Hayao Miyazaki’s beloved 2001 fantasy masterpiece Spirited Away has maintained its hold over audiences to this day, making it one of the most iconic animated films of all time, and one of Studio Ghibli’s most recognized works. Part of what has made the film so memorable—and such an inspiration to fans of all ages—is its wondrous characters and world-building.
On top of enchanting those who view it, though, there is also a side of danger to the movie that inspires fear. The stakes of the plot are made clear from the very beginning, as protagonist Chihiro’s life is at risk in the Spirit Realm. Surrounded by new and frightening creatures, Chihiro’s quest to survive mirrors the plight of many horror movie characters.
Updated on December 27th, 2022 by Stacie Rook: Upcoming Studio Ghibli movie How Do You Live, from Spirited Away’s director Hayao Miyazaki, has finally been given a release date (via ScreenRant) and is set for release in Japan on July 14th, 2023. This date marks a decade since Miyazaki’s last feature, The Wind Rises, which came out in 2013.
Haku’s Many Papercuts
Not many child-friendly films are as gruesome as Spirited Away. Not only is Haku mistreated as Yubaba’s servant, having had his name stolen by her, but he is also placed under attack when Yubaba’s twin sister Zeniba tries to get revenge on Haku for him stealing her golden seal.
She does so by sending thousands of paper Shikigami to give Haku the “a thousand cuts” punishment. Haku is seen writhing about in pain in the air in his dragon form, while being attacked by a cloud of paper creatures, greatly injuring him, as Chihiro watches on, helpless.
Falling Down The Stairs
As one of the best Studio Ghibli movies, Spirited Away perfectly captures the plight of its young protagonist. One of the first challenges Chihiro faces in the Spirit Realm is having to traverse an immense, rickety wooden staircase, off the side of which is a deadly drop.
In a highly tense sequence where Chihiro makes her way to find the Boilerman, she nervously steps down the large stairs one by one, moving carefully until a step breaks beneath her foot, prompting her to fall and be forced into an out-of-control run down the entire long flight of steps. It’s a scene that shows the dangers of the environment, and Chihiro’s unsettled place within it.
The Harpy With Yubaba’s Face
An unsettling foe to come across, it’s easy to imagine the Harpy—one of Yubaba’s henchmen that also bears her face—being able to star in its very own creature feature.
One of the best spirits and creatures from Spirited Away, the Harpy is introduced as a way to foreshadow Yubaba’s power and control over the Bathhouse and appears when Haku first protects Chihiro. It flies about scouring the grounds much like a vulture would, though understanding its position as henchmen, it’s really looking for anyone acting out of line, and scarily implies that the Bathhouse’s inhabitants are always being watched.
The Three Grunting Heads / The Kashira
Three green-skinned heads that act as Yubaba’s vague-minded henchmen, the Kashira are one of many Spirited Away characters with mythological origins, and are based on Japanese Daruma dolls.
In their first appearance, the Kashira approach Chihiro as she arrives at Yubaba’s office, grunting and hopping about, causing her to unsurprisingly start screaming. The heads are over-sized, and unsettlingly, they are unable to speak, causing Chihiro much anguish as they surround her.
Environmental Horror Of The Stink Spirit
The Stink Spirit represents multiple things in the story of Spirited Away. Mistreatment of the environment led Miyazaki to create the character, a massive spirit that is not only daunting because of its constant oozing, and odor horrible enough to spoil any nearby foods, but also as a memorial to all the dirtied ecosystems in the world.
After the Stink Spirit is cleansed and healed, its true form is revealed, but the horror of what it stands for in the real world can not so easily be fixed.
Yubaba Threatens To Turn Chihiro Into A Pig
After witnessing what happened to her parents, and coming across the many pigs that may have been people once, Yubaba’s threat to transform Chihiro is very real to her. Chihiro is told by Yubaba that she will be given a chance to work for her, but if she steps out of line, complains, or is reported for anything, Yubaba will turn her into a pig just like her parents.
For a scared ten-year-old who has never worked in her life, the odds don’t seem to be in her favor, particularly in a strange Realm that has its own set of rules. Later on, after being taken in by Lin as a sort of apprentice, Chihiro understandably has a nervous stomachache, and cannot sleep due to this worry.
The Theme Of Loss Of Innocence
One of the most memorable Studio Ghibli characters of all time, Chihiro endures a life-changing character arc over the course of the movie. Themes of maturity and a loss of innocence are clear. Chihiro is forced to grow up and accept her reality, deciding to take a hold of it instead of letting it consume her, thanks not only to her own will but also the effort of her friends.
Yubaba takes Chihiro’s name and replaces it, meaning to completely rewrite her identity, and gain control over her, as she’s done to many other workers. Chihiro almost forgets her true name soon after the deal is made, a chilling look at how brutal Yubaba and the Spirit Realm can be.
Yubaba’s Giant Baby
Yubaba’s giant, spoiled baby Boh is teased at the beginning of the film, heard throwing a huge tantrum that seems to have an impact on even the forceful and powerful Yubaba.
Boh kicks his mother in the face, throws things about, and nearly crushes everything in sight, wearing the witch down. When Chihiro finally meets the baby, he persists in using her as a toy as they hide under a mound of pillows. He threatens to scream and break Chihiro’s arm if she leaves, putting her in a dangerous and frightening situation.
Chihiro’s Parents Turn Into Pigs
In a horrifying scene that kicks off Chihiro’s nightmarish descent into the Spirit Realm, her parents are consumed by the idea of eating food left out in the seemingly empty park grounds, which is later revealed to be offerings for the spirits.
When the parents come across the delicious-looking food, they start eating excessive amounts, leaving Chihiro to her own devices. When she comes back for them, they turn around to reveal that they have been turning into bloated, squealing, giant pigs.
Though he is a beloved character, No-Face is also a sinister aspect of Spirited Away. First seen skulking in the grounds, an outsider to the bathhouse who is forbidden to enter, he often watches Chihiro, his intentions unknown. When Chihiro shows No-Face kindness by letting him inside during a rainy night, he begins his tirade of consumption and false-wealth.
No-Face’s design is strange and uncanny, as the mask-face doesn’t seem to be his real face. The face can change to match No-Face’s expression, but his mouth actually lies under the mask, used to the fullest extent after he’s eaten multiple beings in order to acquire their traits, in a quest to satisfy his immense hunger.