Erin Ruark/Daily

“Someone told me everyone at the new school is mean! Why would you send us there?” I shouted at my mother.

“Ok, if it’s actually that bad, we’ll let you go back to the old school. But at least go for two weeks,” my mother promised.

My cheeks flushed with anger. I wanted to stay in the dingy town-house complexes, where my friends and I could explore the woods in our backyard and fill our sidewalks with chalk. I wanted to hear the music from the ice cream trucks and sprint down the uneven sidewalks barefoot just to get my hands on a Strawberry Shortcake popsicle. Most of all, I wanted to surround myself with the laughter of my friends. I wanted nothing more than to play on the swings with them, throw snow down the slides and race down them together. This new house was not something I wanted if it meant I had to leave these experiences behind.

I can still feel the anger and grief, and it wasn’t until I watched the 2001 Studio Ghibli film, “Spirited Away,” that I saw what those emotions looked like from a third-person point of view. “Spirited Away” is an Academy Award-winning, hand-drawn animated film, written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, that depicts the classic hero’s journey. The main protagonist, Chihiro, struck a nerve with me when I watched this film. I fell down the rabbit hole of analyzing Chihiro, attempting to understand how Miyazaki ties in many noble characteristics with the protagonist, considering how even I, a 21 year-old South Indian woman, was able to relate to Chihiro, a 10 year-old Japanese girl. 

Here’s your warning now: spoilers ahead.

The film opens with a zoomed-in shot of a pink bouquet of flowers with a goodbye card written to Chihiro from her friend. Chihiro sulks in the back of her family’s car as her family is en route to their new home in a new town. She complains about how her new school is probably smelly and sticks her tongue out at it as her family drives by, even though she hadn’t even spent a day there. 

The rest of the scene focuses on Chihiro spending most of the car ride staring into her bouquet of flowers while rereading the goodbye card from her friend. Some analyses see this as Chihiro wanting to stay in the past rather than venture into the future of her new home and new life. During the car ride, Chihiro notices that her flowers are slowly wilting, to which her mom simply responds that she shouldn’t have smothered them. But even just a simple bouquet of flowers dying is enough to strike Chihiro with fear. This bouquet of flowers and the goodbye card are the only things left from her friend (and let me remind you that this was before the age of social media), so to slowly lose the sole remnants she has left of her friend whom she will likely never  see again is terrifying for her. 

Similarly, I still have that same mentality of not wanting to forget my past. I even wrote in a previous piece about how I keep every letter written to me, even from people I don’t see or speak to anymore. No one wants to forget those who were important to them at one time or another, or even things that were important to us as a child or in their past. But events occur throughout our lifetimes in which we can’t help but have those people or things take a backseat, and ultimately they just lose touch. 

A trait Chihiro embodies throughout the film is her ability to stay in tune with her emotions. In fact, those “gut feelings” are what have gotten me out of potentially disastrous situations. My freshman year at the University of Michigan, I was excited to indulge in my new social life. A student organization I was a part of hosted a party in the late fall. I remember the crowd with their red solo cups in hand, discussing what party games we should play. There, a student came up to me. 

“Hey, are you a freshman?”

“Uh, yeah,” I responded timidly.

“Cool, cool. I’m a senior by the way.”

“Oh, cool.” My head felt cloudy, losing any and every idea on how to keep the conversation going.  

“Do you have Instagram?” the student asked.

“Yeah,” I responded, hesitantly taking his phone and following my account. 

The whole interaction felt like a fever dream. Though I was present and aware of my surroundings, I could only recall bits and pieces of what other topics of conversation we talked about. The image of his face is also unclear, I only remembered his uneven beard lineup. My gut was telling me that something was off.

Later that week, I got a direct message from him.

“Hey, I’m throwing a birthday party this weekend, would love it if you could come by!”

Flushed with uneasiness, I spent around 10 minutes typing out the best way to say “no.”

