In the spirit of full disclosure, I did not grow up a ravenous anime connoisseur, as so many of my fellow animation geeks. I enjoyed some shows that were anime without really noticing that they were (like Rainbow Brite and TMNT), but I didn’t watch much Pokemon, Yu-gi-oh!, or Dragon Ball Z (much to my husband’s chagrin.) I did see Spirited Away the year it won the Academy Award and I, to be perfectly honest, did not get it. So much more fantastical and bizarre than what I was used to, I wrote it off as “weird.” Yet, I always knew there was something great I was missing–whether because the whole world was raving about it or from some inherent awesome-story-detector deep inside me, I’m not sure. In any case, it is now one of my favorite animated films, and Chihiro is one of the most interesting, admirable characters ever depicted–on-screen or in print.
NUMBER 5: Chihiro Ogino
(Spirited Away, 2001)
As I watched this film again in preparation for this article, I was struck by the diametric contrast between the universality of Chihiro’s dilemma at the beginning of the film (moving to a new place) and the absolutely fantastic situation she gets in when she enters the spirit world. The magical story, over-the-top characters and dark setting are really only ornamentation for what is a supremely heartfelt and well-done coming-of-age story about innocent, brave Chihiro. Her remarkable character progression is nevertheless believable because Miyazaki establishes her so well in the beginning of the film. She is scared, but with the unmistakably childlike wonder that gives her almost supernatural bravery. Her English voice is done by Daveigh Chase, who also voiced another character on my top ten list–Lilo. She brings a similar note of innocence mixed with incredulity and spunk to Chihiro.
There are some similarities to the plots of Spirited Away and Alice in Wonderland, with the twist of Chihiro’s parents being the ones to “follow the white rabbit” to the magical land. Chihiro’s tale offers us more character development of our protagonist, while Alice seems more to be placed in a whimsical world for whimsy’s sake. There are also similarities to Peter Pan, like how the Darling children’s escape to Neverland helping them cope with Wendy leaving the nursery may be compared to Chihiro’s adventure helps her accept having to move.
Yet still, little Chihiro is very much her own character and her tale is very distinct from even those Miyazaki films that seem most similar. One could compare little Sen (Chihiro) to the other young children Studio Ghibli has portrayed throughout their career, and there certainly are parallels, but it’s clear that the resounding success of Spirited Away is due mostly to the lovable, courageous, purely good leading lady. Not to take from Miyazaki, but it didn’t hurt that John Lasseter was in charge of the writing and dubbing for the English version of the film, either.
There’s so much more I could say about Chihiro and this beautiful, dark, enchanting film, but let me just conclude with–go see it if you haven’t and go see it again if it’s been a while. This film is very much like a fine wine that may strike the palette as just “too much” at first whiff, but which soon will be haunting your memory, making you long for just one more taste. (Available on Blu-ray June 16th).