The Things We Never Forget, Even When We Can’t Remember: Fear and Bravery in ‘Spirited Away’

© Studio Ghibli

At 1:57 on October 7, 2016, I started to cry harder than I ever have before.

I’d known my daughter’s birth would be emotional, but as I heard her voice, bold and powerful, ringing out before I’d even seen her face, I was shocked by the strength of the sobs that came heaving out of me. I’d wanted to be a father for as long as I could remember, but I couldn’t have anticipated the way I would crack wide open the moment this little girl entered the world, the weight of my new responsibility settling onto my chest like a sack of rocks. From that moment on, I realized, my primary responsibility would be to help this girl find her way in the world until she was confident enough to do it on her own.

Nine hours later, as my wife, my daughter, and I rested in our hospital room, a tape was released featuring recordings of the man who would soon be elected president boasting, in the most revolting terms possible, about his history of inappropriate sexual advances. Hours earlier, the world had seemed full of possibility for this little girl, but suddenly it was clouded by the nominee of a major party validating the worst of toxic masculinity. I’d spent the year hearing more than I ever wanted to about why girls didn’t deserve to see themselves reflected in Star Wars and Ghostbusters, that they should stay in their princess-centric lane, but it had seemed like a quiet yawp from the shadowy corners of the internet. Now, a man supported by roughly half the country was giving voice to the obscene language and brutal aggression that I tried desperately to tell myself we were moving beyond. And as this man who purported to be a moral leader continued to double down when any ostensibly decent person would at least feign regret, I couldn’t help wondering how I could raise this little girl to be strong and brave in a world that felt as hostile to her as ever.

My first impulse when we came home from the hospital and I faced the first of many long nights together was to pull my copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland off the shelf and start reading it to her. I wanted the first story she heard to be one of a brave girl holding her own as she navigated an incomprehensible world. I started there, and hoped for the best.

***

Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away owes no small debt to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Both Chihiro and Alice are complex young women, as lovable and frustrating as any I’ve known (appropriately enough, Miyazaki modeled Chihiro off his friends’ daughters). Both girls are plunged into alien worlds and forced to navigate on the fly, learning arcane rules from absurd creatures. And neither of them spends much time questioning the ludicrous new normal, simply hitting the ground running and trying to keep their heads above water. That acceptance of their new surroundings contributes to both stories’ enduring power. After all, what is childhood but a years-long process of encountering strange new environments and people and being forced to integrate these new experiences into your worldview? As W.H. Auden once wrote of Alice, so many books for adults presuppose adult experiences, but precious few narratives presuppose only a child’s perspective.

We teach children to see the world in dichotomies: heroes and villains, good girls and naughty ones, bravery and weakness. Similarly, there tend to be two types of characters pitched at young girls: there are the romantic figures—from Snow White to Bella Swan—pining for men and ceding agency to them, and there are the welcome new generation of ass-kickers—the Jyn Ersos and Katniss Everdeens—demonstrating that girls can save the day as well as boys.

Though this type of black-and-white sorting is an appropriate tool to help children process their experiences, it delays their realization that the world, and everyone in it, is painted in infinite shades of gray. But our children’s inner landscapes are as complex as ours, and in Chihiro, we have one of the few characters in children’s lore who typifies and normalizes the idea that we can embody two seemingly opposite characteristics at once. She’s polite, as we teach our daughters to be—she refers to everyone, even monsters, as sir and ma’am, never forgetting her pleases and thank-yous—but this politeness doesn’t come at the expense of standing her ground. She holds fast when those monsters try to convince her to do what she knows isn’t right. She accepts the help of a boy, but only because otherwise she wouldn’t be able to survive in her new environment—relying on a boy is the pragmatic choice, rather than the demure one, and we want our daughters to be pragmatic. She’s spunky and motivated, as we’d want in role models for girls, but she has that realistic dose of fear that keeps her relatable. A character like Hermione Granger demonstrates lionhearted bravery in the face of towering adversity, but Chihiro demonstrates to girls that with only their innate childlike characteristics, they, too, might be able to survive in an unrecognizable world.

***

When I think of the brave childhood I want for my daughter, I can’t look to my own past for guidance. My childhood memories are awash in fear—fear of new people, of playing sports, of trying new foods. Whenever I was faced with a challenge, I’d barely sized it up before I chose avoidance, and each time I withdrew, it contributed to my growing inner narrative that I was a wuss, a scared kid, and I resigned myself to a calcifying belief that I would never be able to call myself brave. It was an either/or proposition to me, and one that required snap judgment.

Spirited Away demonstrates something essential: our fears do not preclude us from being brave. In scene after scene, we watch Chihiro experience terror, and then dig deep to muscle past it, not so much defeating her fear as momentarily defying it. Navigating the bath house in search of work, she grits her teeth at each stop, and then pushes out her job request with a canon blast of words: “Pleasecanyougivemeajob!” And then she falls back, winded, having pushed aside her anxiety long enough to lob the necessary effort out into the world.

I want my daughter to embody Chihiro more than her own all-or-nothing father: you can be both frightened and courageous, even in the same moment. Chihiro is brave, but no braver than she has to be, standing up to No-Face even as she pushes herself back against the wall. To ask more of any kid, let alone an adult, is a tall order.

***

A month after my daughter’s birth, I burst into tears on a night I didn’t expect to.

Ever since learning we’d be having a girl, I’d taken for granted that she would grow up with a female president. The alternative was ludicrous, unthinkable, and on election night, I stayed up with my daughter hours past my anticipated bedtime, waiting for the moment that the tide would turn and the world would reassemble into something I recognized.

