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Psychosinematics: A Psychological Breakdown of the Magic of ‘Spirited Away’9 min read

9 April 2020 6 min read


Psychosinematics: A Psychological Breakdown of the Magic of ‘Spirited Away’9 min read

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Psychosinematics is a series where we look into films and characters with a psychological perspective. In this installment, we look into Chihiro’s mind and journey as the hero.

There’s something about Hayao Miyazaki’s films that makes it so comforting and relatable despite their fantastical quality. Spirited Away is one of Studio Ghibli’s most beloved films, often enjoyed with a child-like wonder. But just as Spirited Away taps into our innocent sentiments, so too it explores deeper themes hidden in plain sight. In fact, Spirited Away is a trove of psychological insights. The relatability of these psychological experiences that Miyazaki draws on not only explains our affinity for his films, but also imparts a few comforting lessons. 

Chihiro runs away from the kami (Image credit: Studio Ghibli)

Spirited Away tells the story of Chihiro, who is on a mission to save her parents after they are turned into pigs. Chihiro ends up working for Yubaba, an evil witch and the proprietor of the Aburaya bathhouse. Yubaba’s employees are bound to work in the bathhouse until they’re able to remember their real names. The bathhouse accommodates a throng of spirits (kami), both good and evil, based on the Japanese Shinto folklore.

Like many of Miyazaki’s films, a major theme in Spirited Away is a child’s symbolic journey into the world of adulthood. If we take a psychological view, the film can be read as a manifestation of Chihiro’s unconscious as she navigates the cold and frantic world of adulthood. 

The unconscious mind is basically the part of the mind that contains underlying feelings, thoughts and urges that influence conscious behaviour and emotions. Psychologist C.G. Jung determined the idea of archetypes. They’re symbolic images and thoughts that represent our psychology, manifested in dreams, literature or art.

Spirited Away is rich in these archetypes and symbolism, reflecting Chihiro’s growth and the subconscious workings of her psyche. Let’s take a look at some of the psychological revelations in the film.

(Spoilers for Spirited Away!)

The Divine Child Archetype

(Image credit: Studio Ghibli)

According to Jung, the child hero archetype represents one’s journey to deal with growing up. The divine child archetype is a child with extraordinary potential and is often the protagonist in myths and legends. 

In Spirited Away, Chihiro is the divine child. As she crosses the threshold into the spiritual realm, Chihiro is suddenly thrust into the adult world. Yubaba’s bathhouse is the symbol for this, with the hustle and bustle of the workers reminiscent of our own society. Chihiro struggles to figure her way around the bathhouse and the spirits, and to keep up with what’s needed of her. 

The divine child is often described as “smaller than small yet bigger than big”. What this means is that as a child, Chihiro is inexperienced and naive. Yet the divine child possesses a potential that sets her apart as the hero.

Chihiro fits this archetype perfectly. The other spirits working in the bathhouse are harsh towards her because she’s human, receiving little kindness from others except for Haku, Yubaba’s apprentice, and Lin, a worker in the batthouse. She’s given difficult tasks,  yet she puts on a strong face, because the only way she can save her parents is to follow Yubaba’s wishes. 

Chihiro tackles the stink spirit (Image credit: Studio Ghibli)

When the stink spirit (Okusare) enters the bathhouse, Yubaba throws the responsibility to take care of him to Chihiro, while everyone else just stands around to watch her. Eager to please Yubaba, Chihiro tackles this hurdle head on in spite of her inexperience, to the surprise of everyone. 

But she is still just a child. We often see Chihiro holding her tears in or crying her secret as she attempts to manage her responsibilities and her feelings. 

Chihiro crying during her break (Image credit: Studio Ghibli)

When Chihiro suddenly bursts into tears while she eats, Jung would consider this as her unconscious emotions rising to the surface. She’s been too busy to meet everyone’s expectations of her that she hasn’t had the chance to even feel sad or process her emotions.

This is particularly moving, as Miyazaki exposes a universal human weakness that everyone can relate to at some point. 

Subconsciously, these feelings that come with growing up are manifested in different ways. For Chihiro, they’re reflected through Yubaba’s bathhouse.

The Spirit Archetype 

Chihiro running away from the spirit, Kaonashi (Image credit: Studio Ghibli)

Now let’s look at an obvious element of Chihiro’s journey. Jung describes the spirit archetype as both helpful and evil energies that prompt the hero towards her purpose. The spirit archetype represents the contradictions and complexities of Chihiro’s psyche, which promote achieving “higher consciousness”. 

The spirit archetype is usually involved in psychic transformations of the hero. It’s interesting to note that Yubaba is reminiscent of other mythical spirits. When Yubaba turns into her half-bird form, she looks like a harpy. Harpies in greek mythology are fearsome half-bird, half-human hybrids, who steal food and people. 

Yubaba in her bird form (Image credit: Studio Ghibli)

Yubaba steals Chihiro’s name and calls her Sen, stripping Chihiro of her identity. This is similar to the psychological idea of diminution of personality, which means that one’s personality undergoes a drastic change. But this eventually ends with a transformation, kind of like a rebirth.

By the time she recovers her real name and is set free, Chihiro is now victorious.  She has grown from a fearful child to the hero of her own psyche. 

Yubaba is also similar to Baba Yaga, an evil witch in Slavic mythology. This evil witch is often sinister, but is sometimes seen as a benefactor to the hero’s cause. Like Jung’s description of the spirit archetype, she forces the hero to face the issue. Yubaba triggers Chihiro’s growth into adulthood by throwing challenges at the child hero. 

Chihiro and Haku (Image credit: Studio Ghibli)

While Yubaba is the embodiment of an evil spirit, Haku is the nurturing soul that supports the hero throughout her mission. Miyazaki alludes to Shinto folklore, where the dragon kami represents protection and loyalty.

A Hero’s Triumph

Chihiro is set free (Image credit: Studio Ghibli)

Chihiro overcomes her “mere human status” that everyone initially disregards her for, and not only succeeds in her mission to save her parents, but also becomes everyone’s saviour. Symbolically, Chihiro has overcome her unconscious emotions and fears, and has attained a higher consciousness that sets her apart from everyone else. 

Chihiro resisting entering the spirit world (Image credit: Studio Ghibli)

The world of Spirited Away is essentially a look into Chihiro’s psyche, as she evolves into her independence and the difficulties that come with growing up.

In the beginning, she feared entering the cave and crossing into the world of the kami. But by the end, she looks at that world longingly.

Chihiro looks back to the spirit world (Image credit: Studio Ghibli)

A comparison of the ending scene of the film to the opening reveals her growth from a child to a hero. Watching Chihiro’s journey gives us an insight into our own. And with this psychological view, it’s comforting to know that the challenges thrown our way is something everyone must contend with in our own ways. 

“The hero’s main feat is to overcome the monster of darkness: it is the long-hoped-for and expected triumph of consciousness over the unconscious.”

C.G. Jung

The beauty of Spirited Away is in its universality despite the fantastical atmosphere. Like Chihiro, we have all experienced some kind of subconscious transformation accompanied by challenges. Miyazaki’s film shows us the necessity of leaving our childhood behind, but also reminds us that the child hero will always live within us. 

Spirited Away is now (finally) available for streaming on Netflix.

Read more:

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