Spirited Away (2001)
Why Haku Tells Chihiro in 'Spirited Away': Don't Look Back
By: Domonique Salberg
Like Howls Moving Castle, Spirited Away has a perceptive ending leaving audiences with much to ponder. But out of all the mysteries still left to uncover, Haku telling Chihiro not to look back is one that stands out most. So, in revisiting the film and keeping a lookout for why Haku says, “Don’t look back,” this article found some compelling mythological connections and reasons behind the seemingly perplexing goodbye.
Moreover, it is no secret that Miyazaki’s endings tend to be multilayered, especially in Spirited Away. There are several important end sequences we witness, including Chihiro and Haku’s reunion/farewell, Haku’s true identity revealed, Chihiro’s earlier childhood memory, Chihiro’s final test/release from her contract, the fate of Chihiro’s parent’s and her reunion with them, and the start of her new life and the lessons learned from the film. All of these sequences and more make up seven minutes of the film’s final moments, leaving us with much to contemplate.
These are essential elements that do more than wrap up the film but also reveal how Miyazaki tells stories and how he adapts old myths anew, like “don’t look back.”
Ancient Tropes in Spirited Away
Having watched every Miyazaki film, it’s evident he is seasoned in world mythology. So, no wonder he knew advising someone not to look back as they leave from somewhere is a specific motif used before in multiple mythological stories. Notable examples are when Orpheus goes to get Eurydice from the Ancient Greek underworld or Izanagi getting Izanami from the underworld in Japanese creation mythology.
And possibly the most known example from the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament where the Lot’s family is told not to look back at the city of Sodom as they flee. As we can see, this trope has been used since the beginning of storytelling across cultures.
Then there is the other trope these stories have in common that incorporates the test or trial, where the hero of the story has to undergo a test where they can pass it and gain something or fail and face a dire consequence. The Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh is another story that comes to mind, where instead, Gilgamesh is told not to go to sleep. He accepts the challenge but ultimately fails, falling asleep and losing his chance at immortality. All this to say, the ancient tales discussed here all have in common with Spirited Away an element of a path. The protagonists or heroes of these stories start on one path but along the way are forced onto a forbidden “path” journey.
Ultimately, the tropes in these tales, including Spirited Away’s version of “don’t look back,” could be about spiritual courage.
Life & It’s Lessons
Meaning, can we trust ourselves to get through the ups and downs of life without being deterred by the power of human emotions? Will we take control of our desires or let them take over us? The few characters that prevail do so because they are beyond earthly desire and cannot be swayed. However, those who fail are the ones that expose a more common hero who reveals humanity in the end, which is how difficult it is not to form attachments to people, material things, and the past.
Additionally, holding on too firmly to the past can cause us to lose focus of the present, robbing ourselves of connection to what’s in front of us and building a future. Thus, drawing us back to the beginning of Spirited Away when Chihiro is disgruntled about being forced to move and leave her life and friends behind. She does not look back but also refuses to look forward. Hence, her test journey in an “otherworld/underworld” at the bathhouse and back begins her many tests representing Chihiro’s brink between childhood and adolescence.
So, by the end of Chihiro’s many tests, she has matured, shown in two pivotal moments. The first was being able to pass Yubaba’s test and save her parents. And second, the hair tie; represents the memories and experiences she had gone through, but also a reminder of the value in the teachings and the time spent with others/places, even if it does not last forever.
Chihiro was able to let go (which is what Haku wanted and why he says “Don’t look back”) and at the same time see the value in her spiritual experience. Moreover, leaving Chihiro to welcome her new life when met with her journey’s natural end signaled through a glimmer of her hair tie.