My children watched Spirited Away for the first time last week. No surprise, they loved it. They knew a little about the movie already, having looked through an art book I received as a Christmas gift one year, which among other things described Chihiro as spoiled. “She’s not spoiled, not really,” I pleaded to my kids. “She’s just a normal kid!” But my children disagreed, and it was hard to argue with them even just a few minutes into the movie, with all the complaining that Chihiro does. Of course, part of the theme of the movie is growth, as Chihiro matures greatly over the course of just a few days, learning to love and care for those around her as she sacrifices for others.
Chihiro grows almost as much as any character I can remember through the course of a two-hour film. The change is subtle and rich and real. Her timid nature is on full display early in the film, as is her weakness in the face of adversity. She calls out to Kamaji shyly, for instance, when a loud shout is rather what’s needed, and at first she does her chores delicately while the girls around her go full force. But I think we see Chihiro’s “before and after” most strikingly by how she runs around the outside of the bathhouse structure. When she first attempts to go to the furnace room, she climbs down the stairs very carefully for fear of losing her balance and falling off, and only runs down when she’s in danger. But later, when she is trying to find help for Haku, she takes a far more hazardous path across piping but with far more courage.
My daughter screamed during this part, too.
I was thinking about my own path, and how it hasn’t been so different from Chihiro’s. No bathhouse for the spirits, No-Face demons, wizards, or witches, but I was certainly selfish and fearful like Chihiro. I think we can all relate to Chihiro’s selfish nature – it is human nature, after all – but I really connect more with her fearfulness. I’m an introvert and also shy, and I rarely challenged myself to get out of my shell as kid. As I became a teenager and even into young adulthood, a fear of embarrassment, of the spotlight, of engaging with people, had developed in me, and I built it day by day, week by week, justifying that this was who I was, that this was a good way to live.
I was wrong.
But like Chihiro, I couldn’t change by myself. Chihiro helps a lot of spirits and other along the way – Haku, Lin, No-Face, Boh, the soot sprites – but they help her, too. Kamaji sees her kindness and tells her how to get a job. Lin looks out for her, though she’s otherwise tough-as-nails. Boh stands up for her in the end, after coming to understand what real love and friendship means. Even Chihiro’s parents help, I’m convinced – although they’re literally pigs and must have been a source of their daughter’s selfishness – must have taught her how to love others and be kind, because the kind of selfless devotion that Chihiro exhibits doesn’t come out of nowhere.
But of most impact in one particular person in Chihiro’s life. She is able to grow because of one act of kindness, because of one person who shows her love. Frightened, crying, and disappearing, Haku comes to Chihiro early in the narrative and cares for her, telling her how she can save her parents and herself. He doesn’t have to do that, and in fact, is putting himself in danger by doing so. But this act of grace, from a powerful witch’s apprentice to a weak, selfish child, changes Chihiro’s heart, giving her the courage to grow and ultimately to become every bit as strong a Ghibli heroine as Nausicaa, San, or Sheeta. By movie’s end, Chihiro is confident, courageous, wise, and selfless, and she has changed the lives of so many around her. But it started with her salvation.
It’s taken years for me to break out of the shell I created, to lose that fear that consumed me and prevented me from reaching out to others and being a loud and vocal leader. I’m still working toward that, and in fact, some days I feel like quite literally retreating into my office or room and shutting the door. But I know my heart and whole being has changed, been transformed. It all started with an act of grace, with my salvation when I was a selfish, frightened child, by one who put everything on the line when it didn’t make sense for one who never deserved it.