Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Words play a role in both Chihiro’s initial enslavement at the bathhouse and her eventual escape from her contract. Haku and Yubaba understand the power of words from the beginning, and Haku repeatedly warns Chihiro not to allow Yubaba to distract her from her goal of requesting a job. If Chihiro begins to talk about other subjects, Yubaba can take control of her, and Chihiro will have no further recourse. Chihiro has to choose her words carefully and say only what is important for her to get what she wants from Yubaba. Ultimately, this advice saves Haku as well: Yubaba tries to distract Chihiro from her job request by tricking her into revealing who helped her. Lin’s and Kamaji’s lives would have been in danger too if Chihiro had said the wrong thing or said too much.
Names are equally important in the characters’ quest for freedom. After Yubaba steals part of Chihiro’s name, Haku warns Sen not to forget her former name or she will be trapped in the spirit world forever. Sen must remember the qualities that make her who she is and remain true to them, even though her name, the one word that defines her, has changed. Sen succeeds in keeping her identity and also helps Haku regain his, ultimately freeing them both. Haku is living proof of the dangers inherent in forgetting one’s true identity. Names are of fundamental importance in the spirit world, and those in power keep their control by stealing and changing names. Only those characters with the inner strength to hold onto their names and identities can free themselves.
In Spirited Away, every character is a mix of good and bad qualities and actions. Even those who seem good at first, such as Haku and No-Face, have their share of evil qualities. By the same token, those who seem bad in the beginning, such as Zeniba, Kamaji, and Lin, become instrumental in Chihiro’s escape. Chihiro herself is extremely unpleasant at first, and she reveals her better nature only after she becomes Sen. Spirited Away’s blurred line between good and evil is a much more accurate reflection of the real world outside the film. In the end, evil is not vanquished but pushed aside as characters make choices that weaken bad influences. These choices have a ripple effect: Sen’s acts of goodness bring out the latent good in those she encounters. The only character who seems to remain unchanged by Sen’s example is Yubaba, but even Yubaba has qualities, such as her love for Boh, that keep her from being an absolute villain. This theme is unusual for an animated film, as most films in the genre clearly divide good and evil.
Entering the adult world is a substantial and shocking transition for some of the characters in Spirited Away. Idleness is a luxury of childhood—Chihiro lies in the backseat while her parents drive, and Boh lolls among soft pillows while his mother goes about her daily business. Neither Chihiro nor Boh is capable of doing anything independently, nor does either know how to effectively ask for what they want. Whining and complaining are the methods they know best, but, for Chihiro at least, these have no place in the spirit world. When Chihiro becomes Sen and starts her job at the bathhouse, she works idly and ineffectively. Lin correctly suspects that Sen has never worked a day in her life. Sen gradually learns to keep up: she works diligently and even undertakes the monumental task of washing the stink spirit until it’s true river spirit form emerges. Though hard work is not the only element of the spirit world that transforms Sen into a stronger, more capable person, it certainly helps her learn to deal with problems maturely. The shock of entering the working world is a theme rarely dealt with at this age level, which gives Spirited Away one more mark of distinction.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Both humans and spirits are greedy in Spirited Away, and their greed is always destructive. At the beginning of the film, Chihiro is greedy for her parents’ attention. She whines and complains, and covets the familiarity of her own town and home. Chihiro’s parents’ greed leads them to eat the food that turns them into pigs. The bathhouse workers’ greed blinds them not only to the goodness in their midst, in the form of Chihiro, but also to present dangers, such as No-Face. Even Haku is greedy for power to match Yubaba’s. Human greed is the reason that Haku can’t go home—humans filled in his river to build apartments. Yubaba is the greediest of all. Her greed leads her to serve those who ultimately cause destruction, such as when No-Face rampages throught he bathhouse. She’s so preoccupied with gold she initially overlooks the kidnapping of baby Boh, ostensibly her most precious possession. In every case, greed makes characters oblivious to what is truly important, preventing them from reaching their full potential as people and spirits.
