Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (2001) is often compared to Alice in Wonderland (1951). That isn’t without reason - both stories tell of a young girl who accidentally finds herself in a world of fantastic beasts and curious dangers, coming of age in unexpected ways. But where Alice receives her lessons about maturity and growing up through a dream, the adventure of Spirited Away’s Chihiro (Rumi Hiiragi) actually happens. What starts as a story about a little girl and her parents moving to a new town turns into a glorious story of friendship, hard work, and finding identity.
Chihiro is going through an identity crisis at the beginning of the film. She’s been taken away from her friend at the age just before puberty, pushed into a new setting, and expected to cope. She comes across as whiny and petulant so her eventual transition is even more poignant. When she finds herself separated from her parents and thrust into the fantastic world of the spiritual bath house and its otherworldly guests, she’s even stripped of her name and given a new one. Her entire identity as she’s known it has been removed, and she’s tasked with simultaneously restoring it and building a new one. When she re-emerges in the human world at the end of the film, her former name and identity are restored, but with new clarity about who she is and what she can handle. She’s found love, she’s found courage—and most important, she’s found herself.
When Chihiro first arrives at the bathhouse, she works the way a child who has never done labor works. She’s idle and lazy, thinking she’s contributing more than she is. She soon learns an idle life is a luxury of childhood and has no place in her present situation. When the massive, disgusting “stink spirit” arrives at the bathhouse, which the entire staff tries to turn away, Chihiro rises to the occasion and not only tends to his needs, but ends up revealing the true nature of the beast and saving him from an unwanted fate. This moment is a turning point in Chihiro’s evolution towards adulthood wherein she learns the value of work. The stink spirit, which was actually a polluted river spirit in need of cleansing, rewards Chihiro’s efforts by giving her a small magic ball.
Flixist writes, “Much like a college student graduating into a depressed economy where they’ve been promised a job, she comes kicking and fearful into the bath house unsure of what or where she is supposed to go. However, she eventually recognizes the issues with the culture of the place she is in and realizes that personal sacrifice and growth are the only way to change what is happening around her. Her maturation as a person is what the film believes society needs to do to move beyond where we are. While the film has a clear and obvious fascination with (if not love for) Japanese past, it’s Chihiro, a modern child, who must act to move the world forward.”
Chihiro is further challenged by No-Face, a seemingly harmless ghost who is invited into the bathhouse by Chihiro herself. But once inside, No-Face transforms from a docile, pouting spirit into something gluttonous and greedy. He begins to eat everyone and everything inside the bathhouse, and because he has the ability to generate what appears to be gold, all the bathhouse employees seek to cater to his whims. Chihiro is not seduced by the lust for gold that everyone else scrambles toward, nor is she threatened by No-Face’s monstrous self. Instead, she pities him, and feeds him the magic ball she received from the river monster (a trinket she thought may save her own parents) hoping it will help. This act purifies No-Face and turns him back into a submissive little ghost who follows Chihiro for the rest of the film. It also shows her blossoming self-control and selflessness —two qualities not typically descriptive of children.
The rest of the film is a rescue journey during which Chihiro stops worrying about herself, her former life, her personal problems, and sets out to help someone else. Her friend Haku (Miyu Irino), for whom she has developed powerful feelings, is hurt after stealing a magic talisman from the sister of Yubaba (Mari Natsuki), the bathhouse owner. Chihiro sets out on a dangerous journey to return the stolen item and save Haku. Her success not only leads to her freedom from the spirit world, but the freedom of Haku, who had been trapped by the bathhouse for so long he forgot his origins.
When the story returns to where it started, Chihiro reunites with her parents who are unaware any time has elapsed. Chihiro looks the same on the outside, but has grown and matured on the inside. The problems she felt so overwhelmed by at the beginning of the story—moving to a new town, going to a new school, making new friends—no longer seem like problems at all. Her perspective has matured, and she’s overcome her fears of beginning the transition to adulthood.