Through a Lens Darkly
Self-Sacrifice in Miyazaki's Spirited Away
Miyazaki's film presents its viewers with an embarrassment of riches. The conflict between Japanese customs and the advance of modernity is lurking just beneath the surface; there is a sense of fond wistfulness behind his pervasive use of traditional Japanese folkloric imagery (pdf). His representation of hard, honest labor as both necessary and ennobling is a too-seldom explored theme, as is the emptiness of the capitalistic, consumerist mentality of Chihiro's parents. The environmental concerns that underlie so many of Miyazaki's stories are found here, too, but their restraint is a key component in setting Spirited Away apart from its siblings. And the character of No-Face, concealing his true nature behind his traditional Noh mask, is a rich duality—at once representing how dramatically (and incontrovertibly) we are nurtured and shaped by those around us and how quickly our desire for adulation can grow parasitic and all-consuming. In No-Face we are reminded that the best way to rein in our ego is through self-denial, and an acceptance of our state in life.
Yet it is the transformation of Chihiro herself—and the reason behind that profound change—that stands out as the clearest and most important message in Spirited Away. We meet her as a selfish, self-centered young child: the unsurprising product of selfish and self-centered parents, and her first terrifying moments in the Spirit World are all the more difficult for her, precisely because she is so closed off and used to having her own way.
As her days in the bathhouse wear on, however, her motivations grow more clearly admirable. Her desire to rescue her parents, once inextricably linked to her wish to return home, is now driven by a desire for their safety and happiness. Her interaction with No-Face and the other bathhouse patrons grows more genuine. Even the moments spent with Yubaba and her henchmen grow more manageable, as Chihiro matures. And when the time comes for her to choose between her own safety and the life of her dear Haku, her decision is instantaneous and without self-consideration.
We all have a bit of the Selfish Chihiro in us, waging an endless battle against the urge to place our wants before the needs of those we love. But Miyazaki's masterpiece reminds us that we must never stop fighting that urge—that it is only in subsuming our desires to the will of Another that we will find true freedom.
It seems that we can always do with a bit more spiriting away.
Joseph Susanka has been doing development work for institutions of Catholic higher education since his graduation from Thomas Aquinas College in 1999. He blogs at Crisis Magazine, where he also contributes feature articles on a variety of topics.