Food has enormous power in Spirited Away, and it can be a force of either good or evil. At the beginning of the movie, food sets Chihiro’s entire adventure in motion. When Chihiro’s mother and father gorge themselves on the food they find in the abandoned amusement park, they turn into pigs, and Chihiro must save them. In the spirit world, gluttonous No-Face can’t fill himself up no matter how much he eats. Food and greed are always a bad combination, but food is also a source of comfort and community. For example, Haku urges Chihiro to eat food from the spirit world so she doesn’t disappear, and he gives her food he’s put a spell on to restore her strength. Later, as Sen, Chihiro feeds both Haku and No-Face a magic cake to cure them of illnesses brought on by what they have consumed. No-Face knows well the comfort food can offer, and he uses it as a substitute for companionship.
Spirited Away examines the consequences of actions that alter the natural world in destructive ways. Haku and the ancient river spirit represent these consequences most dramatically. Haku lost his home because his river was paved over to build an apartment complex, and the ancient river spirit at first seems to be a stink spirit because it’s so polluted. The abandoned amusement park at the beginning of the movie is linked to the issue of land management. Chihiro’s father notes that many theme parks were built in Japan during the boom times, and they were abandoned when the economy tanked. As a result, unsightly, false landscapes dot the countryside. Self-pollution, a more personal aspect of environmentalism, occurs through No-Face’s and Chihiro’s parents’ over-consumption of food. Haku, too, is polluted by Yubaba’s slug. Environmentalism is a familiar motif in Miyazaki’s films, and critiquing the consequences of development and pollution through animated characters sheds new and unusual light on these issues.
Rules give structure to the spirit world, and all who live there are bound to them. Chihiro knows that rules permeate the spirit world from the very beginning of her residence there. When Haku leads Chihiro across the bridge to the bathhouse, he warns her not to breathe or she’ll be spotted. As Sen, Chihiro has to carefully watch what she says and what she eats. If she doesn’t, she risks putting herself or others in danger. Even the most powerful spirits, Yubaba and Zeniba, must follow rules. Despite her fondness for Sen, Zeniba can’t help her in the end because doing so would be against the rules. Even though Haku has returned Boh to Yubaba, Yubaba can’t allow Sen to go without one final test because Haku has agreed to that condition. A sense of helplessness almost always accompanies the characters’ inability to bend the rules, but no one attempts to cast them aside. The final rule Chihiro must follow again comes from Haku: He tells Chihiro not to look back. She knows by now that she must adhere to the rule, and she does as he says despite.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Just as food plays contradictory roles in Spirited Away, water represents entrapment and freedom, life and death. When Chihiro tries to escape the abandoned theme park, she discovers that the previously dry ground is now a huge body of water she can’t cross. In order to survive in the spirit world, Sen works at the bathhouse, which depends on water for its livelihood. In the course of Sen’s work, she rescues a polluted river spirit by pouring liberal amounts of water over him. Sen nearly drowns in the process, but the spirit places her in a protective bubble that keeps her from harm, and this and other acts of kindness play a role in her liberation. Later, Sen releases Haku from his imprisonment when she realizes he is really a river spirit. Her assistance is a kind of repayment, as years before Haku saved Chihiro from drowning after she fell into a river.
Flight usually has ominous purposes in Spirited Away. Yubaba turns into a bird to keep a close watch on her dominion, and when she flies, she resembles a military plane. Haku flies primarily to carry out secret missions for Yubaba. On one of these missions he is attacked by Zeniba’s paper birds, which bring him down and nearly kill him. Only one flight promises liberation and hope: when Haku transports Sen from Zeniba’s house to the bathhouse so she can identify her parents and return home, Sen remembers Haku’s true name, which restores his identity and frees him.
Most of the characters in Spirited Away obssess greedily about gold, and it almost always brings misery. No-Face can make gold out of thin air, but those who take the gold find that it brings them no happiness. Yubaba is so enamored with her gold that she thinks of it first, even before her baby Boh, when Haku warns her that something precious has been taken from her. The gold eventually disappears, rendering the pursuit of it pointless, even for Yubaba. Though not all of the characters are evil, how they respond to gold in some cases determines their fate. For example, Sen, who turns down the gold, ends up with a much richer life than those who accepted it.
More main ideas from Spirited Away
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