For those of you that don’t know, Chihiro is the main character of the 2001 film, Spirited Away. The plot starts when Chihiro and her family move to a new town and get lost on the way there. They take a quick detour into what looks like an abandoned theme park, Chihiro’s parents turn into pigs and it just gets weirder from there. The film was a smash hit, winning several awards as well as becoming the highest-grossing film in Japanese history. It’s one of Miyazaki’s most famous works – and Chihiro is at the centre of all this.
But does she measure up to the hype? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!
- Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?
Chihiro starts the film being led along by other people: whether that’s her parents wanting to explore the theme park or Haku telling her how she can survive it. She’s on unfamiliar territory and has to do what other people tell her to in order to survive.
However, as the film goes on she quickly finds her feet. She soon realises that doing what she’s told won’t get her what she really wants – which is to rescue her parents and go home. She saves Haku from the paper birds (which is more difficult than it sounds), draws No-Face away from the bathhouse that turns him into a greedy monster, and sets off to return a magic talisman to a witch. By the time the film is over, she’s not only in control of her own destiny but of a few other people’s – such as her parents, who she’s rescued, and Haku, who she’s freed from the witch’s control. She definitely passes this round.
SCORE SO FAR: 1
- Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?
We don’t hear a lot about her hobbies but Chihiro’s goals and beliefs are pretty clear. She wants to turn her parents back into people and bring them home, free Haku from the witch Yubaba’s control, and not get eaten. As far as her beliefs go, she clearly doesn’t think much of material things as she doesn’t take No-Face’s gold, she wants to do the right thing as she returns the witch’s talisman, and quite clearly doesn’t want to mess with things she doesn’t understand.
SCORE SO FAR: 2
- Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?
Chihiro is a pretty consistent character. She’s kind, cautious, polite and occasionally boisterous, but also capable of being very brave and is well in touch with her instincts. Her personality does change over the course of the film – she gets a lot braver – but this is more the result of her experiences than to meet the demands of the plot. I’ll give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 3
- Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?
A cautious young girl must learn to survive in a magical world while she tries to rescue her parents.
SCORE SO FAR: 4
- Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?
Chihiro does have something of a love life – she has a very sweet, innocent crush on Haku. Most of the time Haku is a boy her age, but sometimes he’s a dragon and he’s actually the spirit of a river she fell into as a child. Love is complicated.
Chihiro’s feelings for Haku do certainly affect her decisions, but not all of them. She goes to return the talisman so she can save him from the witch’s wrath, and sets him free because she cares for him, but most of her decisions are influenced by her desire to turn her parents human again and see them safely home. This is what really motivates her and propels her through the story, so I’ll give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 5
- Does she develop over the course of the story?
Chihiro goes through an incredible amount of development over the course of the story. She goes from being a very cautious, almost cowardly young girl to a much more mature, brave and self-sufficient character. As the film progresses she becomes less phased by strange appearances, more independent and much more clear-headed in a crisis.
SCORE SO FAR: 6
- Does she have a weakness?
Chihiro’s biggest weakness is how overly cautious she can be. She gets so easily scared that she goes completely to pieces. This is something that she manages to overcome as the film progresses, and it quite clearly takes some work.
By the time the film ends, she still gets scared, but she’s learned to deal with her fears when she has something more important to deal with.
SCORE SO FAR: 7
- Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?
Chihiro drives the plot forward at every turn. Whether she’s bargaining to save her parents, letting No-Face into the bathhouse, or returning the witch’s talisman, Chihiro’s actions and decisions have a real and tangible impact on the plot.
SCORE SO FAR: 8
- How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?
Chihiro’s character doesn’t depend on gender stereotypes. She’s allowed to be a little bratty, she’s at the centre of the action, and she saves the people she cares about using her own wits. In fact, Chihiro’s story draws on the idea of the hero’s journey – a plotline which is more usually reserved for male characters.
The result of all this is that she just feels like her own person. She’s got a nice mix of traditionally feminine traits (such as her kindness, good manners and devotion to her family) and more masculine elements (such as her bravery, resourcefulness and the very ‘epic’ nature of her storyline). These are always the most believable kinds of characters – whether male or female.
SCORE SO FAR: 9
- How does she relate to other female characters?
Chihiro has plenty of relationships with other female characters, and what’s nice is that these relationships develop as the film progresses. She’s initially a little scared of Lin, a bathhouse worker, but the two eventually become close and have a relationship that’s something like one between sisters.
She starts off afraid of the witch Yubaba, but eventually stands up to her. She also starts out afraid of the witch Zeniba, but when she actually gets to know her they become friendly, and work together to help Chihiro get her family away from Yubaba. Even her relationship with her mother changes – she starts out frustrated and very much in a childlike role; as the film progresses their roles reverse, and Chihiro is forced to take care of both her parents in a much more adult way. She definitely passes this round!
FINAL SCORE: 10/10
Congratulations, Miyazaki! Chihiro is a well-rounded character with a range of strengths, weaknesses, goals and beliefs. She is neither defined by her love life nor by gender stereotypes, she develops over the course of the story, and her actions and decisions have a real impact – both on the plot and on her own life. She is just great.
Next week, I’ll be looking at a show credited with reviving interest in vampire stories, so get your fangs out for True Blood. Sookie, I’m coming for you.
And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.