By the way, Chihiro and Chisato-chan, your names differ by one (kanji) character,” he said teasingly. This happened during night at a camp I attended when I was ten years old. It’s a story from fourteen years ago now. At a campsite on the slopes of Mt. Akagi, a group of friends gathered to have a campfire. I sat next to a college student, but we didn’t know what to talk about and an awkward silence fell upon us. We both struggled to continue the conversation, and finally, the topic we arrived at was “Spirited Away.”
At that time, the highly anticipated new film by Studio Ghibli had already gained a reputation for being “very interesting.”
I bombarded the college student with questions like “What was the story about?” and “Why such a mysterious title?” He responded with a laugh and uttered the opening lines of the film. “Chihiro’s name was taken by a witch, and she became Chi 千 (or Sen) ,” he said, jokingly. In truth, my name is not “Chisato (千里) but “Chisato (智里)[different kanji spelling], so even if the witch took away my name, I wouldn’t become Chi (Sen). It was a trivial misunderstanding due to how I introduced myself, but those words from him strangely stuck with me deeply. Immediately after returning from the camp, I went to see “Spirited Away” with my parents, and within the first minute, I thought, “Chihiro is different from previous heroines. This film might become something special for me.”
I want to make it clear that this doesn’t mean I’m speaking ill of other Ghibli heroines. Before watching “Spirited Away,” the only films I knew by director Hayao Miyazaki were “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind,” “Castle in the Sky,” “My Neighbor Totoro,” “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” and “Princess Mononoke,” and I loved each of their respective heroines. I tried making a bug flute like Nausicaä with a film case, searched for a stone resembling the Sheeta’s flying stone, chilled and ate cucumbers in water like Satsuki and Mei, secretly sat on a deck brush like Kiki while cleaning the bathroom, and devoured a bag of beef jerky that resembled San’s dried meat. Perhaps many people around the world did similar things, but anyway, I idolized those girls to that extent.
However, it was merely admiration, not empathy. Nausicaä, Sheeta, Satsuki, Mei, Kiki, and San were all extremely appealing as characters in the story. However, I thought that Satsuki, who was relatively close to my age, must be lonely for not being able to meet her mother, and it was a bit sad how she was manipulated by Mei. As for Kiki, I had candid impressions like “She changes plans suddenly, sulks at Jiji, and would be a handful if she had friends.” Now that I know Sheeta is the same age as Kiki, I realized she appeared more mature and reserved, and I had mistakenly thought of her as an older sister figure. In the first place, for a ten-year-old, a twelve or thirteen-year-old is not necessarily considered “the same age.” While it’s just a difference of two or three years as an adult, it’s a significant distinction for an elementary school student. So, even though I could occasionally empathize with them, they were not characters with whom I could fully identify.
It was Chihiro who sharply cut through that gap. At the time, I was concerned about the “discrepancy between the age settings of children’s stories and the reality of children.” Stories created for children often have characters who are supposed to be the same age as the intended readers, that is, children. However, their depictions are often unnaturally childish or, conversely, too mature, leading the child readers to feel dissatisfied, thinking, “There are no elementary school students like that these days.”
