Features and Columns · Movies

Growing Pains: Names, Autonomy, and the Changing Self in ‘Spirited Away’

A liminal journey through the spirit realm by any other name would smell as sweet…
Spirited Away
Studio Ghibli
By  · Published on June 16th, 2021

Welcome to The Queue — your daily distraction of curated video content sourced from across the web. Today, we’re watching a video essay on the metaphor of names and identity in Spirited Away.

As in folk tales and some forms of magical thinking, in Spirited Away, names have great power. Within the context of Hayao Miyazaki’s 2001 film, names are an essential part of the self. The fiercely capitalistic Yubaba deprives her employees of their true identities to control them. Chihiro’s memory of her human name is what keeps her bound to the land of the living. No-Face’s lack of identity leaves them wandering and insatiable, consuming everything in sight in a desperate bid to feel whole.

But, as the video essay below suggests, this perceived correlation between naming and understanding undercuts the film’s more porous stance on identity and selfhood. Namely: that change, be it of oneself or of one’s home, is inevitable. At its core, Spirited Away is a coming-of-age story about a teenage girl who feels her sense of identity crumbling during a big transitional phase in her life: a move to the suburbs. As the video essay notes, we never see where Chihiro is coming from or where she’s going. We meet her in this liminal, in-between zone — where, fittingly, she stumbles into the spirit realm.

Chihiro’s real-world fears of leaving her old self behind are mirrored in her new, fantastical plight to reclaim her and her parents’ autonomy.  Of course, Chihiro ultimately succeeds in returning to her own plane of existence. But when she does, she is not the same melancholic, immature girl we met at the beginning of the film. As permanent or as powerful as your name may feel, you, yourself, are in flux. And the identities and autonomies we choose and check in on are just if not more nurturing than the ones that we inherit. 

Watch “Spirited Away: What’s in a Name“:

Who Made This?

This video is about names in Spirited Away is by Grace Lee. We’ve covered their work on FSR before and with good reason: they’re an expert at tackling dense and challenging content with a keen eye, elegant flourish, and overwhelming cultural fluency. You can follow Lee on their YouTube channel What’s So Great About That? here. You can follow Lee on Twitter here. And you can support Lee on Patreon here.

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Based in the Pacific North West, Meg enjoys long scrambles on cliff faces and cozying up with a good piece of 1960s eurotrash. As a senior contributor at FSR, Meg's objective is to spread the good word about the best of sleaze, genre, and practical effects.