ByBrendan Seagle, writer at

How do you define yourself? How do we define what the “self” means? There are many ways people identify themselves. As apparent in Hayao Miyazaki’s animated movie , he argues that identity is a structure that directs moral action. Without identity, people can be moral or immoral, but they will be perceived as immoral because they don't know who they are. The choice of and Western versus Eastern views on identity, the way the character Yubaba represents self-consistency, and the moral action of Chihiro and Haku are the ways the film supports this argument.

Identity is a structure that directs moral action, and without identity people can be moral or immoral but they will perceived as immoral because they don't know who they are.

Chihiro is the main character, a human girl who finds herself trapped in a spirit world after her family makes a detour and ends up in a foreign and mysterious place. Her parents are turned into pigs after eating too much food they find in a deserted town and now her main objective is to to find a way to turn them back into humans. She finds a busy and bustling bath house with many eccentric spirits contained therein.

'Spirited Away' [Credit: Toho]
'Spirited Away' [Credit: Toho]

Haku, a boy and dragon spirit tells her to get a job or else she will turn into an animal. Yubaba (the evil owner of the house) gives Chihiro a janitorial job. Sen grooms a garbage infested “Stink” spirit. A quiet and impressionable No-Face spirit becomes fat, vulgar, and overindulgent after giving the house employees gold.

Yubaba’s twin sister, Zeniba, attacks Haku to the point of near death because he stole a valuable piece of magic from her. All of these characters help Sen along the way of self-discovery and helps strengthen her moral identity.

The Real You: Western Vs. Eastern Ideals Of Identity

Within Spirited Away there are many characters in the search for their identity. There are many ways people view identity, and each individual has their own definition. Universally, identity is built around your surrounding environment. In the TED talk "Is there a real you?" Julian Baggini argues that real identity does not have a core, but that the real identity is made of desires, memories, beliefs and knowledge.

'Spirited Away' [Credit: Toho]
'Spirited Away' [Credit: Toho]

He then goes on to support his theory that the real identity is more of an ever-changing collection of experiences — “You are the sum of your parts.” By the sum of your parts, Baggini means that the identity is the summation of desires, memories, beliefs and knowledge. This concept of the self is a very Western and modern ideal and is seen as very individualistic. Identity is a case-by-case basis.

"The real identity does not have a core, but that the real identity is made of desires, memories, beliefs, and knowledge."

Characters from Spirited Away support this Western idea of self while other characters support a different idea of identity. In the case of Chihiro, she has to change in order to save her parents, which is Western. Haku is a lost soul, desperately seeking for who he is. He has lost his identity, and therefore does not belong — a very Eastern perspective. The movie argues that in order for Haku to become a morally active person, he must remember what his identity is. Haku perceived identity as something that is inherited, and that it is something that can be taken away, lost and rediscovered.

In Order To Discover, You Must Act: Moral Action And Self-Consistency

Identity is a moral structure that is directed by moral action, and a person can be viewed as immoral if they don’t have a strong sense of moral identity. Karl Aquino explains moral identity as “one of many possible identities that a person can use as a basis for self-definition.” In order to be perceived as a person with morals, one must be able to function morally.

Moral identity and moral action are related by the desire to maintain self-consistency. In the film, Yubaba the bathhouse owner, is harsh in her judgement towards her employees, but she still is able to maintain self-consistency in her moral actions. She gives Chihiro a job, even though Yubaba thinks she is a ungrateful, selfish human.

'Spirited Away' [Credit: Toho]
'Spirited Away' [Credit: Toho]

Moral action and moral identity are closely correlated. In order for you to build an identity for yourself, you must take action. In order for Chihiro to save her parents, she had to get a job. You must have experiences in order to build that moral identity, and you need to be introduced to different dilemmas in order to define yourself. Chihiro has to learn hard work — throwing coal into the furnace to heat the bathhouse, to scrub and clean the guests, and to earn respect from her peers.

Chihiro’s Moral Action: Trust And Hard Work

Chihiro is faced with many obstacles that make her decide the kind of person she wants to be; she has to use moral action to discovery what she stands for. We never know if Haku is a good guy and can be trusted or a bad guy and shouldn’t be trusted. The employees of the bathhouse view him as the evil henchman of Yubaba, never to be trusted, while Chihiro sees him as an ally and a confidant in her quest to get her parents back.

Chihiro starts her journey by meeting Kamaji, who gives her the task of throwing coal into the fire. This is a stark realization for Chihiro, that in order to get what she wants she has to work for it. Her action of taking up the hard labor helped her learn that she is actually capable of getting a task done effectively and she was able further her goal of finding her parents.

Later on, Haku finds Chihiro overwhelmed and crying because she is struggling to remember her name after she gives it up to Yubaba. He tries to comfort her and she feels conflicted. He is being nice to her again — which is comforting, but earlier he told her not to talk to him and acted as though they never met. She decides quickly, based on her intuition, to trust him. He says that she must work hard at remembering her original name and identity or else she would forget it in the same way he forgot his identity.

'Spirited Away' [Credit: Toho]
'Spirited Away' [Credit: Toho]

Haku, throughout the film, is someone who is very troubled. Chihiro starts to feel like she was tricked by Haku to be a slave in the bath house like all the other employees when she finds out no one else trusts him. Then throughout the movie, we find out Haku does, in fact, care for Chihiro, but he doesn’t know why. He didn’t know his true identity yet; he was just a lost soul searching. When Chihiro finally realizes that he is the Kohaku river spirit, he realizes who he is and then becomes a morally good guy.


Through the characters in the movie, we see identity directing moral action. Spirited Away is a great example of a coming-of-age piece, and is a pioneer for this idea of identity directing moral action, which is why it is critically acclaimed and why it has been respected by audiences across the globe. It tells a story of the discovery of identity in a very unique and fresh way. The story applies to anyone, as everyone comes to a point where they are trying to define themselves, trying to discover who they are, and trying to be a better and stronger person.


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