The monomyth is a narrative structure found throughout film and literature, described by Joseph Campbell. In my first post, I want to explore how Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (2001) applies the monomyth structure in its narrative.
Spirited Away is one of my favourite films, and with the end of Studio Ghibli possibly in sight, I thought it was an appropriate time to look back at Chihiro’s story and find out what makes it such a timeless adventure.
I’ll be using Wikipedia’s page on the monomyth (The Hero’s Journey) as a reference.
1.1. The Call to Adventure
“The hero begins in a mundane situation of normality from which some information is received that acts as a call to head off into the unknown.”
While taking a dubious shortcut through the forest, Chihiro’s family come across a mysterious gate.
1.2. Refusal of the Call
“Often when the call is given, the future hero first refuses to heed it. This may be from a sense of duty or obligation, fear, insecurity, a sense of inadequacy, or any of a range of reasons that work to hold the person in his or her current circumstances.”
Chihiro is clearly upset at the idea of exploring the gate. She initially refuses to follow her parents, but is more upset at the idea of staying behind alone.
1.3. Supernatural Aid
“Once the hero has committed to the quest, consciously or unconsciously, his guide and magical helper appears or becomes known. More often than not, this supernatural mentor will present the hero with one or more talismans or artifacts that will aid him later in his quest.”
Chihiro meets Haku in front of the bathhouse. He warns her to leave the spirit world before sundown, but her retreat is blocked by the newly formed lake. Haku gives her a magical berry to prevent her from vanishing.
1.4. Crossing the Threshold
“This is the point where the person actually crosses into the field of adventure, leaving the known limits of his or her world and venturing into an unknown and dangerous realm where the rules and limits are not known.”
Now that she is trapped in the spirit world, Haku helps Chihiro cross the bridge to the bathhouse. In order to stay hidden, she must hold her breath as she crosses.
1.5. Belly of the Whale
“The belly of the whale represents the final separation from the hero’s known world and self. By entering this stage, the person shows willingness to undergo a metamorphosis.”
Chihiro literally enters the belly of the bathhouse in the form of the boiler room. She demonstrates a willingness to work and earn a safe place in the spirit world.
Her metamorphosis takes place when Yubaba takes her name, transforming her into Sen and ending the first act of the film.
2.1. The Road of Trials
“The road of trials is a series of tests, tasks, or ordeals that the person must undergo to begin the transformation. Often the person fails one or more of these tests, which often occur in threes.”
“The hero is covertly aided by the advice, amulets, and secret agents of the supernatural helper whom he met before his entrance into this region.”
Sen first ventures outside to visit her parents, who have been transformed into pigs. She is comforted by Haku, her helper, who gives her advice and food. He also helps remind her of her true name, which she has already forgotten.
She struggles to keep up with the cleaning work in the bathhouse. She faces a major trial when she must clean the polluted river guardian.
2.2. The Meeting with the Goddess
“This is the point when the person experiences a love that has the power and significance of the all-powerful, all encompassing, unconditional love that a fortunate infant may experience with his or her mother. This is a very important step in the process and is often represented by the person finding the other person that he or she loves most completely.”
Sen sees a dragon being attacked by paper shikigami, and recognises it as Haku. She tries to comfort the wounded Haku, following him all the way to Yubaba’s chambers.
Eventually, she uses the magic dumpling given to her by the river guardian to heal Haku. Kamaji tells Lin that Sen is in love with Haku.
2.3. Woman as Temptress
“In this step, the hero faces those temptations, often of a physical or pleasurable nature, that may lead him or her to abandon or stray from his or her quest, which does not necessarily have to be represented by a woman. Woman is a metaphor for the physical or material temptations of life, since the hero-knight was often tempted by lust from his spiritual journey.”
While leaving the bathhouse, Sen comes across No-Face, who tries to tempt her with gold and other material items. She refuses, and gives No-Face the rest of the magic dumpling instead.
2.4. Atonement with the Father
“In this step the person must confront and be initiated by whatever holds the ultimate power in his or her life. In many myths and stories this is the father, or a father figure who has life and death power. This is the center point of the journey. All the previous steps have been moving into this place, all that follow will move out from it. Although this step is most frequently symbolized by an encounter with a male entity, it does not have to be a male; just someone or thing with incredible power.”
