How Spirited Away helped me deal with my anxiety.

Animation, anxiety, South East Asian, Studio Ghibli

Who thought the Studio Ghibli classic would be one of the reasons why I reflected on and did something about my anxiety? 

Already,  I’ve let you know two things about myself; one is I’m quite familiar with the iconic, 2001 fantasy animation. Secondly, I admit to dealing with my own fair share of anxiety from time to time. But how do these two relate? What message am I trying to push across here? Well… come on, I’m not that predictable, am I?

Unlike most millennials, I knew little about nor did I watch any Studio Ghibli films throughout my childhood;they were always something I heard about in passing. And the joke is when I first watched Spirited Away,  it was in December 2016 with earphones in and Greek yoghurt and strawberries in hand. At that point, thanks to my friend Aretha I was already introduced to some Ghibli classics; Howl’s Moving Castle, From Up on Poppy Hill etc. I wouldn’t say there’s a strict formula to how Ghibli films go but, expect the unexpected. Don’t be surprised at how normalised magic and the supernatural can be from the get go.

However, what surprised me about Spirited Away was amidst the spectacle, the layer upon layer of world building – I was immediately touched at how much I resonated with two particular characters. Chihiro/Sen is the ten-year old protagonist of the film; that after exploring a seemingly abandoned ‘amusement park’ (now come on, that looked nothing like one) she discovers her parents have turned into pigs, and she is trapped within a bath house of a small magical, spirit ridden town. She has to muster her own courage and determination to get her parents back. At first, Chihiro reminds me of how ten year old me would react if I was in that… bizarre and eerie situation. From the moment she tells her irresponsibly curious parents “I don’t want to go there, it gives me the creeps”, I said out loud “That’s me.” Over the course of the movie, Chihiro has to learn that she has to be steadfast and do things herself, and persevere regardless of how uncomfortable and afraid she feels.

No-Face is a non-human character who to me, is the most human character within the entire movie even though he barely speaks. At first he’s presented as a mysterious, elusive and unpredictable presence. Out of Chihiro’s respect and kindness towards him, he attempts to shower her with anything she wants, even heaps of gold at one point. But unfortunately the popularity No-Face receives is to his own detriment, and he soon becomes an antagonist for a moment in the film. What struck me most about his inevitable redemption arc throughout the final act of the film, isn’t as though the film forced us to accept him, but instead we were allowed to just see and become acquainted with his true self. He’s naturally passive, at peace and forms strong bonds with a smaller group of friends. By the end of the movie, he settles down because he realises he’s in the right company. He wasn’t suited to the grandiose celebrations and processions of the other spirits. And that was okay; it’s true to who he was as a character.

I can admit my mind races often when I assume what people’s expectations are of me, and whether I live up to them. Additionally, my introvertedness can work against me in certain situations, whether academic or social. My anxiety is never an excuse. It is something I learn to cope with and overcome, but it is never an excuse to stop trying and doing what I want to do. But that being said, is there a moral behind all of this? Maybe. I guess what hit me most from this film was how much easier assertiveness can arise when you’re motivated by goals that matter. What I hold onto dearly and who I care about gives me a sense of duty and responsibility, and that diminishes how lost I can feel when I panic.

I don’t want anyone to read this post, thinking that I’m trying to teach people how to deal with anxiety, or whatever personal problems they have. I’m not a guru or a therapist. But what I will say is that if anything, sometimes we forget how powerful art is. We forget how much we can resonate with a song, a film, a book, poetry or artwork. That moment that dawns on you when you realise how hard you can relate to something deeply is an experience; and when you care enough, you know that can’t be thrown away. So, I suppose this post is a reminder of exactly that.


Photo credit: ‘Spirited Away’ by Alex Cook 


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