Spirited Away: Identity Formation, Preservation, and Recollection

Robert Vander Veer
3 Page Analysis on Spirited Away
Japanese 70, Discussion 1B

 It is difficult to pinpoint just one overall theme in Spirited Away, a movie as complex and ridden with symbolism as it is beautiful. Chihiro, the movie’s main protagonist and central character, is not the only one in the movie who experiences her own change and development. As the story unfolds, even the minions who are obstructions on the quest to save her parents naturally turn into allies that walk by her side as she vigilantly keeps her goals in sight despite the oppressive and chaotic nature of the “Bathhouse”. In order to serve their purpose within the hedonist and egoist environment, the characters are given one-dimensional roles via the replacement of their identity by Yubaba, who owns them once she makes them forget their “name” (their true self) and gives them a new one. This may seem odd in the literal sense, but metaphysically and symbolically, there is no better representation that parallels quite accurately how people are “indoctrinated” into society, and how they transform and lose themselves when being swept up in the world of unfulfilling work, losing themselves day by day. Spirited Away thus becomes a story about the preservation, recollection, and formation of identity and of the “self” in a modern society wherein it is easy to lose yourself when becoming a gear in the “machine” of society.

            To understand the central themes of identity reformation and preservation in Spirited Away, it really helps to make sense out of the rules of the world the movie takes place in. At first, they seem very foreign, and just made up to seem “otherworldly”, but the fact of the matter is that they are not very much unlike our own, in that they are metaphysical representations of the conscious and what takes place “inside” rather than actual “cause-effect” physical realities. When Chihiro is first “absorbed” into the Spirit World, she becomes transparent, as if fading from existence. Because she does not belong in the world, and has no ties, it is almost as if she has nothing within that world to “ground” her into that reality, no identity or purpose within this society in which she doesn’t belong, that is, until Haku comes. “Don’t worry, I’m a friend.” As he gives her a small tidbit of food, Chihiro becomes rematerialized, having partaken in a simple exchange of food with Haku. Although this seemed like such a simple moment, it is one of the most significant, in that by eating the food, Chihiro is almost given an identity for this particular society, now having established a bond with Haku, someone being from within the society to indoctrinate her. In this sense, food almost seems to always embody something within the movie, and in this scene, it was the establishment of a bond that kept her from floating away; a new identity, or persona if you will, that enabled her to act upon and exert her presence materially on the other worldly society thanks to Haku.

An astonished Chihiro holds a panacea that seemingly has the potential to remedy the ailments brought on by the desensitization and traumatizing disenchantment (or malicious enchantments) of the Bathhouse World. This was given to her by the River God that she helped, showing how powerful bonds are in order to be established within a society and to build upon your identity.

            Later on in the movie, When Chihiro helps a River God from another world, he gifts her with a special Panacea that can seemingly “purge” anyone of anything that ails them within the world of the bath-house. Given to her because of her selflessness and lack of presumptions about his character, the River God brings something in which even the hedonist world of desire cannot trample under, and this embodies something from a different, supposedly more tranquil world. In a sense, since only Chihiro could have obtained this gift, it’s almost as if it the manifestation of a 2nd identity for her in the world of the bathhouse, as she is indoctrinated by the semblance of this item bestowed unto her. Whereas the previous exchange with Haku preserved and reformed a new identity within the bathhouse world, this new exchange between her and the nameless River God gave her a new, more empowered identity, one of an objective worldview that could be used to take on the hardships of the bathhouse, rather than just be encompassed by them. Astonishingly, this takes the form of food, which has two interesting and very important qualities central to the film: It can be shared with others, and it is expendable. Because it can be shared, she too, can bestow it unto others, as if to put her own strength of heart and purity into others to purge them of the noise of the bathhouse.


A newly purged No- Face accompanies Chihiro, who is more than willing to let him come along. Realizing that the bathhouse is what makes him crazy, she knows it is best to take him as far as possible from there.

Much like Chihiro, No-Face is initially transparent, has no place to go, and knows no one in the bathhouse, and thus has no “self” to place him in relation to anyone or anything in the world. When Chihiro opens the door for him in the rain, she is performing a subtle ritual of initiation, establishing an indirect bond with No-Face, although unbeknownst to her. In a sense, you could say he really has “No-Face”, or no identity. The mask he wears is expressionless, and gestures and utterances are his only form of communication. Because he has no identity to establish, he is impressionable to the world of the Bathhouse, and is quickly engulfed by the desire and greed around him. When he sees Chihiro as someone who stands above all of this chaos, he is filled with a strange sort of infatuation for her, almost as if she is like a diamond in the rough. He constantly gives her gifts throughout the story, almost as if he wants her to fall into the world of desire with him, possibly in order to rationalize that there is no one who could possibly resist, that falling into the ordinary flow of the Bathhouse is normal. He is torn between wanting Chihiro, and wanting to be like her. Upon becoming engorged after indulging in every whim of the bathhouse, he comes to find that he is still miserable. Wanting to possess Chihiro, (being the embodiment of tranquility and enlightenment; being free from material desire), he pursues her, wherein Chihiro gets him to eat the Panacea, using the very last bit on him rather than on her parents. No-Face is purged of all the darkness of the Bathhouse, regurgitating everything that he had absorbed as he follows Chihiro. He eventually joins her as a travelling companion, leaving everything behind, including all that plagues him, to walk with Chihiro to Swamp Bottom. In the slower, rhythmic world of nature, No-Face is free to live a life free from the circle of desire and suffering that is commonplace in the bathhouse, and is allowed to stay with Zaniba. Here, he can take the baby steps he needs to find out what he wants to do with his life.


The way No-Face eats his food in Zaniba’s house in the quiet forest is a far cry from how he had been previously engorged and engulfed by desire and misery in the bathhouse. No-Face sips on a cup of tea, almost serenely with a slight expression of delight on his mask.

In conclusion, it is impossible to confine Spirited Away to one central theme, as there are many things to draw and learn from within this brilliant film. In establishing a believable world that is in its own right a microcosm of many societies today, Spirited Away opens up a world of possibilities to revisit and learn something new from time and time again.



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