The Unsung Companions of ‘Spirited Away’

*Note: the frame grabs found in this post were captured by me using VLC Media Player, but please feel free to borrow them for your own use.

Anyone who knows me and/or reads my blog knows that I adore the films of Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, and I’ve been in the mood to write another post about his work. I set out to draft an analysis of the themes of friendship and camaraderie in a few of Miyazaki’s films, but I found that Spirited Away was most in need of explication. There’s a ton of material to discuss in this, his most successful and celebrated movie, regardless of the lens or focus. Spirited Away is about a 10-year-old girl’s journey to maturity, and I feel like the focal point of the narrative is the young love that develops (or is remembered) between her and Haku, her guide in the spirit world. I’d like to offer a piece that gives credit to Chihiro’s many curious friends who aid her not only in rescuing her parents and escaping unscathed, but in growing into a more developed person who appreciates hard work and recognizes all forms of love.

Throughout Spirited Away, besides Chihiro’s central goal of rescuing her parents by transforming them from pigs back into humans, all Chihiro really wants during her journey are some trusted friends who are willing to offer help and kindness.

Kamaji, the nice boiler man, gives Chihiro a train ticket to see Zeniba, which guides her in rescuing her parents and offers closure to the narrative. In accordance with the theme, he’s not exactly welcoming when the two meet, but here, he lays a blanket on her as she sleeps.

The friends Chihiro accumulates throughout the film offer no official proclamation of friendship, because the relationships we see aren’t in need of defining or clarifying. No Face initially seems spooky, a mysterious villain and perhaps an opponent of hers; he becomes an ally, however, and accompanies her on the mysterious train ride she takes to visit Yubaba’s twin sister, the maternal Zeniba. No Face first makes an appearance in the rain when Chihiro opens a bath house door and invites him inside; from that point on, he is strangely drawn to the girl and can’t seem to stay away. A monstrous radish spirit also expresses his intrigue when he follows Chihiro to the top floor of the bath house when she asks Yubaba for a job–perhaps because she’s the only human in the bath house, and the spirits are drawn to her unique scent. However, once he infiltrates the bath house, No Face becomes a monster who tries to befriend Chihiro using bath tokens and gold that he magically produces. Inevitably, the creatures employed at the bath house discover that it is just “glamour” and not authentic. It is during this confrontation that No Face actually confesses to Chihiro that he has no family or friends. Furthermore, No Face is devastated that Chihiro is not receptive to his gifts. It is not until he becomes her companion on the train that we understand he is simply looking for a friend as well, and perhaps doesn’t know how to go about it. He then understands that his task as a friend is not to overwhelm Chihiro with material goods but simply to spend time with her and share in her quest.

This is one of my favorite images from the movie; No Face looks so dejected when Chihiro shows no interest in his gold that we must feel sorry for the lost spirit.

Chihiro also has two other, smaller companions: Boh, Yubaba’s infant son, in the form of a chubby mouse, and a tiny bird, which is originally Yubaba’s as well. The cute pair even tell Zeniba that they prefer their new form as they spin a hair tie for Chihiro. No Face stays with Zeniba as her “helper” once Haku comes for Chihiro and she reminds him of his true identity: the Spirit of the Kohaku River. This is a reminder that our companions are sometimes temporary and only meant to help us discover something new about ourselves or to aid us in a particular journey, until we transition to the next. It’s no accident that these three figures, besides Haku and Lin, become the girl’s closest friends, although they seemingly come from dark places and are perhaps not yet understood by both viewers and Miyazaki’s characters. The duo take turns carrying each other when they’re not riding together on Chihiro’s shoulder. The teeny bird sounds much like a mosquito, and these friends are with her as Chihiro escapes the enraged No Face.

Chihiro cradles her two miniature buddies on the train.

Lin acts as a big sister as she shows Chihiro the ropes at her new job. When she sees that No Face is still following Chihiro (and even jumps from a great height to get to her), she yells at the spirit, “If you put even one scratch on that girl, you’re in big trouble!” thus indicating how protective she’s come to feel over Chihiro.

The girls munch on dumplings under a full moon and a sparkling sea.

Miyazaki is adamant that none of this characters are inherently good or evil, so it makes sense that most of Chihiro’s friends begin as villains and are transformed either physically or emotionally. In the case of Boh, we may feel that we judged him unfairly and that his sour demeanor is due to Yubaba’s influence. When the witch gives Chihiro her final test to save her parents, Boh even defends his new friend by telling his mother, “If you make Sen cry, I won’t like you anymore.” *Note: if you haven’t seen the film, Yubaba takes Chihiro’s name and renames her “Sen.”

I’m usually crying as the portly mouse tries catching Chihiro’s tears in mid-flight.

I think Chihiro’s friends (out of any film by Miyazaki I’ve seen) are most important, given that Chihiro feels so alone in the spirit world and even in her own world. Until she’s faced with finding independence and a sense of responsibility at her new job at the bath house, she whines to her parents about moving and being forced to assimilate to new surroundings. These friends, as unconventional and “Miyazaki-esque” as they may be are instrumental in encouraging and comforting Chihiro as she ventures outside of her comfort zone and explores the unknown.

Another fantastic image: Chihiro tells No Face to sit down and behave himself.

We can easily see that although she is Yubaba’s identical twin sister, Zeniba is Chihiro’s new friend by the end of the film. This unique and eccentric support system culminates in one of the final scenes at Zeniba’s adorable little cottage in Swamp Bottom. The good witch accommodates her guests as if they are all old friends who have gathered for a nice visit and even instructs Chihiro to call her “Granny.”

No Face spins thread with Zeniba. Aren’t we happy that he’s found a loving family and he no longer has to bribe anyone to be with him?

Chihiro’s wonderful train ride also serves as clarification that Miyazaki’s spirit world is not confined to the bath house. The dark, anonymous figures on the train also tell us that this queer world is our world as well. I’m planning on a cross-country Amtrak ride later this summer, and I do hope it ends with tea, cake, and a magical dragon.

Be well.




3 Comments Add yours

  1. Tino Ramirez says:

    Thanks for your great reading of friendship in “Spirited Away.” I also think that Chihiro begins gathering friends as she matures, after she decides to work her way out the bathhouse for the sake of her parents, when her selfishness falls away she becomes a valued member of a community and is enabled to remember her true name. I love the the scene at the bridge when she answers Yubaba’s riddle and everyone cheers,\.

  2. lotusgurl says:

    Aww thanks for your kind words! Yeah, I think she begins doing it purely for the sake of her parents and slowly realizes she’s growing up and truly cares about these wonderful creatures she meets. Good call. The bridge scene is great. I think one of my fave scenes has to be when the motley grew visits Zeneba! Thanks so much for reading, Tino.

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