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Both Spirited Away and Pan’s Labyrinth represent the traditional family unit as an important part of a child’s life. How do the two films convey these messages to the audience?
Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (2001, Japan) and Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006, Spain) are both feature length films which delve into the journey of a young female character experiencing their own personal journeys to achieve different goals. This is achieved by the aid of supporting characters who take on the roles of those in a traditional family.
This may include a mother, father, siblings and others.
The traditional family unit in Spirited Away is absolutely essential to the development of the piece. Chihiro, the main protagonist, throughout the film is on a journey to maturity. At the start, she is represented as a very naï¿½ve and insignificant person. For example, towards the start of the film we see a low-angle shot from behind Chihiro, looking up at the bathhouse.
Just this camera shot already suggests to the audience that the director is portraying her in a stereotypically childlike light; she is wandering into the unknown with a complete lack of self-awareness. In contrast, towards the end of the film, we see Chihiro reach a new level of maturity. If we look at how she reacts to her parents driving her away from her home, friends, and everything that she had become accustomed to; she complains about it, and generally acts childish in her actions, for example when we see her father point out her new school, at which point she sneers and pokes her tongue out at it through the car window.
We can compare this directly to when Chihiro journeys, by train, to return a gold seal to Zeniba. The decision to go was completely self-motivated, brought about solely by her own feelings of responsibility. This in itself conveys messages of maturity. Although we have almost exactly the same situation as at the start of the film in the car (she is travelling to an alien destination), this time she has an awareness of where she is going, and has chosen to take the journey herself. This “path of maturity” becomes an imperative aspect to acknowledge when looking at the supporting characters and their significance.
During the film, her parents are taken away from Chihiro, and she is left alone. However, this triggers a traditional family unit to form around her. From my observations, these surrogate family members include Lin, taking on the “big sister” role, Yubaba, taking the role of a grandmother and Kamaji assuming the father/grandfather/uncle figure. The character of Haku whose relationship with Chihiro is possibly one of the most significant, is also the most debatable and perhaps the hardest to define as part of a family unit.
Looking at the character of Lin, her influence on Chihiro’s development is more than apparent. From the moment that Chihiro becomes employed in the bathhouse, her contact with Lin is very much of a sisterly nature; they share the same daily routine, eat together, sleep together,live together. Being the younger of the two, she would naturally default to mimicking her in everything she does, exactly as a stereotypical older/younger sister relationship would operate, especially concerning their work in the bathhouse. We see this when Chihiro notices how Lin uses the bath tags in a certain manor to receive water from the boiler, and then later when she takes on the task of cleaning the stink spirit, she remembers this and makes use of it several times in order to finish the job at hand. This shows advancement in Chihiro’s independence and ability to adapt to the situation given in the workplace, and these skills are learned directly from Lin. Again, this is undeniable evidence suggesting the importance of a sister figure’s contribution to the traditional family unit.
In the absence of her real mother, Yubaba as the only mature female character in the piece, becomes the obvious choice of surrogate mother/grandmother for Chihiro. The first introduction of Yubaba as a mother/grandmother figure is her naming/re-naming of Chihiro to Sen, like a mother christening her child. The importance of this act is that giving Chihiro a new name in this workplace, which only an adult experiences, is a disciplinary act, giving her a completely different identity, almost forcing Chihiro to become someone else. As in every traditional family, if children are spoilt, they never mature, but if they are disciplined along the way by their mother, they learn respect, appreciation and other such skills. This is another vital step for Chihiro to take on her path to growing up, induced entirely by Yubaba. However we also have the part of Zeniba, who takes on a similar role to Yubaba but in a more affectionate and understanding way. In a stereotypical parental unit there will always be the affectionate side and the disciplinary side in order to ensure a child’s good upbringing.
