The ending of Spirited Away is densely packed — even for a Miyazaki film ending. (Looking at you, Howl.)

Japanese animated films often have short, swift endings where a lot of storylines can be wrapped up in a dizzyingly short timeframe.

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This tendency is especially true for creators as well-versed in traditional Japanese storytelling structure as Miyazaki is.

No wonder that endings of anime are a significant entry on the các mục of things that baffle Western critics (and viewers) of Japanese animation.

What just happened?” – most people around me in the cinema, 2002

Hayao Miyazaki is a master of the swift storyline wrap-up (among the many other things he’s the master of), và he seems to open more and more storylines with each new film — & who knows, maybe he’s doing it partly just to lớn see how many he can fit in và resolve in a single film.

Whatever the reason, it’s clear that the later the Miyazaki film, the more balls it keeps in the air at any one time, & when you add up the number of elements making up Spirited Away’s over sequence, there’s a lot.

From the point that Chihiro steps out of Zeniba’s cabin, we witness:

Chihiro và Haku’s reunion,Kaonashi’s character wrap-up,Chihiro reconnecting with her early childhood memory,Haku’s true identity revealed,Chihiro’s final test & release from her work contract,Boh’s character development, Yuubaba’s character development and Haku’s character development all covered in a couple lines of dialogue each,the fate of Chihiro’s parents resolved,Chihiro’s farewell khổng lồ Haku,her reunion with her parents & the trek back khổng lồ our world,taking a last glimpse of the tunnel,and finally starting off towards her new life, having learnt her lessons from the film.

If you think back lớn your last viewing of the film, how long would you say these 14 different bits of plot resolution take up of the 2-hour runtime?

20 minutes? 15? 12?

Nope — it’s a whopping 7 minutes.

That’s the patented Miyazaki Storytelling Density™ at work, y’all.

No time for tea, I gotta get back before the film ends!

Each of these elements is interesting on their own và I want khổng lồ eventually cover them all on this blog. But for now, there’s one specific element I want lớn focus on.

It holds huge mythological importance, ties into many things outside of the film, và reveals a lot about how Miyazaki thinks of storytelling as well as adapting old myths for a modern age.

And I start with this topic as it came in the form of question from Reham, who sent it in to the Moon Rabbit Hotline. Here’s her question:

Hi Adam, I wondered about the kết thúc of Spirited Away. In your opinion, why would Haku tell Chihiro not to lớn turn around when she’s about lớn leave khổng lồ her family? Thank you.

I love this question because it points lớn a very interesting tiny detail that, in turn, contains a lot of thought and a lot of background to lớn unpack.

I originally sat down khổng lồ write a simple straightforward answer khổng lồ this, but ended up down many a rabbit hole.

So today, let’s follow the moon rabbit on a tour of ancient myths from Greece through the Middle East to lớn India before returning to japan to connect ancient & modern và see how a millenia-old storytelling element is turned upside down — & why.


A long history of ‘Don’t look back’

As anyone who’s seen even just one Miyazaki film knows two things:

He’s well-versed in various mythological systems from around the world, andHe loves putting in mythical elements that are shared across several cultures throughout history.

​(By the way, #2 is one of the reasons why Ghibli films resonate so well with audiences outside of Japan, even though these films are conceived with Japanese audiences in mind.)

Asking someone not to look back as they leave a place is a very specific motif that comes up in a number of mythological stories quite separate from each other, from Orpheus going to get Eurydice from the Ancient Greek underworld, to trò chơi izanagi going khổng lồ get Izanami from the underworld in Japanese creation mythology, to Lot’s family being told not lớn look back at the city of Sodom as they flee in the book of Genesis in the Old Testament.

​So you can see that’s already quite a wide-ranging array of cultures that this exact request of “don’t look back” pops up, even if the circumstances và outcomes are different in each story.

