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How A Real-Life Girl Inspired Hayao Miyazaki To Make Spirited Away

Worldwide, few names in animation are more celebrated and revered than Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. For many, it is not just the stories he tells, but how he tells them: with an equal eye for the epic and the intimate, the ability to make the most fantastical scenarios grounded and relatable, and profound empathy for his characters.

"Spirited Away" holds a special place among these films. In some ways, it is a lodestone amidst Miyazaki's films, exemplary of all of the wonder and soulfulness he brings to his animated stories. Here at Looper, we've ranked it as the greatest anime movie of all time.

And at the center of "Spirited Away" is Chihiro (voiced by Rumi Hiiragi and dubbed by Daveigh Chase), the 10-year-old girl moving to a new town with her parents. After her parents are magically transformed into pigs at an abandoned amusement park along the way, she sets off through the spirit world to change them back and escape. It's a tale filled with mystical realms and beings from Japanese folklore. None of it works without Chihiro, though. The complexities of her emotions and actions are what drive the story, finding more nuance and originality than most films deign to give to a 10-year-old girl. It makes sense, then, that Miyazaki based Chihiro on a real 10-year-old who had an impact on his life.

Chihiro was based on a friend's daughter

Hayao Miyazaki made the decision to create "Spirited Away" after getting to know the 10-year-old daughter of his friend and associate producer Seiji Okuda, who came to stay with Miyazaki every summer (via Vice).

"Every time I wrote or drew something concerning the character of Chihiro and her actions, I asked myself the question whether my friend's daughter or her friends would be capable of doing it," Miyazaki said in a 2002 interview with Midnight Eye. "That was my criteria for every scene in which I gave Chihiro another task or challenge."

Miyazaki said he was motivated by the lack of portrayals of girls of that age that were both authentic and sympathetic. Through getting to know Okuda's daughter, Miyazaki realized that most versions of her in film and television are nothing like her and that she couldn't relate to any of them. "Certainly, girls like her see films that contain characters their age," he said, "but they can't identify with them, because they are imaginary characters that don't resemble them at all."

Much of the behavior we might label as spoiled or unfriendly in girls her age is in fact related to this alienation and loneliness and the dismissive attitude much of the world shows them. "With 'Spirited Away,' I wanted to say to them 'don't worry, it will be all right in the end, there will be something for you,' not just in cinema, but also in everyday life," he said. And to be perfectly fair to Chihiro, she is being forced to move to a new town by her parents, a discombobulating experience for any child of that age. All of this makes her coming-of-age story both subtly touching and engaging to watch.