BySunny Bay, writer at

“I'm dreaming, I'm dreaming! Come on, wake up! Wake up! Wake up...” (Chihiro, Spirited Away)

Readers may have wondered what significance dreams hold in the real world. After watching Spirited Away, I discovered that this film got me asking this same question. Feeling this leads one to doubt what they see and consider the meaning behind what they are seeing. Spirited Away is one of director Hayao Miyazaki’s most praised masterpieces and has been critically acclaimed outside of Japan and throughout the world.

The film is often referred to as a Japanese edition of Alice in Wonderland by many critics. Both Spirited Away and Alice in Wonderland are animation films that can be enjoyed by a variety of audiences including children and adults. Also, these stories are essentially an adventure about a young girl who wanders into another world where they endure various trials and encounter a lot of unknown creatures. However, the film Spirited Away differs from Alice in Wonderland at several points in terms of plot, characters images, visual works, and music.

Despite the similarities in the two stories, the goals of each heroine’s journey differ from each other. Alice from Alice in Wonderland follows the white rabbit and seeks a way to return to her real world. After the long journey, she wakes up from the dream. On the other hand, Chihiro, the main character in Spirited Away, goes on an adventure based on the motivation to rescue her parents and her friend named Haku. Although she faces some challenges through her journey, she overcomes the problems with courage and tenderness. She finally comes back to the real world but no one knows whether or not what occurred during the duration of her journey actually happened. Nevertheless, the car that Chihiro’s family had parked was covered with dust, which implies that a considerable amount of time had passed while they were gone. This is the only discernable factor from which we can notice anything occurring in the world Chihiro came from. The film portrays Chihiro’s growth of character in her relationships with her family and friends who she encounters in the story.

"Alice in Wonderland"
"Alice in Wonderland"

Additionally, the character’s intentions can be assumed by the color of their clothes, which potentially hold symbolic meanings. Alice has yellow hair and wears a blue dress. The color of yellow, in general, has the image of joy, curiosity, and cheerful. Conversely, the color of blue suggests frankness, freedom, and isolation in the negative aspect. Alice’s character is depicted as one of curiosity and innocence. Her personality and spirit of inquiry are central to the story as it forms the basis of Alice’s casual communication with the other characters. Chihiro, in contrast, wears a white and green shirt at the beginning and the end of the film. For the majority of the film she wears a pink uniform for the work that she has to perform at the bathhouse. As the story deals with environmental issue and feminism, green and pink might respectively symbolize the sense of nature and femininity. Besides these meanings, green is associated with growth and harmony, and pink represents love, a thoughtful heart, and childlike innocence. These impressions and the colors that accompany them correspond to the characters in the story. The colors describe not only Chihiro’s personality but also the values that this film endorses.

Chihiro wearing her work uniforms
Chihiro wearing her work uniforms

The camera work of Spirited Away is beautiful and spectacular as if it had been shot by a real camera not hand drawing. The difference between Spirited Away and Alice in Wonderland is not only because of the time when those animation films were made, but also the way in which each of the works depicts the characters and their background. The pictures in Alice in Wonderland tend to be focusing on either Alice or other characters with a part of background. It is hard for the audience to overlook the whole world where Alice adventures. Rather, audiences see a sequence of various places along with the characters. However, Spirited Away gives the audience a bird’s-eye view and portrays magnificent backgrounds of both inside and outside of the bathhouse, the ocean, the sky, and the flower garden. It enables audiences to place themselves in the story as well as giving a sense of directions in the world of the film. Additionally, the film successfully produces the atmosphere in which the reality and fantasy coexist by drawing pictures from different angles. Audiences are unconsciously absorbed into the world of the film while watching it.

Music is another element to distinguish Spirited Away from Alice in Wonderland. The music played in the film was conducted by Joe Hisaishi, who is one of the top music composer in the modern-traditional genre. He often participates in the composing of the scores for Ghibli films and it has attracted a large following. Alice in Wonderland by the way in which the characters sing songs through the movie, could be categorized as a musical. This certainly involves and entertains the audiences. On the other hand, the music in Spirited Away is entirely instrumental. Therefore, the music doesn’t interrupt the audience but comfortably enters the viewer’s mind to harmonize their world and with what is happening in each scene of the film. The background music brings the audience a sense of exaltation.

With all of the components embedded in the story, Spirited Away develops its own unique world, which cannot be fully explained by the cliché saying “It’s like Alice in Wonderland.” Considered one of the “great master(s) of Japanese animation” and adored by numerous fans, Miyazaki’s films often leave viewers wondering what they saw, weirded out and confused. In fact, audiences are prone to think about the meaning of each piece of the elements interspersed in the film. Those fragments could seem arbitrary, yet they are intentionally depicted and elaborated to carry specific messages to the audience. The importance of love, and relationship with family and friends are one of them. You may feel like gathering pieces of the director Miyazaki’s magic to picture the whole world portrayed in the film.


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