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You are on your way to a new town, a new home, and a new life. Everything you know and love is left behind, so of course you hate the change. But maybe an unusual encounter with a magical world inhabited by spirits is all you need to find yourself and what you really want. This is, in short words, the premise of Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi, better known in English as Spirited Away.
The marriage between Alice in Wonderland and characters based on the rich Japanese folklore became one of the most successful films on Japanese history, and one of the best animated films of all times. Spirited away received an Academy Award for best animated film, the Golden Bear from the Berlin Movie Festival, and many other domestic and international prizes.
Although it has been over a decade since Spirited Away was released (we are talking about 2001 here), it remains fresh in people’s minds. One of the main reasons is its diverse cast of characters. Of course that our protagonist Chihiro is a cute girl, but some of the spirits she encounters in her adventure look so cute and adorable, that we want to scream “kawaii!” every single time we see them. We should be careful here also, as the term kawaii is indeed mostly used for everything cute, but the origins of the word make it a little bit richer.
So, what is kawaii?
The first traces of the word can be found in the famous novel The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, where it is used to describe pitiful qualities. Later, in the times of the Shoguns, kawaii was mainly used for women in weak and/or docile roles. Thus kawaii is a term applied to the cute, docile and/or harmless.
So… enough explanations! Who wants to come with me to the Bathhouse and visit the most kawaii characters of Spirited Away?
10. Onama sama
So, here we are. A ship crosses a glossy black river in the middle of the night, bringing us to the tall, bright colored Bathhouse. Here the spirits can relax by taking hot water baths, massages, and eating delicious food.
Ups, we encounter some spirits at the entrance! These plump creatures with pointy teeth, round fixed eyes, white hair, horns and a cape of leaves resemble the Onibaba of Japanese folktales. That would be the equivalent to the bad witches in Western fairy tales. We could think the Onama are scary at first glance, but let’s take a closer look, they do not want to hurt us, they are smiling and eager to get into the bathhouse to relax after a hard day. Aren’t they like the old lady customers you can encounter in the market or in old stores? That’s cute!
9. Aogaeru / Green Frog
And here comes a problem. A tiny frog in traditional Japanese clothes is guarding the entrance, making sure no human is allowed inside Yubaba’s Bathhouse. His name is Aogaeru, and he behaves as any responsible human worker, regardless of his size. Unfortunately, he was once suspended in mid-air so that Chihiro could get into the Bathhouse. She was on a mission to free her parents after all!
Poor cute Aogaeru has also gotten into trouble himself. He was once offered some gold by Kaonashi and he could not keep his minute plump hands away… being swallowed in the process. Apparently good judgement does not come alongside the cutesiness of this little frog spirit.
8. Ushioni sama / Cow Goblins
After outsmarting the vigilance, we have successfully passed the entrance (phew!). The luxurious bathhouse interiors are very busy and noisy, with the staff running and shouting to each other. Here we encounter some plump, red colored creatures with thick antlers, pointy teeth, and round fixed eyes. They are similar to the Onama with the big difference that their long hair has different colors.
Apparently they were based on the Oni, the Japanese demons we can find in temples and folktales. The Ushioni are also harmless. They are even wearing yukatas, ready to get into the hot, warm water. How cute is that?
7. The unnamed River Spirit
After crossing a paper door, we find a big room full of bathtubs and hot steam. One of the most important customers waves at us from the distance. But what exactly is this customer? He looks like a massive ball of brown melting mud and moves very slowly. On top of that, he stinks.
But once the biggest water pipe in the Bathhouse is used on him, we discover he is a smiling and kind hearted River God. It’s just that he was too dirty from the things we humans throw into the water. His real appearance is that of a floating ancient face with thick white eyebrows, as an old warm grandpa.
6. Ootori sama
Also, surrounding us we find… chicken soup! Lots of giant chicken soup bowls! Ok, no, I am just joking. The Ootori look like yellow chicks or ducks with round fixed eyes, only that they are as tall as a person. Some are wearing green leaves as hats, and they look so cute and fluffy, as they hurry up to clean up themselves with minute towels…
5. Dragon Haku
All that steam is making us feel dizzy, so we are going to clear up our heads, let’s now go upstairs, and open a window to watch the beautiful starry night sky. But there is something flying next to the full moon. Is it a silvery ribbon?
As it approaches us fast, we discover it’s a long, white silvery dragon. He lands smoothly on the room and watches us intently, with its shiny green eyes. He’s not that big, as Chihiro could look straight to him without effort. His name is Haku, a River Spirit and faithful companion of Chihiro in her adventures. Powerful yet gracious and cute, he can also be vulnerable to Yubaba’s or Yubaba’s sister magic.
4. Radish spirit
We should pay a visit to the higher floors of the Bathhouse, so it’s time to take the elevator. Inside, we encounter another Spirit, silent, white and plump. He uses a red loincloth and a red bowl as hat.
Anyone who has seen or eaten daikon (a Japanese long and white radish) would relate the vegetable to this Spirit. But who could have imagine that a vegetable spirit could be this kawaii? And the best part is that he is also polite. You can ask him to push the elevator buttons for you and he will graciously bow when we part ways.
During our visit, we have noticed that a shadow has been following us. But once we confront it, the shadow reveals itself to be another Spirit: a shy black one with a mask and markings similar to a face. His name is Kaonashi, which means ‘no-face’, and although he does not speak and is rather shy, he can be adorable. Especially when he is sharing tea with Chihiro or simply staying by her side.
Many have debated on what is Kaonashi’s exact nature. His marks and ability to work with thread suggest that he might be a Silkworm spirit. Nothing better than a cute silkworm to make your next warm winter sweater!
2. Boh and Yubaba’s bird
One of the rooms in this floor is shaking with screams and moans. That must be Boh, Yubaba’s son. He is a giant fat baby, capricious and demanding. By his side on a perch, we surely will find Yubaba’s mascot, a black bird with a face similar to her who spies on their enemies.
Such descriptions are far from kawaii, but you must know that for a while, Boh and Yubaba’s bird were transformed into the cutest mouse and minute crow. These two come as a pair, as they are inseparable.
They accompanied Chihiro throughout her journey and did all kinds of comical things, like trying to knit as well as Kaonashi. Yubaba’s bird pulled Boh as a mouse in the air, and they also get extra points for looking absolutely cute sleeping together in Chihiro’s hands!
1. Susuwatari / Sootballs
And finally, we have to descend to the Bathhouse boilers to meet the cutest characters in the Spirited Away world. They are made of soot and are properly known as Susuwatari.
They are so simple, fuzzy black balls with big white eyes and thin arms and legs, yet small and cute! But do not let their size trick you, they are strong and very useful. In the Bathhouse, their duty is to carry the coal to keep the water at its best temperature. And if you want to make them happy after the long working hours, just pour a konpeito (Japanese candy with star shape) rain over them!
Unfortunately, we have to say goodbye to Yubaba’s Bathhouse and to the kawaii Spirits. It’s time to come back to our world. The genius of Hayao Miyazaki has offered us an incredible story of courage, full of imagination and creative genius. That is why it appeals for both children and adults. And of course it will always be there to warm our hearts!
Did you like this Top 10 of Kawaii Spirited Away characters? Who did we miss? Which other top ten would you like to see in this section? We welcome all your comments and suggestions. See you soon!