the film.


Transformation Through Challenges

Chihiro’s journey into the spirit world forces her to confront numerous challenges that require resilience, courage, and adaptability. From working in Yubaba’s bathhouse to saving her parents, who have been transformed into pigs, Chihiro’s experiences symbolize the trials of growing up and finding one’s place in the world. Each obstacle she faces contributes to her transformation from a scared child into a resourceful and brave individual. This metamorphosis illustrates the universal journey of self-discovery, emphasizing that personal growth often arises from overcoming adversity.


Embracing Responsibility

Chihiro’s acceptance of responsibility marks a significant turning point in her development. Initially, she depends heavily on others, but as the story progresses, she takes on more responsibilities, such as working diligently in the bathhouse and taking initiative to save Haku. This shift reflects the process of maturing and the importance of embracing responsibilities as a part of personal growth. By the end of the film, Chihiro emerges more self-assured and capable, ready to face the real world with newfound confidence and maturity.


The Critique of Consumerism and Materialism

“Spirited Away” offers a sharp critique of consumerism and materialism, particularly through its portrayal of the modern world and the spirit world. The transformation of Chihiro’s parents into pigs after they indulge in an extravagant feast serves as a potent metaphor for the dangers of greed and excess.


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The Consequences of Greed

Chihiro’s parents’ transformation into pigs symbolizes the consequences of unchecked consumerism and greed. Their insatiable appetite leads to their dehumanization, highlighting how excessive consumption can strip individuals of their humanity. This transformation serves as a cautionary tale about the perils of materialism, urging viewers to reflect on their own consumption habits and the value they place on material possessions.

Yubaba’s Bathhouse: A Microcosm of Consumer Society

The bathhouse, managed by the formidable Yubaba, operates much like a consumer-driven society. The spirits that visit the bathhouse are often demanding and indulgent, seeking various forms of pampering and luxury. Yubaba herself is a character driven by greed, as evidenced by her obsession with gold and power. The bathhouse serves as a microcosm of a consumerist society, where transactions and material wealth take precedence over genuine human connections and values. This setting critiques the dehumanizing effects of a society obsessed with wealth and consumption.

Environmentalism and Respect for Nature

Environmentalism and the respect for nature are recurring themes in many of Miyazaki’s works, and “Spirited Away” is no exception. The film underscores the importance of living in harmony with nature and respecting the natural world.

The Pollution of the River Spirit

One of the most poignant scenes in “Spirited Away” is the cleansing of the polluted river spirit. The river spirit, initially mistaken for a “stink spirit” due to the immense pollution it carries, undergoes a dramatic transformation after Chihiro helps cleanse it. This scene is a powerful allegory for the environmental damage caused by human activities and the possibility of restoration and healing through care and respect for nature. It highlights the importance of environmental stewardship and the need to rectify the harm inflicted on natural ecosystems.

Spirits Representing Natural Elements

Many of the spirits in the film represent various elements of the natural world, from rivers and forests to animals. Their interactions with Chihiro emphasize the interconnectedness of humans and nature and the necessity of respecting and preserving the environment. The presence of these spirits serves as a reminder of the spiritual and intrinsic value of the natural world, beyond its material utility.

The Clash Between Modernity and Tradition

“Spirited Away” explores the tension between modernity and tradition, reflecting the rapid modernization and urbanization of Japan during Miyazaki’s lifetime. The film juxtaposes the bustling, consumer-driven spirit world with the more traditional, spiritual aspects of Japanese culture.

The Abandoned Amusement Park

The abandoned amusement park at the film’s beginning symbolizes the remnants of rapid industrialization and modernization. It serves as a gateway to the spirit world, bridging the gap between the modern and the traditional. This setting reflects the displacement of traditional values and the erosion of cultural heritage in the face of relentless modernization. The film encourages viewers to reflect on the impact of modernization on cultural identity and the importance of preserving traditions.