“Hey, I’m so sorry but I actually have some other plans this weekend,” I sent.

Later that weekend, it was confirmed that there indeed was no birthday party, and that had I said yes to going, I would have been the only person at his house.

Similarly, when Chihiro’s father takes a shortcut through a sacred forest to get to their new home, Chihiro looks through the window and instantly feels unsettled by the path her father is taking. As Chihiro’s family is stopped at the entrance of what looks like an abandoned amusement park (which is actually the spirit world), they exit their vehicle and explore. Though Chihiro is extremely hesitant — staying true to her initial gut feeling — her parents insist, and she is ultimately forced to cave in. In the park, Chihiro’s family stumbles upon mounds of freshly cooked food. Immediately, Chihiro’s family sits down and begins to feast. Chihiro begs them not to eat the food, her gut feeling alerting her of something so strangely wrong, and yet, they shrug it off. Chihiro questions her parents, asking them why there would be so much food in a seemingly abandoned park in the first place. Her apprehension is confirmed when Chihiro goes to explore the abandoned amusement park as her parents feast and returns to her parents to see that they’ve turned into pigs. Similar to my experience, it’s Chihiro’s gut feeling that saved her from this fate more than anything else.

Parallels to the workforce are also shown in “Spirited Away.” Chihiro is told by a young boy she meets, Haku, that in order to save herself, she must ask Kamaji, the boilerman at the local bathhouse, for a job. When Chihiro meets Kamaji and asks him for a job, Kamaji tells her to look elsewhere and that there is no place for her here. Some analyses believe this to be symbolism for the way immigrants are treated in the workforce. Immigrant families often hear the expression to “go back to where they came from.” Coming from an immigrant family myself, this unfortunately rings true. Many families like mine are told that we “don’t belong here” and our efforts go unnoticed and are ultimately taken advantage of.

But the strongest chord Chihiro’s personality struck with me is her kindness. When Chihiro first meets Kamaji, the boilerman, she sees one of his soot workers accidentally drop a piece of coal on themselves. She helps the soot worker by picking up and carrying the piece of coal herself. Chihiro extended her kindness even after Kamaji refused to give her a job. 

Chihiro showcases a larger gesture of kindness towards Haku. She is given a magic dumpling from a stink spirit she helped at the bathhouse and plans to save it for herself to turn her parents back into humans. However, after seeing a wounded Haku, she immediately gives up the gift from the spirit and uses it to save Haku. Chihiro going out of her way to bring forth love and kindness was a reminder for me that kindness, no matter how small the gesture is, goes a long way, and ultimately, could save their lives.

The idea of kindness always resonated with me. When I was in middle school, I got a phone call from a family friend.

“Your mom and brother and my brother were in a car accident.”

My heart sank to my stomach, immediately I felt my body go numb. Unable to utter a word, my friend quickly followed up with “everyone’s ok, though.” 

My mom had driven my brother and two of our family friends from an event and had been hit by another driver, the collision almost causing the car to flip. My father had left work to meet them at the scene, which left me pacing around the house the entire day, waiting for my family to return. As the sun started to set, I heard the doorbell ring. I sprinted to the front door to see my vocal guru standing on the porch, holding a box of Domino’s Pizza. He noticed the puzzled expression on my face.

“We heard what happened, and we knew you probably haven’t eaten anything all day. Please take this.” He hinted for me to take the pizza box from his hand.

My shaky hands held the box; I didn’t even not even know what to say. Before a thought could even occur, my guru reminded me to take care of myself, that everything was going to be okay and that my family would be home soon.

It was this act of kindness that sticks with me even today. My guru went out of his way to check up on me and my emotions, even when, in return, I couldn’t mutter the words “thank you” to him.

While analyzing Chihiro and the characteristics she embodies, it helped me keep in touch with the attributes that I have. The lessons she teaches through the way she carries herself throughout her journey inspire me to carry myself similarly in my personal journeys.

MiC Columnist Smarani Komanduri can be reached at