Written by Sarah Yoon
Throughout Hayao Miyazaki’s career, he has uplifted strong female protagonists such as Nausicca, Arrietty, and Sophie from Howl’s Moving Castle. In Spirited Away, Miyazaki’s young protagonist Chihiro starts as a whiny, passive child, but the story forces her to grow up or give up, creating a bildungsroman of bravery and selflessness.
As a storyteller, Miyazaki shows this coming-of-age process with incredible finesse. Chihiro grows scene by scene, taking greater and greater risks until she reaches her goal. In StoryForge’s Critical Hit, David Hoffman comments that the story begins like many classic fairytales with “child who is isolated from her parents,” launching a complex display of character development that inspires storytellers around the world.
Build Growth Through Motivation
When the film opens, internal conflict fills Chihiro and she grumbles about moving away from her comfortable home. As her parents lead her into the spirit world, she childishly whines and clings. Her fear mixes defiance and filial trust, which form her into a rounded, relatable character.
After establishing the character’s psychology, Miyazaki adds external motivation. The first main conflict brings a rise in action: Chihiro’s parents are turned into pigs and she is trapped in the spirit world. When hidden in a side garden, she asks Haku, “It wasn’t a dream, was it?” The reality of her situation dawns on her—no more denial, only action. With these motivations propelling her, Chihiro grows in three unique ways:
1. Gaining Confidence
Chihiro’s dire situation leaves no room for whining. When she faces her fears and traverses the steep stairs to Kamaji’s boiler room, her trajectory cannot stop. Miyazaki leads his protagonist through a series of challenges: meeting Kamaji, facing Yubaba, and cleaning the river god. With each event, both her confidence and the story’s tension grow.
The girl’s timidity wears off as the stakes heighten. In the scene on the stairs, Chihiro is too timid to walk properly. She trips and must run down the stairs to Kamaji’s boiler room. However, when Haku needs her help, bravery overcomes fear. She runs across a broken pipe without even considering the risk. The first time, she runs for her own survival: the second time, for a friend’s life.
2. Learning selflessness
Chihiro starts selfishly, but her trials are put into perspective when her parents are taken. Though it would be easy to focus the story around Chihiro’s family, Miyazaki broadens the theme of selfless love. She must choose between her parents and her friends’ lives. In response to this dilemma, Chihiro sacrifices her own desires and postpones her agenda.
The choice between self and others is painfully apparent when Chihiro gives away a precious gift, a magic herbal cake that might be her only chance for escape. Facing Haku’s bloodied fangs, she gives him half of the healing agent and holds the dragon down while he swallows it. Soon she sacrifices her agenda again by giving the last half to No-face, the rampaging monster. Tossing the herbal cake into No-face’s mouth, she comments: “I was saving it for my parents, but you can have it.”
The girl’s self-sacrifice nurtures a mature, even motherly side of her character. Chihiro steps onto the train to Zaneba’s swamp and babysits a fat mouse and a little bird-bug. When No-face sits next to her, she gently reminds him, “behave yourself, okay?” She does what is necessary rather than what is pleasant. As each trial progresses, she attains a depth of character beyond that of the average ten year old.
3. Earning Her Name
Miyazaki instills a symbolic representation of Chihiro through her name, which means thousand fathoms. In the beginning, the audience can’t see much depth—only potential. When Chihiro meets Yubaba, she cannot escape criticism. “Useless weakling,” Yubaba chides. “Anyone can see that you’re a lazy, spoiled, crybaby.” The witch describes Chihiro’s name as extravagant and the letters lift off the contract, leaving the character for Sen, which simply means thousand. Chihiro is reduced to a number.
As the story’s crises form Chihiro into a confident and selfless young woman, her maturity allows her to regain her name. By the end of the story, Zeneba comments, “what a nice name. Take good care of it.” Chihiro has reached the end of her journey; she has grown into herself. It takes time, hard work, and tears, but her character has deepened a thousand-fold.
Build Change Gradually
By the end of the story, Chihiro is hardly the same girl who quakes at the entrance to the spirit world. Her growth happens naturally as she acclimates—soon sights of a radish god and frog workmen become commonplace. Understanding the protagonist’s growth may help storytellers recreate this bildungsroman, but remember that forcing change instead of allowing an organic learning process makes characters stiff. As Miyazaki builds his world, observations of reality seep into the imaginary, making it rich and relatable.
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