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.