“One must have a faith that the father is merciful, and then a reliance on that mercy.”
Sen makes her way to the swamp, where she atones for Haku’s transgression by returning the stolen magic seal to Zeniba, a powerful witch.
“When someone dies a physical death, or dies to the self to live in spirit, he or she moves beyond the pairs of opposites to a state of divine knowledge, love, compassion and bliss. A more mundane way of looking at this step is that it is a period of rest, peace and fulfillment before the hero begins the return.”
Sen rests at Zeniba’s house, where she receives a special hair tie woven by her newfound friends.
Before she leaves, Sen also tells Zeniba her true name. No-Face stays with Zeniba, having finally found peace.
2.6. The Ultimate Boon
“The ultimate boon is the achievement of the goal of the quest. It is what the person went on the journey to get. All the previous steps serve to prepare and purify the person for this step, since in many myths the boon is something transcendent like the elixir of life itself, or a plant that supplies immortality, or the holy grail.”
On the way back to the bathhouse, Sen/Chihiro remembers Haku’s true name: Nigihayami Kohakunushi. With this revelation, Haku can finally earn his freedom from Yubaba’s control.
3.1. Refusal of the Return
“Having found bliss and enlightenment in the other world, the hero may not want to return to the ordinary world to bestow the boon onto his fellow man.”
Although Chihiro does not refuse to return to the human world, she does make Haku promise that they will meet again. She is also tempted to look back before entering the tunnel, but manages to resist.
Interestingly, the animation used when Chihiro’s family is returning to the human world is the same as when they first enter, complete with Chihiro nervously clutching her mother’s arm.
3.2. The Magic Flight
“Sometimes the hero must escape with the boon, if it is something that the gods have been jealously guarding. It can be just as adventurous and dangerous returning from the journey as it was to go on it.”
Jumping back a scene or two, Chihiro and Haku arrive at the bathhouse by flying there. Chihiro must pass Yubaba’s final test before she is allowed to leave. Haku’s freedom (the boon) is only truly realized when he tells Chihiro that he will quit his apprenticeship.
3.3. Rescue from Without
“Just as the hero may need guides and assistants to set out on the quest, oftentimes he or she must have powerful guides and rescuers to bring them back to everyday life, especially if the person has been wounded or weakened by the experience.”
Although only briefly mentioned, Haku is the one who warned Chihiro of Yubaba’s final test.
3.4. The Crossing of the Return Threshold
“The trick in returning is to retain the wisdom gained on the quest, to integrate that wisdom into a human life, and then maybe figure out how to share the wisdom with the rest of the world.”
Chihiro looks back through the tunnel after returning to the human world. We can only assume that such thoughts are on her mind.
3.5. Master of Two Worlds
“This step is usually represented by a transcendental hero like Jesus or Gautama Buddha. For a human hero, it may mean achieving a balance between the material and spiritual. The person has become comfortable and competent in both the inner and outer worlds.”
The last shot of Chihiro as she turns to join her parents in the car very deliberately flashes the hair tie she received from her friends in the spirit world. It can be seen as a symbol of the balance she has achieved; a keepsake from her adventure in the spirit world.
3.6. Freedom to Live
“Mastery leads to freedom from the fear of death, which in turn is the freedom to live. This is sometimes referred to as living in the moment, neither anticipating the future nor regretting the past.”
We have to assume that Chihiro has found this freedom, since the movie ends just at this point!
The English version of the film does have some additional dialog, with Chihiro assuring her parents that she can handle her new home and school.
It certainly seems to me that Spirited Away was written with the monomyth in mind. Aside from some minor deviations towards the end, it adheres very closely to the structure described by Campbell.
Is Spirited Away a good film because it follows the monomyth? Of course there’s more to it than that, but I think some part of its appeal comes from the use of such a classic myth structure.
If you’ve stumbled across this post and read this far, please take the time to watch or re-watch one of Studio Ghibli’s finest works.
Until next time, best regards from the constellation of Canes Venatici.