Yubaba and Zeniba: Dual Aspects of Tradition

The twin sisters Yubaba and Zeniba represent dual aspects of tradition. Yubaba, with her greedy and materialistic demeanor, embodies the corrupted side of tradition, where ancient practices are exploited for personal gain. In contrast, Zeniba represents the nurturing and genuine aspects of tradition, emphasizing kindness, hospitality, and wisdom. Through these characters, the film explores the dual nature of tradition and the need to uphold its positive aspects while discarding the negative ones.

The Power of Names and Identity

The significance of names and identity is a recurring motif in “Spirited Away.” The act of naming and renaming characters symbolizes the loss and reclamation of identity, underscoring the importance of self-awareness and the power dynamics associated with names.

Chihiro’s Loss and Reclamation of Her Name

When Chihiro enters the spirit world, Yubaba renames her “Sen,” stripping her of her original identity. This act signifies the loss of Chihiro’s former self and her subjugation under Yubaba’s control. Throughout the film, Chihiro’s journey involves reclaiming her name and, by extension, her identity. The moment she remembers her real name marks a turning point in her quest for self-discovery and empowerment. This narrative emphasizes the importance of remembering and asserting one’s identity in the face of external pressures and control.

Haku’s Forgotten Name

Haku’s storyline parallels Chihiro’s, as he has also forgotten his real name and thus his true identity. His journey towards remembering his name and past signifies the rediscovery of self and the breaking free from Yubaba’s control. Haku’s transformation highlights the power of names in reclaiming autonomy and self-awareness, reinforcing the film’s message about the significance of identity.

The Role of Community and Cooperation

“Spirited Away” emphasizes the value of community and cooperation in overcoming challenges and achieving personal growth. The interactions between characters and their collaborative efforts play a crucial role in the narrative.

Chihiro’s Relationships with Bathhouse Workers

Chihiro’s relationships with the bathhouse workers, such as Lin and Kamaji, exemplify the importance of community and support systems. Initially seen as an outsider, Chihiro gradually earns the respect and friendship of the bathhouse staff through her hard work and determination. These relationships highlight the significance of mutual support and cooperation in navigating difficult circumstances and achieving personal growth.

Collective Effort in Cleansing the River Spirit

The scene where Chihiro and the bathhouse workers collectively cleanse the polluted river spirit underscores the power of teamwork and communal effort. This collaborative act not only restores the river spirit but also strengthens the bonds between the characters. It serves as a metaphor for the positive impact of collective action in addressing environmental and social challenges.

The Ambiguity and Complexity of Morality

“Spirited Away” presents a nuanced portrayal of morality, where characters and actions are not strictly divided into categories of good and evil. This complexity reflects the real-world intricacies of human behavior and ethical decision-making.

Yubaba’s Dual Nature

Yubaba, the primary antagonist, is portrayed with a complex mix of traits. While she is greedy, manipulative, and often harsh, she also shows moments of kindness and care, especially towards her giant baby, Boh. This duality challenges the simplistic notion of villainy and encourages viewers to recognize the multifaceted nature of individuals.

No-Face’s Transformation

No-Face, another intriguing character, undergoes a significant transformation throughout the film. Initially depicted as a lonely and misunderstood spirit, No-Face becomes monstrous and dangerous when exposed to the greed and corruption of the bathhouse. However, when taken away from this toxic environment by Chihiro, No-Face reverts to a more benign and gentle form. This transformation highlights the influence of context and environment on behavior, emphasizing the complexity of moral character.

Conclusion: The Enduring Impact of “Spirited Away”

In conclusion, “Spirited Away” is a rich tapestry of themes and messages that resonate with audiences on multiple levels. Through Chihiro’s journey of self-discovery and growth, the film explores profound themes of identity, consumerism, environmentalism, tradition, and the complexity of morality. The critique of consumerism and the emphasis on environmental stewardship serve as timely reminders of the need to balance progress with respect for nature and cultural heritage.


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