Trials of initiation

​The stories of Izanagi & Izanami, Orpheus & Eurydice, and Lot & his wife all belong to the “trials of initiation” story type, which simply means that the nhân vật of the story has lớn undergo a trial.

The anh hùng can pass the trial and gain something: a quest reward, an acceptance into a group, a spiritual experience or knowledge.

They can also fail the trial and face dire consequences: thua thảm the ability khổng lồ reach their goal, get booted out of the mystical place they were in or, in some cases, die. Anh hùng quests are not without risk!

​One of the most known, slightly related, initiation failure storyline is in the Ancient Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh, where Gilgamesh is not told to not look back but is told instead not to lớn go khổng lồ sleep. It sounds easy, so he takes the challenge.

Long story short, he does fall asleep và loses his chance at immortality — a quest he also embarked on because of the death of a loved one, lượt thích Orpheus and Izanagi.

​Interestingly, in each of the “don’t look back” trials I mentioned above, at least one character fails the test:

Lot’s wife turns around lớn look back at the destruction of Sodom — and turns into a pillar of salt.Orpheus looks back immediately when leaving the underworld lớn see if Eurydice was indeed following him — & loses the chance of being reunited.Izanagi looks at Izanami because he doesn’t want to accept that his wife now belongs to lớn the underworld (although in this story there was no quest condition that would have actually led to game izanagi getting Izanami back to life).
We only know what happened because of the field photographer who happened to be there on the day.

The “one direction” rule

The key lớn understanding these stories and their relation to lớn the modern example of Spirited Away is that all of the stories above have an element of directionality: the heroes are going in one direction, và there’s another direction that is forbidden.

This bit is shared with other types of stories that don’t have the explicit “don’t look back” trope show up, so may give us close lớn what these stories hint at as meaning.

In one Hindu mythological story, death god Yama takes young prince Satyavan’s soul as part of a prophecy foretelling his early death. However, Satyavan’s holy-level devoted wife Savitri basically goes “yeah, how about no”.

Savitri, Satyavan và Yama by M. V. Dhurandhar, 1924.

Even for Death, there is one rule: Yama must not turn back when he’s transporting someone khổng lồ the realm of the dead. Yama knows this. Savitri knows this — but she’s also adamant.

So Savitri follows Yama into the underworld, pestering him with praise và philosophical insights và eventually wearing him down with some how-to-fool-the-genie-into-giving-you-more-wishes type logic. This makes Yama turn back, giving Savitri a chance khổng lồ retrieve her husband’s soul.

In this story, there is no explicit trial — but there is the same directionality. Here it’s the death god who is defeated và so it is he who must turn back, away from the direction of the underworld, & towards the direction of the living, granting life.

The meaning of looking-back tests

I personally think these initiation trials are about spiritual resolve.

Can you go based on trust and do the thing you need khổng lồ do, or will you be bogged down và succumb khổng lồ the power of human emotion? Can you be in control of your desires or will your desires take over?

The few who win this kind of test, lượt thích Savitri, vày so because they’re so holy they are way beyond earthly desire and their attachment is so pure that even gods can’t disagree with them.

In the more common poetic/melancholic stories have the heroes fail, và by doing so they ultimately reveal the humanity of these characters và that it’s hard as a human being not to size an attachment khổng lồ other people, or to lớn our home — which makes me think of Lot’s wife’s punishment as a bit harsh by today’s standards.

But it’s also to do with whether we can acknowledge the directionality principle in our lives: that while we’re không tính phí to move about in space, the same is not true for time. We cannot turn back time, & we cannot go back to lớn the past. Apart from some very rare cases, motion goes one way.

In this sense, one possible moral shared by these stories is that forming too strong of an emotional attachment khổng lồ the past will make us thua our focus in life, depriving ourselves from a connection with our present and the ability khổng lồ build a future.

Looks like this meme is highly applicable to this story.

Spirited Away & the mythological underworld

​​So how does this all tie into Spirited Away?

