In Spirited Away, we see characters filled with obsessions. They are so into it that they would even surrender their names. Little do they know that, without their names, they can not get back to their original life.
Name Is the Anchor of Soul
In the film "Spirited Away," the loss and regaining of names play significant roles in the story. At the start of the movie, the main character goes by the name "Ogino Chihiro." However, after entering into a contract with the witch Yubaba, her name is taken away, and she spends the night unable to remember it. The next day, she remembers that Yubaba gave her a new name, "Sen," which becomes her new identity as an employee at Yubaba's bathhouse. This emphasizes the importance of names in the world of "Spirited Away" as a way to define one's identity. While people's names may change in the real world due to various life events, such as marriage, joining the military, or becoming a professor, Miyazaki highlights the idea of "name is attached to one’s identity" in the movie's world.
So, what message does Miyazaki want to convey through this setting? Let's take a look at another character, Haku.
The “good” Haku protecting Chihiro
“Good” Haku, “Bad” Haku
The male protagonist, Haku, was originally named Nigihayami Kohaku Nushi, which means Master of the Swift Amber River. In his eagerness to learn magic, he signed a contract with Yubaba, becoming her apprentice and submitting his name as a condition. With this, he gained a new identity as Yubaba's direct subordinate, but also became a thief who specialized in doing dirty jobs for her. It is worth noting that while Haku goes by Master Haku in the Bathhouse, he deliberately told Chihiro to simply call him Haku when they first met and avoided revealing his identity as Master Haku.
When other characters told Chihiro that Master Haku was a bad guy, she wondered if there were "two different Hakus" because the Haku she remembered was a good person who saved her and would never do bad things like Master Haku. Nevertheless, as the story progresses, we learn that Haku does indeed do bad things for Yubaba. Therefore, excluding the possibility of Haku having a split personality, the best explanation for this is that, like the protagonist Neo in The Matrix, Haku lives a double life.
The “bad” Haku, coming back from his mission.
Once we continue to reason backwards from this point, we can see that Miyazaki seems to suggest that the soul is originally innocent and it is the body that carrying guilt and sins. As name often directly refer to the body, the subtle difference between Haku and Master Haku separates the man into two distinct identity. There is a good Haku, who carries no guilt and sins, but only want Chihiro to remember the best of him, so he can be reshaped and reborn. At the same time, there is bad Haku, who avoids to be discovered by Chihiro, so the good Haku remain who he is in Chihiro's mind. This also explains why Haku wouldn’t like Chihiro to see him when he shifts into a dragon, because that is the identity that the bad Haku always perform.
Furthermore, it is evident that a distinction can be made between Chihiro, who has recovered her name, and Sen, who has forgotten it. Chihiro, having regained her name, values self-expression through her clothing and footwear. Upon departing the bathhouse, she invariably swaps her uniform for her original attire to "exchange" her identity as a bathhouse worker for that of her true self.
Soot Sprites, the small, fuzzy creatures that run in a line and work their tiny hearts away, helping Sen swap her shoes for her original attire.
As you may have noticed, Spirited Away is a story about Sen finding back her original name, Chihiro. However, what even more strikes me is that the original title of movie, which literally means Sen and Chihiro's Spiriting Away in Japanese, may suggest something so much more.
After Chihiro met Haku, or to be precise, after Sen met Haku, she fell in love with him and though she had already found her name back, she didn’t want to leave without him. Sen is Chihiro’s identity in bathhouse and also represents her memory in bathhouse. In this memory, there is a good Haku as she remembered. For an analogy, let’s say if someone got kidnapped and sold to a secret place, and he was given a nick name as a labour of that place, the last thing he wanted to remember when he got rescued should be the nick name. Chihiro doesn’t want to forget her life in the Bathhouse. Thus, the original title is actually suggesting that the story is about Chihiro uniting her two spirits together. One is her original self, and another is Sen, the one she used when she met the person she loves.
What a cute couple, aren’t they?
Spirited Away is a film that tells the weight of name. It is about Chihiro’s journey of finding back her original name and uniting it with a new nick name that carries a new memory worth remembering. How poetic and romantic! I couldn’t help to wonder what will happen if I lost my name, or what if I can no longer remember the name of my loved ones. As mentioned above, name is the anchor of our souls. It forges the shapes of the people we met so those shapes can carry meanings and remain in our memory. Without names, we may still remember what happened but probably fail to locate anything or anyone in the vague memory.
There is a distance between us and the world around us. Miyazaki has presented us that it is the names what bring us closer.