Kamajii, the boiler man, is conveyed to us as the audience in such a way that we immediately recognise him as very experienced, kindly and possibly wise. Although he is a rather “removed” character in the film, only appearing infrequently, he is only ever welcoming in nature, helping Chihiro at any obstacle that should arise, but at the same time diligently carrying out his work. We see this when he is grinding all sorts of different herbs and spices on his pedestal, but voluntarily he pretends that Chihiro is his granddaughter and requests that Lin takes her to see Yubaba for work. All of these are the traits of a father, however, due to his absence in the film as a whole, he is more like a grandfather, and actually refers to Chihiro as his granddaughter near the beginning of the film. We see this when Chihiro is desperately trying to find a way to get to Zeniba’s place, and Kamajii offers her his only train ticket there. Again, although a seemingly small contribution, everybody needs a bit of stability and support, much like Chihiro did here, and this is exactly what Kamajii’s fatherly character offers.
Haku, being one of the first characters which Chihiro meets within the film, immediately becomes important to her; a lost child in real life would “latch on to” the nearest compassionate figure, and when Haku finds Chihiro, this is precisely what happens. More than that; however, particularly in such unfamiliar surroundings, this boy being the first person that she meets and him even rescuing her from death, forms a unique relationship between the two, which lasts throughout the film.
It is because of this that Chihiro possibly cares about him more than any other character in the film, and certainly, Haku cares for her more than any other character. We see this several times, for example when Chihiro notices Haku, as a dragon, flying into a window of the bath house, in a bloody state. Chihiro is desperate to try and help Haku, and chases him up to Yubaba’s room to do this. The significance of this, is that due to these romantic or otherwise feelings, Chihiro was shown by Haku how to care for someone at the start of the film, and in the example given, she mirrors Haku in this, giving direct evidence to suggest that Haku, interpreted as a family figure or not, is still a massive influence in Chihiro’s personal development.
So the ideology of this film seems to, certainly, be that a strong family unit is absolutely vital for the development of a child.
In Pan’s Labyrinth, our central character is the young Ofelia, and we are straight away shown a typical parent-child situation with her mother Carmen in the backseat of a car; Carmen is telling Ofelia that she is too old for books and fairy tales. We can suggest that probably the most prominent development in Ofelia’s character, throughout the film, is how she becomes notably more courageous, in a rebellious manner. This is not necessarily to say that Ofelia doesn’t demonstrate courage and self-determination towards the beginning of the film, for example, she independently wanders off into the labyrinth to find Pan the faun quite early on the piece. However, if we particularly observe her actions towards the Captain, her step-father, as the piece progresses, Ofelia, without doubt, feels more confident to rebel against him with more audacity, and greater consequence. For example, Ofelia seemingly unintentionally offers the Captain her left hand at the start of the film, a comparatively minor act of disrespect, but nearing the end, she even has enough daring to go so far as to steal her baby brother from his room.
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that the main heroine in the film develops due to supporting characters taking on family orientated roles, much in the same way as in Spirited Away. What does differ though is that Ofelia actually has her real mother for the majority of the piece – although her presence fades throughout the film, she is still present. This distinction is vital to acknowledge as a mother figure, for a young girl, will probably the most influential person in the shaping of their own character. Her mother aside, our traditional family unit members include Mercedes, as a big sister/mother role and Pan, as the only possible fatherly figure the piece.
Much like in Spirited Away, where Yubaba is instantly recognised as an evident adult figure, due to her being introduced in the workplace and her business-like nature, we can also instantly identify Carmen as an adult because she is portrayed as a mother above all else in the film, being in her pregnant state. In terms of Carmen’s impact on Ofelia, the main citation to be made is how Carmen shows devotion to her children, which Ofelia learns, and employs later in the film. For example, we see how Carmen marries a man, who she debatably doesn’t even love, in order to bring a safe environment to her children, showing a great deal of affection to her children.