Well, Spirited Away specifically and deliberately evokes these stories, và because of that, we can draw parallels between what happens in the original stories versus what changes Miyazaki makes when he builds his own story.

The film’s beginning, very much a callback to My Neighbor Totoro’s first scene, finds the main character already on a journey – in a moving vehicle driving towards the main physical space that the story will take place in. But the mood of this beginning is very much unlike Totoro’s.


In Totoro, the two main characters, Satsuki and Mei, feel lượt thích they’re on a big adventure. Even though they only have a general idea of where they’re going, they’re eating candy, curiously glancing out at their new environment, và getting into active play as soon as they arrive, while Jo Hisaishi’s music sets up a film of curiosity and childlike imagination.

In short, these kids can’t wait to get there.

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Meanwhile, in her film’s introduction, Chihiro is just… meh.

We find Chihiro completely resigned to lớn the situation she’s in. She’s already gone through the packet of off-brand Pocky, and the flowers she’s holding on to are almost wilted. Và Hisaishi’s choice of music for this scene is not uplifting, but rather evokes a sense of melancholy.

While Chihiro does not look back from the beginning of the oto ride that we see, she isn’t inclined khổng lồ look forward either. She only gets up to look out from the oto when specifically prompted to, with mixed results.

When we view the film through the lens of movement, this is our starting point. Chihiro starts out from a position of movement, but she is completely passive in that movement. She is not going, she is being taken.

Which brings us back lớn the base mythological story function that Joseph Campbell called the “psychological function”, & is more commonly referred lớn as liminal stories. These are the myths (and associated rites depending on the culture) that, writes Campbell, “carry the individual through the stages of his life”, và many times, they involve trials, initiations, và symbolic or literal death and rebirth.

In Spirited Away, the world of the bathhouse is a sort of otherworld or underworld & acts both as a liminal space for Chihiro – who is at the brink between childhood và adolescence – as well as a deterrent space for those who are not ready for transformation.

The world of the bathhouse is a place where humans aren’t supposed khổng lồ be, but they can travel there, và they can use it as a place of transformation, but can also get stuck if they’re not careful.

Stuck in the underworld

Now, “getting stuck in an underworld” is a sub-trope of its own, & Chihiro’s parents are a good example of people accidentally entering a non-human space unprepared & messing up bigtime.

The parents literally fail the very first test, “don’t gorge yourself on other people’s food without being invited lớn eat“, which arguably is a much easier chạy thử than “don’t look back towards the thing you have an emotional attachment to“.

Chihiro winds up in the place not out of her own wish, but does realise pretty quickly that while she doesn’t want khổng lồ be in this inbetween space, she is already there & must adapt lớn survive.

The reason she is the anh hùng of the story và a model for us to lớn follow is that she does over up fully accepting the journey, learning how this special world works, và earning her way through và out of it.

The Bathhouse: Underworld or Otherworld?

A quick aside. I’ve been using underworld & otherworld interchangeably throughout this text, và that is for our reasons in this article we’re talking about any world that is non-human that humans can temporarily enter.

That said, the exact spatial relationship of different worlds is a super interesting question when you’re trying to lớn figure out cosmologies or khổng lồ get a sense of how a culture organises what relation things are to lớn each other. So whether a place is specifically an underworld (literally below ours) or an otherworld (in a parallel space with ours) is again something that depends on the specific mythological worldbuilding.

This is one place where you can see Spirited Away using a mixture of mythologies.

Since Japanese culture is built on the ancient mythologies of Shinto, it does have some vertical spatiality. Yomi, the land of the dead is technically beneath the Earth, which we know from the time of the 8th Century Kojiki. There’s apparently a big boulder blocking one entrance in Izumo province, & there’s another place where the seas all enter the earth.

However, Shinto as a whole considers our world và the world of the kami as parallel. Since The Bathhouse is a place for all sorts of spirits lớn visit, it’s spacially on the same level as where Chihiro and her parents get out of the car. It is separated from human space by many things: the tunnel, the waiting room, the riverbed, the restaurant area, & the bridge.

