Adventure is an exciting word. We think of journeys across windswept seas to find buried treasure and battles with gnarled monsters from subterranean depths. Adventure is about excitement and new experiences. It’s about entering boldly into the unknown. In my last post I wrote about the need to say yes to the call to adventure. I said that it’s only when we enter into the unfamiliar and uncomfortable that we make room for growth. But sometimes we’re led in the wrong direction. There are times when adventure can bring us to a dark place where the only way out is to find the way back. As C.S. Lewis says, sometimes progress doesn’t mean going forward, but rather turning right around and going in the opposite direction. Adventurers should take note. Openness gets you started on the journey, but discernment tells you which way you’re going.
If an adventurer isn’t careful they might be swept away by their circumstances. That’s what happens in the 2001 animated film Spirited Away, written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki. It begins with a journey. The girl named Chihiro is moving to a new home with her parents. But the story really gets going when something happens on the car ride. One moment they’re cruising through the suburbs and the next they’re on a dirt road surrounded by forest. Chihiro doesn’t like the looks of the swaying trees, but her father welcomes the situation and plows eagerly ahead. He claims he’s not worried because he has four-wheel drive. And this is where our characters start to go wrong. They don’t understand that they’ve been sidetracked from their destination and brought to the doorstep of another world. Chihiro’s father sees himself as capable of conquering everything he sees. He hasn’t learned yet that not every situation can be approached boldly with an impatient stride and an upright posture. Sometimes having your knees knocking together and your head stooped humbly is the appropriate response. And sometimes it’s better to keep your footing and run the other way.
Chihiro and her parents find themselves in another world, a world of spirits where Japanese mythology comes to life. They pass by a shrine on the road but don’t pay too much attention. Chihiro is the only one of the three who gives it a second thought. Most of us don’t expect to encounter a whole magical world around the next corner. And even if we did, these days the word magical has mainly positive connotations. A magical day is a great day. Disneyland is called the Magic Kingdom. Chihiro’s father even says that the town they come across looks like an abandoned theme park. To us a little magic sounds like entertainment. It’s a welcome escape from the modern inconveniences of commuter traffic, hackers, and the threat of nuclear war. But people haven’t always thought that way. In the past magic had real power over people. It was a world with a spirit behind every tree and at the bottom of every well. Our ancestors had greater respect, you might even say fear, of magical powers. While I'm not advocating a return to a world held in bondage by those superstitions, I think we can still remember to have a healthy respect for what we don’t fully understand. And we should watch out the moment we find ourselves being pulled towards whatever promises to be the primrose path.
There are consequences for those who plunge ahead into the waves without looking downriver. In Spirited Away the cost is your very identity. Chihiro’s parents, having trespassed into another world, greedily devour the first food they find and get transformed into pigs. Chihiro escapes this fate, but loses her identity in another way. In order to gain some protection for herself in the world of spirits, Chihiro gets a job working for the sorceress Yubaba. Chihiro signs a contract giving Yubaba the power to, wait for it, take away Chihiro’s name and give her the new name Sen. Wait, is that it? Getting a nickname doesn’t sound like too much of a sacrifice. Does it really matter what people call you? As it turns out, in this story names matter.
Chihiro’s only friend in spirit world, the boy Haku, tells her, “Without your real name, you’ll never find your way home.” Well, that’s unfortunate. This entire story is about Chihiro, aka Sen, trying to get back to her own world. And now she’s given away her only escape. As time goes on, she begins to forget her original name and answers only to Sen. The spirit world is tricky that way. Whether it transforms you into a pig or makes you forget your own name, it seems to quickly gain the upper hand if you let its rushing current carry you off. Haku admits sadly that he himself has forgotten his original name.
So, does that mean all hope is lost? It seems like it. Sen doesn’t remember her name. Neither does Haku. Perhaps the optimist in us would say that they should look at this as a chance to reimagine themselves. They should go with the flow and take this opportunity to leave the past behind. They should embrace their newfound freedom to become whoever they want to be. Sometimes we think that the call to adventure means we have to change into a completely different person. We think that before we can be successful in life we need to become like somebody else. The pull may be so subtle that we do this unconsciously. But the call to adventure is really about becoming more yourself than you ever were. It’s about discovering your true self and purpose, not about allowing it to be covered over.
At the same time, it’s not all about you. One of the great consolations of life is community. We’re not alone. Other people give us something to fight for, to live and die for. They help us fulfill our purpose. After signing Yubaba’s contract, Chihiro can’t remember her name by herself. But she isn’t by herself. She can rely on her friend Haku to tell her. Similarly, in the end it’s Chihiro who discovers Haku’s true name and helps restore him to his identity and calling. Often the people closest to you are able to see you better than you do. Chihiro and Haku give each other a real gift. They catch a glimpse of who the other person is, who they were born to be. They help each other to see themselves with new eyes.
The old and the new come together in the call to adventure. I’ve talked before how the call to adventure is about growth, a word which encompasses both change and continuity. Think of a tree sapling. As it grows it changes, towering higher and higher, its branches spreading outwards. At the same time it’s still a tree. It has the same genetics, the same rings underneath its bark. It’s just growing into its true self. If that tree were to fall into a river and get washed away, it wouldn’t be a tree anymore. It would be driftwood. The call to adventure is the call to become yourself. You may have taken some wrong turns or gotten stuck. But you can still choose to come back. That's when your true colours shine through.
In Spirited Away Chihiro goes down a dark road indeed. She gets lost in a mysterious world and comes close to losing her very self. As far as fantasy worlds go, the spirit world is probably one of the worst to be trapped in. Which makes it all the more chilling when she begins to forget her own name, her only means of escape. Chihiro takes a wrong turn and is swept away. I'm reminded of a line from the Christmas classic Elf. In one scene our main character Buddy encounters a mailroom worker who’s disappointed with how his life has turned out. When Buddy advises him to “go with the flow,” the worker responds, “No! I got to get out of the flow, that's what got me here.” When we drift through life we let circumstances take control. If we passively accept everything, then we’re in danger of losing all that’s important.
Chihiro recognizes that even when we fail and lose our way, we can choose to put up a fight against whatever river current we’re caught in. She fights not just for herself to return home, but for her parents and her friend Haku. Rather than being distracted by tasty food or the promises of wealth and power that this other world offers, Chihiro chooses to resist the flow which threatens to carry her off. Because when we remember what it means to be home, what it means to belong and be valued for who we are, we find the strength to take a stand for what matters.
David Raphael Hilder
Join the conversation as we explore the best of classic fantasy literature and beyond.