Chihiro Grows Up: Defying the Infantilization of the Disney Princess

Curator's Note

Studio Ghibli, the most prominent animation studio in Japan, has become a notable organization for presenting alternative coming-of-age stories to stereotypical Disney Princess narratives. As Studio Ghibli’s films were critically acclaimed and Disney was struggling with its own productions pre 90s, they decided to acquire the distribution rights to Studio Ghibli’s library in 1996 (this was also a period when there was an increase in quality moviemaking at the Disney headquarters).

Disney released the Japanese Studio’s flagship film, Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (2001), to Western audiences in 2002 with an English dub. It won the Academy Award for the Best Animated Feature Film in 2003. According to Roger Ebert’s 2002 review of Spirited Away, a large part of the film’s critical success is due to “Miyazaki’s works (“My Neighbor Totoro,” “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” “Princess Mononoke”) hav[ing] a depth and complexity often missing in American animation.” (1) Ebert notes that this complexity is apparent because of Miyazaki’s incorporation of “Ma,” or gratuitous animation that makes the film seem realistic. Yet, Ebert does not note a more explicit justification for why these films are notable in the animation movie canon–they contain strong female leads which are unseen in pre-2000 animated Disney films.

This piece highlights how Spirited Away’s heroine, Chihiro, subverts the Disney Princess tropes. I compare Spirited Away to one of Disney’s flagship films, Beauty and the Beast (1991). Beauty is a fruitful film to compare to Spirited Away as it is one of Disney’s few animated films to be nominated for the Best Picture Award. Beauty is like Spirited Away in plot–an adolescent girl transitions into a young woman. However, Beauty’s protagonist, Belle, becomes a passive princess. Chihiro, on the other hand, evolves into an independent adult.

In Beauty, Belle’s father is imprisoned by Beast for trespassing. Belle crosses into the spirit world to save him. In Spirited Away, Chihiro and her parents explore the ruins of an old amusement park, only to realize that they have entered a whimsical space. Chihiro’s parents turn into pigs for feasting on the spirits’ food without their permission. She must rescue them.

Chihiro submits to her parent’s captor, Yubaba, to recover them. Likewise, Belle must placate Beast by surrendering herself to him to save her father from incarceration (beast allows for a prisoner exchange: Belle for her father, thus she is hopeful that Beast will later release her). Beast hopes to convince Belle to love him. In Belle’s journey to earn Beast’s trust, she is overcome by Stockholm Syndrome. This is a win for Beast, but a loss for young girls who “learn” from Disney’s fables.

In Spirited Away, Chihiro helps Yubaba overcome her need to control people. And Chihiro reunites Yubaba with her Twin Sister, Zeniba. In doing this, Chihiro overcomes her passive position.

Although Studio Ghibli presents progressive portrayals of young women learning to navigate the world, Disney has never promoted Studio Ghibli’s films. In 2011 Gkids acquired the rights to the North American distribution of Studio Ghibli’s library. In 2019, HBO Max attained the streaming rights to the Studio Ghibli canon. HBO’s quality TV and film curating proves to be intact in the streaming era. Disney launched its own streaming service (titled Disney+) on November 12th, 2020 without a single Studio Ghibli film to be found. Did Disney ever buy into the art of Studio Ghibli’s vision? Or were they content with archiving films that they felt raised young women?


  1. Ebert, Roger. “Spirited Away Review.” September 20, 2002,


A really necessary topic to include in the theme week, Ryan, and one I think you've expressed eloquently.

Female protagonists like Kiki, Nausicaä, Taeko in Only Yesterday, and Anna in When Marnie Was There not only support your claims for Ghibli's female leads being active rather than passive because of their independence (romance is always secondary to self-discovery), but, I would argue, their complexity.  Ghibli female protagonists struggle, have doubts, and learn lessons equal to their representation of determination, resiliance, and cleverness.  What's more - and I bring this up because you mention Yubaba - the female antagonists often share in this same complexity.  Here I'm thinking of Lady Eboshi in Princess Mononoke, the Witch of the Wastes in Howl's Moving Castle, and Yubaba in Spirited Away.  Their presentation seems to also fall far outside of the Disney paradigm, where villains usually conform to rather one-dimensional motivations (greed, vanity, jealousy).  I don't have a particular question per say, but am curious if you have any further thoughts on the Ghibli female antagonist in contrast to the Disney female villain, since your post got me thinking in that direction.

Thank you very much for the kind comment.


Yes, I agree with you about the Studio Ghibli villains. They are multi-dimensional rather than “flat” characters, and I do not think that they fall into one specific category, (e.g. good or bad). I think that the villains could have been my topic for discussion just as easily as the protagonists. In many ways, we could examine the trajectory of the villains such as Yubaba and note how her character arc implicates her as a complex character, just like Chihiro. In regard to your question about a comparison between the Disney antagonists and Ghibli ones, I think that the Ghibli antagonists need to be as complex as the protagonists in order for the text to work as well as it does. If Yubaba was solely evil and unreasonable then, Chihiro would not have been able to relate to her or help her. I can’t imagine Ariel helping Ursula at the end of The Little Mermaid (1989) nor could I envision Belle befriending Gaston (although it is alarming that Belle marries a man who captured her and her father–which is literally what Gaston did…but this is the point of my post). With Ghibli, no one character is a certain way. I think that these constructions of characters are conducive to teaching children about people. One’s boss might be demanding and unfair at times and thus seen as callous. But they also might expect a lot from their workers and genuinely care about the company. In this way, the Ghibli films are preparing youth for the real world, whereas I see the Disney films (at least the pre-2000s Disney movies) much more as fantasy.

Completely agree with your sentiment here, Ryan!  It's very much a two sides to one coin situation, where the protagonist and antagonist have to be in sync, in terms of complexity.  Like you, I cannot imagine a villain being reformed or choosing to reform in the standard Disney animated film.  And I entirely chalk that up to the differences in cultural morality at play.  As an American studio, Disney promotes traditionalist, even religious notions of good and evil.  Whereas Ghibli comes from a more collectivist ideology of working together to understand one another and move forward.  Like you say, the arcs of the protag and antag have to support one another to get that message across.  What's a little interesting to me, is how two recent Disney animated films have (maybe) taken some influence from the Ghibli model.  Say what you will about Frozen (trust me, I could say a lot of negative things), but Elsa is presented as a complex antagonist figure.  Though Hans, ultimately, becomes the de facto one-dimensional Disney baddie, Elsa is both sympathetic and a source of conflict during the film's second act.  I am also a fan of the way Moana exorcises any sort of love interest from the film and instead centers her arc entirely around self-actualization, which feels very Ghibli-esque.

Really appreciate you taking the time to contribute and post your additional thoughts!

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