While we bởi venture into “souls of what are possibly humans” territory in the train sequence, that is actually a very big drop below The Bathhouse, so overall I’m inclined to điện thoại tư vấn the place Chihiro enters an otherworld rather than an underworld.

The Haku connection

Unlike her parents, Chihiro doesn’t fail the very first test và instinctively pushes forward & seeks out help, which is how Haku becomes her guide from the beginning.

The eventual proof of Chihiro’s adeptness in the otherworld comes in the third act of the film, when Haku gets gravely injured — at this point, Chihiro becomes Haku’s helper in the same way Haku became her’s in the beginning of the story.

This way, Chihiro returns the favour by helping out Haku who, we also learn, is yet another person who ventured into this liminal space and got stuck. Haku’s story is not the same as that of Chihiro’s parents, but with the same result: he’s unable lớn move on from until he gets help.

(A sidenote, but the help comes through eating, which is a recurring theme in the film that I mentioned in my introductory video.)

But at the over of the story, Haku is inherently a being whose home is the otherworld as much as Chihiro inherently belongs to lớn the human world. This means that he’s also the person that she cannot take with her when she leaves.

Rules of underworld travel

​​​On the surface, the vi xử lý core of underworld-visiting stories is always some sort of divine being setting the rule (Hades in the Greek story, Izanami in the Japanese story, God in the Old Testament story), and you gotta follow the rule because it’s a divine being setting the rule. So that’s part of it as well — can you follow divine instruction?

In Spirited Away, there’s no all-knowing divine entity who is the absolute ruler of that domain, knows everything and enforces the rules. (Again an element that strengthens the argument that Chihiro has ventured through to the general Shinto otherworld of the kamis, và is going from place lớn place within that space.)

But there is Haku, who has been her guide from the beginning, & is technically a river god. So at this last moment, he steps back into that role of advisor khổng lồ say “Don’t look back”. It’s not his rule, it’s not anyone’s rule – it’s how this world works.

We could let this go here and say, well, Chihiro is told not khổng lồ look back because that’s how it is in mythologies, & it’s a direct reference to that.

However, Miyazaki doesn’t vị superficial references. He makes references only when they have something specific to lớn say in the context of the story.

I think for Chihiro, the trial is being able khổng lồ leave this place without the emotional attachment that would not let her move on in her life.

And in this scene, Haku becomes the personified symbol of the possibility of emotional attachment. ​

The question is, does Chihiro associate her journey’s goal with having reunited with Haku, or is she able khổng lồ recognise that helping Haku restore his memory was one of the things she did as part of her quest but not a sign that she should khung a permanent attachment, taking the spiritual learnings with her into her human life?

​The entire story of Spirited Away is about Chihiro’s maturation & coming-of-age so Miyazaki calls back lớn these stories khổng lồ show that Chihiro actually has learned all the things she needed to, and is ready lớn move on. Và she does.

The symbolism of Chihiro’s hair band

There’s one last piece of the puzzle, & that’s delivered through an innocuous late-stage object in the film: Chihiro’s harid band.

It’s a general rule in mythologies that humans can’t stay indefinitely in otherworlds without consequences — unless they permanently want lớn leave their human existence. It’s a trope of its own that we can discuss at another time.

What Chihiro is able khổng lồ take with her from her time in the otherworld is the experience và the knowledge of how to lớn live well & the qualities of working together with friends. This is symbolised by the hair band that Boh, Kaonashi and Yubaba’s harpy servant weave for her in Zeniba’s cabin. The hair band perfectly encapsulates her learning and that notion is deeper than her actual physical connection to lớn the space.

By now you know that Miyazaki never accidentally puts things in his films. So it might not be surprising at this point that a hair piece also features in the Izanagi-Izanami story, where game izanagi takes off & throws hiw hair band (then made of vines) lớn the ground because he leaves the underworld while having khổng lồ escape from the fury of Izanami.

