Spirited Away - the hero's journey

Return with the elixir – The hero’s journey – Spirited Away

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The Return with the elixir is the 12th and final step in The hero’s journey. Our protagonist has finally killed all the dragons, crossed all the rivers, saved all the princesses and princes, now he gets to come home. But how? And what’s that “elixir” thing that he’s carrying?

What is the Return with the elixir?

At the beginning of his journey, the hero has to Cross the threshold between Ordinary world and Special world. He leaves behind everything he knows and loves to find adventure and danger.

Now it’s the opposite, the hero is leaving the perils of the Special world to go back to the comfort of his land and his people.

The perfect example of this is in the Studio Ghibli movie Spirited Away. Chihiro, our protagonist, crosses the first threshold when she accidentally enters the spirit world, and she comes back to the Ordinary world when she goes back to normality with her parents.

What is the Elixir?

“Something to share with others, or something with the power to heal a wounded land”

– The writer’s journey

The hero doesn’t come back to the Ordinary world empty-handed, he carries something really precious with him, something that will make his life and everyone’s life better than before: the elixir.

What we’re talking about here isn’t an actual object. More often than not, the elixir is the change of the hero’s personality. He might be carrying around an indestructible sword, a magic spellbook or a chemical formula that cures cancer, but those material things are simply metaphors for the real elixir.

All the adventure, the discovery and the new relationships that the protagonist has gone through during The hero’s journey have changed him forever. The real elixir is the change itself that allowed the hero to obtain the precious object he’s carrying now.

Essentially, the elixir is the quality that the protagonist lacked in the beginning. A cowardly girl will become a brave woman. An insecure boy will turn into a confident man.  A selfish man will become a selfless philanthropist etc…

At the beginning of Spirited Away, Chihiro doesn’t appear as the most likable character. She complains a lot, she’s clingy, and whines to her parents. Basically she’s a little girl who has yet to learn about the hardships of life.

What happens to her by the end of the movie? She changes.

The original title of the movie translates to “Sen and Chihiro’s Spiriting Away”. Chihiro is the protagonist’s name, while Sen is the name given to her by Yubaba, but in this version of the title, Chihiro and Sen are treated as two different people.

It makes sense since the Chihiro that we meet at the beginning doesn’t behave like the more mature version of her we see at the end. Her transformation is so radical that she (almost) changes her name and becomes a whole new person (or… spirit?… it’s unclear).

Her elixir is the maturity that she acquired through trial and error. The lessons she has learned about collaboration, hard work, kindness as well as cruelty; all those things make her a better person who’s ready to face her new life.

She might not have a physical object to provide tangible proof of her change, but this doesn’t make her transformation any less meaningful.

return with the elixir - the hero's journey

The hero needs to share the elixir

“Returning with the elixir means implementing change in your daily life and using the lessons of adventure to heal your wounds”

– The writer’s journey

According to Christopher Vogler, the elixir is not something that affects exclusively the hero, the change that it brings into the Ordinary world hits even the people around him.

In Spirited Away this is shown pretty early in the story, even before she has completed the last steps of The hero’s journey.

Each important quality of her personality comes in handy when she has the chance to help someone else:

  • courage = she bravely faces her fear of heights, fights, gets hurt and decides to travel far in order to help Haku
  • maturity = Chihiro takes responsibility for her mistakes by admitting that she was the one who let No Face into the bathhouse and calmly confronts him despite the danger of the situation.
  • kindness = despite the fact that Boh and Yubaba’s bird were both her enemies when she first met them; Chihiro “adopts” them as her new friends and takes good care of them during their adventure, changing Boh for the better.
  • decisiveness = the last test she has to be put through shows that she is no longer the insecure girl of the beginning; she trusts her instincts, realizes that Yubaba is playing a trick on her and this allows her to save her parents.

The end of the journey

This is the final step, the one that concludes The hero’s journey. But now the question is: how does it end?

Open ending

The infuriating kind of ending. Where the biggest questions of the audience aren’t resolved, where the characters are left hanging, and where the message of the story is usually something depressing, dark or cynical.

An open ending, as the name suggests, leaves things “open”. This means that a lot of the conflicts in the story might never be resolved, or maybe they are but at the last minute a brand new conflict pops up and that one is left unresolved.

This is the case for I’m not Okay with this, a series I’ve talked about in a different post. There the main conflict is resolved with the villain exploding, but the new problem of “What is Syd going to do now that she’s become a murderer” is not fixed.

Instead of finding out what happens, we are left with a cliffhanger.

Closed (circular) ending

A closed ending wraps up things neatly and definitively. All the subplots and conflicts are resolved, and sometimes there’s even a “They lived happily ever after” vibe.

This is definitely the case for Spirited Away, and for most of Miyazaki movies in general. Since they take inspiration from myths and tales, it makes sense that, just like them, they would end leaving nothing to be wandered.

Chihiro gets her parents back, Boh manages to find the courage he desperately needed, No Face lives happily with Zeniba, and Haku has the chance to leave Yubaba.

Both the main plot and the subplot reach a satisfying ending.

The writer's journey

Return with the Elixir in a nutshell

As the last stage of the hero’s journey, Return with the elixir has some heavy lifting to do.

In a way, it has the job of making the whole story “make sense”. After all, if the hero has gone through all this trouble for an elixir that doesn’t work, what is the point?

The return with the elixir delivers the final message of the author, the lesson that sticks in the minds of the audience after they have finished the story. “You need to experience hardship in order to mature”, “Be kind and grateful to the people that help you”, “The real parents turning back into humans are the friends we made along the way”.

Part of what I like most about Spirited Away and how it handles its Return with the elixir, is that no matter how old you are, it’s central message is always true. No matter how many times you rewatch the movie, seeing Chihiro transform is always impactful and true.

While watching it in high school, her growth was reflecting the sense of pride and accomplishment that I was feeling while reaching the goals of a teenager (like passing the driving test). Watching it as an adult reminds me of all the cringe-worthy mistakes I made at my first job, and how I manage to gradually get better at “adulting”.

This is the power of a Return with the elixir done exceptionally well, it doesn’t simply wrap up the story, it stays with the audience even after they have left the theatre and continues to teach them lessons about life.


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