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When Chihiro Ogino finds herself trapped in a magical world, she has her name taken from her.
The plot of Hayao Miyazaki’s 2001 animated film Spirited Away begins when Chihiro’s parents are transformed into pigs by eating forbidden food from an uninhabited buffet. Chihiro learns that the place they stumbled across after taking a wrong turn is, in fact, a spiritual realm; a place of retreat where weary spirits can relax.
She begs Yubaba, the cruel owner of a bathhouse, to give her a job so she can survive in this spirit world, and Yubaba eventually hires Chihiro in exchange for ownership of the girl’s name. Yubaba renames her Sen. Later, Chihiro learns that Yubaba takes people’s names in order to trap them in this spirit world; if she ever forgets what her original name was, she will be permanently unable to return to her home world.
I wondered where Yubaba got the name “Sen” from, and once I noted the kanji characters that make up both names, I realized exactly what Yubaba was trying to take away from her.
“Chihiro” is written as two kanji characters: the first is pronounced “chi” (which means “one thousand”), and the second is “hiro” (which means “questions”). But kanji characters almost never have just one single pronunciation or meaning attributed to them; in this case, the character used for “chi” can also be read as “sen,” the basic number for one thousand.
The name “Chihiro” does not necessarily express a finite quantity, but could be interpreted as an endless or uncountable number. Her full given name therefore could be roughly translated to “endless questions.”
To me, the translation behind this name paints a mental picture of a girl who is eager to learn, curious about the world, and a deep thinker. By renaming her “Sen,” her captor completely drained the name of any meaning.
Arguably, the most degrading name you can give a person is that of a number. It means that the person has no value as an individual, and that he or she is only one of many—completely replaceable. This also reminds me of Jean Valjean from Les Miserables, a man who takes great offense when Javert refers to him as “24601.” In response, he dramatically exclaims “My name is Jean Valjean!”
To be a prisoner constantly referred to by a number must mean a constant, unending reminder that your individuality is—and therefore, you are—completely worthless to those above you.
In Chihiro’s case, her captor is not only trying to physically trap her in the spirit world, but is also trying to dull down her sense of even having a “self.” It’s possible Yubaba is also trying to restrain Chihiro’s ability to think freely and strive for new discoveries by removing from her the name “Chihiro” which represents such things specifically.
As the film’s story progresses, and Chihiro’s character develops, she more and more begins to show the traits her name represents; she becomes a strong and independent thinker, unafraid to push forward on her own. She stubbornly refuses to take no for an answer, doesn’t give up despite her fear, and shows love and compassion where no one else will. And she does these things in spite of her name being taken from her, which makes her actions all the more powerful. Despite losing her name, she doesn’t lose herself.
Sometimes I’m tempted to lose my sense of self when I have a stressful day at work or am facing an irate customer. But Chihiro’s battle for self-worth inspires me. Her story reminds me that no matter how worthless people tell me I am, I can still be confident that I am of value, that I matter. And if I don’t forget that, I can accomplish things I otherwise wouldn’t have the courage to try.