Haku and Chihiro in 'Spirited Away'
(Studio Ghibli)

Pigs? Dragons? Bathhouses? Rivers? Let’s Break Down All Your Questions About ‘Spirited Away’

Trying to explain the Studio Ghibli masterpiece Spirited Away is an awfully open-ended request. There’s a lot to unpack here. Where did all these spirits come from? Why are they all chilling in a bathhouse? Why did Chihiro’s parents turn into pigs? I’ll do my best.

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Spirited Away: How it started

Sometime in the early ’00s, a little girl named Chihiro is moving with her family to a new home in Japan with her family. While driving through the countryside, Chihiro’s parents discover a spooky little gateway in the woods. Ignoring Chihiro’s totally understandable “this is creepy” protests, Chihiro’s parents soldier on through the gateway and into the abandoned town on the other side. After they explore the derelict spot, they happen upon a food stall with fresh cooked food just sitting there steaming. Who cooked it? Where’s the proprietor? As a matter of fact, where’s anyone? These basic questions don’t seem to bother Chihiro’s one-track-minded parents. Ignorance is bliss, right?

As the sun begins to set, Chihiro’s parents start tucking into the chow. Chihiro meanwhile begins to see shadowy figures populating the town. Ghosts? Spirits, as the title suggests, is a more accurate term. After fleeing from the spirits, Chiriho returns to her mom and dad who have been turned into GIANT PIGS!?

Why did Chihiro’s parents turn into pigs?

akio eating a dumpling in Spirited Away
(Studio Ghibli)

While the exact mechanics behind Chihiro’s parents’ transformation are unknown, the reason is likely simple: gluttony. As the sun sets on the abandoned town, the line between the spirit world and the material world begins to blur. The landlocked town suddenly becomes surrounded by a vast body of water on all sides, and the seemingly desolate and abandoned storefronts teem with nocturnal spirit life. We can surmise that the spiritual world causes the material world to shift and change, and beings from the material world can become changed as well. Chihiro’s parents’ gluttony, simple-mindedness, and lack of respect for their surroundings transformed their physical bodies into what they were spiritually acting like: pigs. Ignorant, foolish, and ever-hungry pigs.

Okay but why are there spirits anyways? And why do they all look so different?

Japanese folklore is rich with tales of a spiritual world that intersects with our own. One of the oldest known belief systems in Japanese history is called Shinto. Shinto is both polytheistic (it acknowledges the existence of multiple gods) and animistic (it imbues all things, such as places, objects, and creatures with their own distinct spiritual presence). Shinto religion calls its various gods “kami,” which inhabit all things both living and non-living. Japanese folklore has drawn upon Shinto beliefs to acknowledge the existence of beings called “yokai”. Kami and yokai are somewhat similar, but the former are revered as gods while the latter are generally seen as morally ambiguous spirits and monsters. While the spirits of Spirited Away are never directly named as yokai or kami, it is heavily implied that both are present in the spiritual world of the film.

So what do all these spirits do?

An animate young girl sits on a train surrounded by ghost people, one is wearing a mask in "Spirited Away"
(Studio Ghibli)

According to Shinto and folklore, these beings do many things throughout the world, as they are multitudinous in nature. In Spirited Away? They chill, just like humans do. As night falls in the formerly abandoned town, Chihiro sees a ghostly ship appear on the horizon. This ship is populated by all manner of spirits that are apparently on vacation. The town that Chihiro stumbled upon is some sort of mystical Cancun, a number one getaway spot in the spiritual world. What’s the town famous for? Its bathhouse. Its big, awesome, gorgeous, high-class bathhouse that caters to all manner of spiritual clientele.

Why a bathhouse?

Bathhouses and bathing itself have deep cultural histories in Japan. While European cultures historically tended to bathe infrequently due to a lack of access to clean water and erroneous beliefs about hygiene, Japanese culture encouraged the practice, with many people bathing once a day. This widespread cultural acceptance of bathing comes in part from the abundance of natural water sources in Japan, including its famous hot springs.

The prevalence of bathing led to communal bathing in bathhouses, a cultural practice that is still common in Japan today. According to Spirited Away, human beings are not the only creatures in Japan that enjoy a good soak in a bathhouse. The spirits love it too. And the bathhouse managed by the witch Yubaba is obviously one of the best in the spiritual world.


An animated young girl looks nervous as an older woman with a wart on her face stands behind her in "Spirited Away"
(Studio Ghibli)

Yubaba. She is the witch proprietor of the bathhouse and a main antagonist in the film. She is able to manage the bathhouse and its many servants due to the magical power she holds over them. What power is that? Power over names. Yubaba is able to exert a sort of mind control over beings through control of their true name. When she renames a person (in the case of Chihiro’s dragon friend Haku) she is able to manipulate them to do her bidding and even cause them to forget their past. Yubaba also does this to Chihiro, who she renames Sen, causing Chihiro to lose her memories

Speaking of Haku, what was up with that ending? He’s a river?

Yes! At the end of the film, Chihiro is able to remember the true name of Haku, causing him to be released from Yubaba’s spell. What’s his name? The Kohaku River. More specifically, it is Nigihayami Kohakunushi, which directly translates to “Master of the Swift Amber River.” It is implied that Haku is the kami of the Kohaku River, the spiritual animation of the river itself which takes the form of a dragon. Chihiro remembers this because as a child she fell into the Kohaku River, and was saved by a spiritual presence just before she drowned. While not necessarily stated in the film, it’s likely that Chihiro’s ability to recognize spiritual presence is heightened due to her time spent in the spirit world. This could also be the reason why she is able to correctly identify her swine-transformed parents out of a group of pigs.

We could ask Chihiro, but according to director Hayao Miyazaki, Chihiro lost all her memories of the Spirit World after returning through the gate with her parents. We just gotta fill in the rest of the blanks ourselves.

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Jack Doyle
Jack Doyle (they/them) is actually nine choirs of biblically accurate angels crammed into one pair of $10 overalls. They have been writing articles for nerds on the internet for less than a year now. They really like anime. Like... REALLY like it. Like you know those annoying little kids that will only eat hotdogs and chicken fingers? They're like that... but with anime. It's starting to get sad.