However, Chihiro was different. She was terrifyingly real. As you know, Chihiro’s first appearance is in the back seat of a car, lying down in a sulking position. She has been forced to transfer schools against her will due to her parents’ circumstances, and although she knows there’s nothing she can do about it, she can’t help but express her dissatisfaction physically—such inner movements struck straight into my heart with just that slight interaction with her mother. Throughout the film, the moment I empathized with Chihiro the most was her frustration towards the carefree adults in the opening scenes. Her mother said, “The moving truck from the moving company might be arriving soon” when she wanted to get home quickly, but once they arrived on the other side of the tunnel and saw delicious food, their attitudes changed instantly. Her father, in particular, started eating without permission, even though there was no one at the shop, saying things like, “It’s alright, I’m here. I have my card and wallet.” Oh, it was so frustrating. When I saw it for the first time, I squirmed. Because even before entering the tunnel, Chihiro felt that something was off. She had a bad feeling and didn’t want to be there, repeatedly insisting on going back, but her parents completely ignored her. It’s the kind of insensitivity or self-centeredness that adults often have, backed by my experience. It’s like a lack of integrity. I remember even giving my parents next to me a cold look, thinking, “That’s why adults (so and so)…”
In that sense, it might be more accurate to say that “Chihiro’s relationship with her parents felt real” rather than “Chihiro herself felt real.” I’ve met people who say Chihiro’s mother is cold, but I didn’t feel that way. However, just like Chihiro was portrayed as a life-sized girl, could it be that the “parent figures” were also portrayed in a life-sized manner? I am aware that I grew up feeling loved by my family, but if I were asked if my mother always had a saintly smile on her face, I would laugh and say, “Of course not.” She’s human, so naturally, she had her moments of unhappiness and often made harsh remarks towards clumsy me. The same goes for my father. If you flip it around, his composed and reliable nature turns into insensitivity and a lack of delicacy, presenting a paradox. Regardless of how great a father may be, it is almost impossible for them to perfectly navigate the complexities of a teenage girl. That’s why I found great resonance in Chihiro’s father’s clumsiness. Surely, if Chihiro’s parents were “always smiling and kind parents” or “smart parents who were considerate of their daughter,” I wouldn’t have felt as much empathy for her. It was precisely because she was an “ordinary child” with unidealized parents that you could find anywhere that I became captivated by Chihiro.
Once I identified myself with Chihiro in that introductory part, there was no choice but to embark on a journey through the mysterious world with her. The despair when her parents turned into pigs, the anxiety she felt in the gaps of the long staircase, the heat of the boiler room’s embers, the tension when she stood in front of Yubaba’s room—all those various emotions, I experienced them with a sense of presence in the movie theater. Among them, the scene where Chihiro ties herself and confronts the exhaust pipe to save the wounded Haku was especially vivid. I was deeply moved, thinking, “She can definitely do that now,” realizing how much she had grown within the movie.
In the end, after watching the movie, I couldn’t immediately come back from the world of “Spirited Away.” The suspense when the lights dimmed was the pounding of my heart when I stepped into the tunnel, and the feeling when the main story ended and the brightness returned was akin to the relief Chihiro felt when she returned to her original world. In a sense, I left the movie theater with a sensation that the boundaries between reality and the movie world had blurred. I felt like I was a slightly different person from two hours ago.
For me, “Spirited Away” was a work in which I became the protagonist and experienced the adventure vicariously. Chihiro’s growth became nourishment for my own growth without me realizing it. Children who were the same age as Chihiro at the time of the film’s release belong to a generation commonly referred to as the “yutori ゆとり” generation. As members of the “yutori” generation, we have now become part of the “adults” who are fighting in the rough waves of society, and we are currently experiencing the world we once experienced with Chihiro in our own lives.
After the story ended, only the director knows what happened to the characters. But within myself, I envision Chihiro, who has grown up like me and became an adult. In the current uncertain times where we don’t know how long we will continue to work and when we will find relief, I believe that no matter how difficult things may be or how negative we may feel, tomorrow will unquestionably come. So, I imagine that the adult Chihiro will face forward to the future without lamenting the present.
Every time I revisit this movie, the excitement I felt when I first watched it and the empathy I had for Chihiro vividly resurface. And what emerges from that is a sense of “courage” to live for tomorrow, which may be slightly different from the “growth” of the past, but I believe it remains unchanged.
Chisato Abe – Born in Gunma Prefecture in 1991. Graduated from Waseda University’s School of Culture, Media and Society. In 2009, received the Matsumoto Seicho Award, the youngest recipient in its history, for “The Crow Doesn’t Suit Me.” Since then, has written “The Crow Doesn’t Choose the Master,” “The Golden Crow,” and “The Coffin of the Crow,” setting intricate plots in the world of the Yatagarasu (Three-Legged Crow) and captivating readers with subtle psychological descriptions and unexpected endings, earning high praise. In 2014, entered the graduate school of Waseda University’s Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, and intensified writing activities.