Even though all logic would lead Ofelia to care very little about her brother, (he is the cause of her mother’s death and Captain Vidal’s son) she ends up giving her life for him at the end of the film, almost mirroring her mother’s actions, proving to the audience that Ofelia has gained skills from her mother, conveying messages of massive importance upon the part of a motherly figure in a traditional family unit, relating directly back to the question.
The character of Mercedes is without question, the most appropriate person to take on a sisterly role for Ofelia. We can quite easily make the connotation that, due to Mercedes’ and Ofelia’s almost identical circumstances (they are both at the mercy of the captain), Mercedes can simply be described as an older version of Ofelia. Furthermore, both of these characters’ close relations come to harm at the hands of the captain. We see this when the captain instructs the doctor that, if the baby can be saved, then Carmen’s welfare is negligible. Also Mercedes’ comrade, one of the Guerrilla rebels, is eventually tortured by the captain and killed. Ofelia in fact looks to Mercedes as more of a role model after her mother dies, and possibly identifies her as a secondary/replacement mother figure.
Much like in Spirited Away, Ofelia’s loss of parentage leaves her with no choice but to “latch on to” the nearest affectionate character, here being Mercedes. So overall, Mercedes’ greatest contribution to Ofelia’s development is that of displaying courage, particularly in rebelling against Captain Vidal, which Ofelia learns from and mimics, much like a younger sister would do. We see this quite clearly when Mercedes seeks out Ofelia and tries to escape with her near the end of the film. After Carmen’s death, Mercedes is Ofelia’s new role model, Ofelia goes on to steal the baby from the captain, a courageous, and rebellious, skill learnt directly from Mercedes, the evident sister figure in the piece.
Pan, the faun, is a very interesting character in terms of analysis. It is he who actually opens up this supernatural world to Ofelia, which is what makes him interesting, because he could be interpreted as a character which does not develop Ofelia, but actually completely the opposite, simply due to the fact that he widens this supernatural world, which Ofelia creates through her childlike imagination. This can be seen by the way that he sets out a task for Ofelia in order to become Princess Moanna of the underworld, and stay a child forever. Conversely, Pan, being a seemingly authoritative figure in this strange world, actually makes rules within this world i.e. he tells Ofelia that these various tasks must be completed in a certain fashion e.g. he instructs her not to touch the fruit in the second task. Be this imaginary or not, this makes him become an embodiment of discipline for Ofelia, taking on the role of a “replacement father”. This is very similar again, to Yubaba’s role in Spirited Away.
Laying out rules for Ofelia in each of the tasks that he sets her, forces her to independently mature and stick to the rules, very unlike the actions of a child, clearly benefiting her. Because nobody seems to step in and take the role of Ofelia’s father, it is rather convenient that it is Pan who induces Ofelia to rebel against the Captain, steal the baby, and for the final goal to re-unite Ofelia with her real father. This is so significant in the sense that, this is very likely exactly what a stereotypical father would do if one were still present. Relating back to the question, if we remember that the only missing member of Ofelia’s family unit is a father, Pan could well be Ofelia’s attempt at completing this broken family unit through her imagination.
If we then look at what this suggests about the ideology of Pan’s Labyrinth, it seems to me that it could suggest the same as Spirited Away but also, when taken out of the comfort zone of a strong family unit, it can actually force a child to mature in a greater way than with one.
Through close analysis of both films, it has become clear that children crave the stability that the traditional family unit provides. They also thrive in it. Both central female characters in each film, undoubtedly piece together some kind of family in whatever way they can, in the absence of their actual family members.
However it has also become apparent that people around characters who lack stability, are without question, drawn to filling those roles. When looking at the evidence given for each character explored in the two products, it would be a huge understatement to say that each member of the traditional family unit doesn’t have a massive impact on the central protagonist. The two films convey the messages of family importance in such a way that without the supporting family characters whose roles are taken on within each piece, the actions and development of both Ofelia and Chihiro in their respective films would both be completely different without the presence of these characters.
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