This element in the story gets its own reversal in Spirited Away: Izanagi loses a hair ornament, và Chihiro gains one. A seemingly tiny but significant change, to me this symbolises that while izanagi needs khổng lồ leave the underworld in a chaotic manner, failing his quest, lesson unlearned, Chihiro leaves her underworld in a peaceful manner, trials passed, lesson learned.

In fact, the art of silk braiding is an ancient Japanese art form called kumihimo. Making silk braids is not a ceremonial act itself, but braids have traditionally been connected with religious ceremonies through their use as ornaments in matsuri equipment, for tea ceremony containers, temple decorations & so on. In the Heian Period, it was actually Buddhist monks who would create most of the braiding. Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name greatly expands on the kumihimo concept and goes even deeper in the symbolism of weaving things together & how weaving can represent a khung of connection between people and throughout time.

This way, the hair band comes to lớn literally tie up everything we’ve talked about before. It represents the memories & the experience that she has gone through, but it is also reminder khổng lồ us that the real value of a place is not staying in that place – and a value of a time spent with others is not in trying to extend that time indefinitely. When your time spent somewhere or with someone has come to its natural end, you can actively choose lớn let it go — & by doing so, you can move on without getting stuck.

How Chihiro passes her trial

So the very short answer lớn the question we embarked on in the very beginning, Chihiro doesn’t look back because she learned her lessons.

​And we know she’s learned her lessons, because we get two shots of the hair band that she got.

The first time, she almost turns back but doesn’t.

The second time in the very last scene, she does look back at the tunnel, but she’s already out of the otherworld so she’s allowed to look back now & reflect on her journey: even though that world is no longer available for her, the real value — the teachings — she takes with herself.

This makes the end of Spirited Away remind me of a previous Miyazaki film, Castle in the Sky, which ends on a similar takeaway: the film’s central heroes are unable khổng lồ stay in the mystical place they found, và they don’t take any treasures from it — the real value was in the spiritual experience they have lived through. (For a full discussion of the mythological & spiritual meaning of Castle in the Sky’s ending, kiểm tra out the third episode of our Castle of the Sky analysis podcast.)

Now it’s your turn!

What did you think of this interpretation?

For simplicity’s sake (and because these are the three stories I’m most familiar with) I stuck to lớn the three most well-known mythological origins of the “Don’t look back” trope. If I’ve left out one you’re familiar with, let me know in the comments!

If you’d like to have your question about a Miyazaki film be made into a Moon Rabbit article or video, leave a message on the Moon Rabbit Hotline!

And if you haven’t yet, be sure lớn grab a không lấy phí copy of Studio Ghibli Secrets, my one-stop reference guide to lớn Miyazaki storytelling!

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Filed Under: anime, Articles/Videos, hayao miyazaki, studio ghibli Tagged With: chihiro, haku, spirited away 24 June, 2021 By Adam Dobay

Adam Dobay is an independent film analyst specializing in film storytelling và story patterns with a background in mythology và screenwriting. Starting over a decade ago, Adam has held over 400 talks from Japanese anime khổng lồ Hollywood’s pop mythology, & ran an undergraduate course on anime at the Dharma Gate Buddhist College.Follow The Moon Rabbit is a project lớn reveal new ways khổng lồ look at outstanding works of film & to help people gain new insights into the films that have shaped their lives.

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Hi, I’m Adam

Adam Dobay is an independent film analyst specializing in film storytelling và story patterns with a background in mythology and screenwriting. Starting over a decade ago, Adam has held over 400 talks from Japanese anime khổng lồ Hollywood’s pop mythology, và ran an undergraduate course on anime at the Dharma Gate Buddhist College.Follow The Moon Rabbit is a project to lớn reveal new ways khổng lồ look at outstanding works of film và to help people gain new insights into the films that have shaped their lives.