Long after midnight, I realized no good news was coming, and I turned off the broadcasts and looked at this little girl whose future I so desperately want to be bright, whose fortunes I feel so responsible for, and terror—that her rights were about to constrict before she’d had a chance to exercise them; that she would grow up in a world that normalized casual cruelty; that if her parents set her the example of providing help and decency to those in need, they might become criminals—gripped my stomach like a Miyazakian oozing black tentacle.

I picked up my sleeping baby and brought her upstairs to my sleeping wife, who rolled over and asked, “Is it over?” All I could do was nod, because a moment later I was sobbing. I could only force out the words, “This isn’t what I wanted for her.” I lay there in the dark for what felt like hours, and bravery was very far away. The wuss, the scared kid I was, emerged to tell me I could never raise a brave young woman when all I felt was helplessness and sorrow. My bed felt like a sinking ship, and I could see no clear path towards anything like hope.

***

At the climax of Spirited Away, Chihiro collapses in sobs. She’s reached the end of a long voyage that she believes will hold the key to returning a sense of normalcy to her unrecognizable world, and just when she’s expecting victory, she finds she isn’t up to the task before her, and she withdraws into her sorrow. It’s a crushing moment in this story of triumph and wonder. We’ve watched Chihiro undertake a journey of self-discovery, watched her go from a sullen child to a motivated one, from a girl who followed a boy to a girl who leads others, and in the end she’s thrown against her own limitations, and she’s overwhelmed.

These days, when my daughter cries, it’s from simple needs. She’s hungry; she’s tired; her stomach hurts. I can help her manage those. But I dread the day that her sorrows are so complex that all I can do is offer my hand to hold as she weathers them. In Chihiro, I see so much of what I want for my daughter, and with that complex, realistic characterization comes realistic frustration and pain. Miyazaki’s masterful film shows us that sorrow, like fear, is a necessary part of life, one that can be a color on your emotional palate without defining your identity.

Moments later, from a place she never could have anticipated, Chihiro finds what it takes to restore order to her world, the truth that Zeniba tells her she never forgot, even when she couldn’t remember. And that’s true to the emotional experience of childhood, as well. Children’s moods are like the weather, clouding and clearing, and if “Everything will be OK, I just know it” is a white lie, it’s one we can justify telling them. What’s the use in admitting too early that it’s not a promise but a wish, that all we can do is try our best to do good, hoping that others will do the same—and that part of bravery is waking up every morning able to accept that there’s so much in this world that we can’t control?

“So many out-of-the-way things had happened lately,” Lewis Carroll writes in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, “that Alice had begun to think that very few things indeed were really impossible.” We tell children not to worry, that they’ll understand when they’re older, and they take our word for it, because they don’t have much choice. But you can see the skepticism in their eyes. Spirited Away provides a lens through which children can view the often-frightening world around them, a tool to help them traverse it, and the film offers itself as a friend rather than an authority. It’s your complexity that makes you normal, this story tells them. You can be brave even when you’re scared. You can despair without admitting defeat. And as I begin the frightening adventure of guiding a daughter through a world that still subjects women to endless and contradictory standards—Look beautiful, but make sure you don’t seem like you’re trying. Stick up for yourself, but make sure you don’t seem bossy. Don’t let men tell you to smile, but make sure you don’t seem grouchy—this animated fable is an essential reminder of the intricacies that will define her inner life, intricacies that will often be more tangled than my own, lacking any of the frameworks I’ve spent decades developing. The behavior of Chihiro’s parents in the opening sequence is ludicrous, diving into platters of hot food they find in a desolate, overgrown park. But is it that much more ludicrous than my daily behaviors appear to my daughter? We try to make life simple for our children as we scramble to fathom one day admitting that the world really is as absurd as a bathhouse full of sentient radishes.

***

Three months after my daughter’s birth, I cried again, gently this time.

It was the night of President Obama’s farewell address, the last time in the foreseeable future we would hear a speech I’d be proud to call presidential. Against all odds, we now lived in a country where the most qualified candidate imaginable, the role model I had expected my daughter to grow up admiring, could lose the presidency to an ignorant neophyte with a well-documented history of deceit, all because she seemingly smiled too much when she shouldn’t have, and not enough when she should. So many out-of-the-way things have happened this past year that I’ve begun to think that very few things indeed are really impossible.

And so, searching for reserves of bravery in hopes of imparting them on the baby for whom I bear a mind-boggling responsibility, I listened carefully to a man who’s raised two daughters. “You are smart and you are beautiful,” he told them. “But more importantly, you are kind and you are thoughtful and you are full of passion.” I can’t think of any set of qualities I’d wish more for my daughter, and for now it’s up to her parents to make sure she grows into them. As I looked at that small, beautiful, lively, hilarious baby, I tried to wipe away the tear I’d shed before my wife could see.

I’m scared shitless at least half the time right now, for the future of this little girl and all her vulnerable peers, for the image of them growing up in a world that traffics in the cruel and the vulgar. Never in my adult life has bravery felt so difficult to muster, both in my home and in the larger world. But I turn to my favorite art to find my center, and recharge, and reaffirm all I believe to be true and hope might still be possible. Even more than the stories or the characters, the works themselves feel like friends to me, something I can cling to in the storm.

In Spirited Away, I see a film that I can show my daughter to find herself in, and a model I can only hope to embody myself. There are days when the world feels as alien to me as it did when I was her age, and that confusion only grows as we wade into this unexpected future. But as we learn at the end of Spirited Away, love can break barriers that seem unbreakable, that strength in our heart that we never forget, even when we can’t remember. That, at least, I can provide her in endless supply, and teach her to provide the world. We’ll start there, and hope for the best.