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When Zeniba appears in the second half of Spirited Away, she seems as villainous as her sister. Haku in dragon form has swallowed Zeniba's valuable seal, which is cursed, and is dying from internal injuries caused by it. It's clear that Zeniba is only interested in recovering the seal, and is indifferent to his fate. Before attempting to do so she creates some magical mayhem by making Yubaba's son Bo unrecognizable, and transforming a few minor characters. "This is our little secret" she says to Chihiro. "Tell anyone – and I'll rip your mouth out."

However a short time later Chihiro makes her way to Zeniba's rustic cottage, returns the stolen seal and apologises on behalf of Haku. Although Zeniba says she's "still mad" at Haku she seems altogether a different person: a sweet and kind old lady who invites Chihiro and her companions to tea, takes in the homeless and lonely No-Face, and ultimately forgives Haku.

Zeniba and No-Face

In-universe, has Zeniba's character changed dramatically and if so what could account for it? Or does she have a dual nature?

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    Just an opinion, since I haven't seen any "official" explanation, but I'm guessing it's due to the context. When you first see her, she is on her mission in enemy territory, and she acts as one does in that situation. Back in her house she is just back at her house, and acts as one does in that situation. – Misha R Mar 4 at 1:12
  • @Misha R: Her attitude to Haku might be explained by context: from her point of view Haku is probably just Yubaba's thug, and dangerous at that. It's hard to imagine she could have thought Chihiro dangerous though. – Batperson Mar 4 at 1:31
  • Zeniba and Yubaba are both very similar characters and are both "two faced" to some extent. Notice how Yubaba treats the guests at her bathhouse like royalty while treating her employees poorly. Similarly Zeniba, who hates her sister, treats her sister's baby and servants (Haku and the bouncing heads) poorly while seeming very nice and welcoming towards Chihiro who is a guest. – Kyle Mar 4 at 1:40
  • @Kyle: Yubaba puts on a nice face for her customers (as you would expect) but her character doesn't really change. Zeniba seems to go from being outright cruel, to grandmotherly. – Batperson Mar 4 at 1:49
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    @Batperson Her attitude towards Haku has nothing to do with her being in enemy territory. It has to do with Haku stealing something of hers, and her deliberately hunting him down. In fact, Haku is the only one Zeniba actually tries to hurt - her actions towards the rest of the people / creatures in Yubaba's office are limited to pranks and threats. This includes Chihiro, whom Zeniba does not yet know, and has no reason to particularly like. Zeniba is in Yubaba's place among Yubaba's people, and there is no reason for her to be grandmotherly. – Misha R Mar 4 at 2:38
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This will be a long answer.

What is the purpose of somebody's personal seal?

The seal is used as a proof of identity. In medieval times, when most people were illiterate, the way to confirm that a letter you receive was from the person (and wasn't tampered with) is to check the wax seal on the letter. A letter sender would melt the wax then stamp their seal into it. Battles and wars have been lost when a ruler had lost their seal and his orders couldn't be confirmed as valid on the battlefield.

Later on, instead of using sealing wax, humans have developed stamps and seal signatures. First postal stamps were just some ink put on the seal and stamped on the letter as a proof of postage paid. Like this:

Mongol post stamp, by AndreyIobachev

You would go to post office and person working there would stamp your letter with a big wooden or metal seal. But that was making a crowd in post office, a worker would have to stamp every single one of your letters if you had a lot to send and the seal could sometimes be counterfeited. So the post offices started to print postal stamps you could glue on the letters and sell them. You have 100 letters to send? Here's 100 postal stamps, our postal worker doesn't have to stamp 100 letters and waste ink and time.

What does this explanation have to do with anything?

In the story, Haku had basically stolen part of Zeniba's identity by stealing the proof of it. It's an important part, signifying Zeniba's power. Stealing a seal is like stealing somebody's signature. A person could counterfeit a lot of contracts by stealing somebody's seal and using it. Until the seal is returned, Zeniba is a) not herself and b) in huge danger.

Part of her is missing and the person having it can abuse the power it gives them to cause Zeniba harm. Haku did identity theft to Zeniba!

It could be argued that Yubaba did identity theft to both Sen and Haku, but in a much deeper and worse way.

Also there is a difference between a person going to the store to argue about an issue and that same person just chilling at their home. In the first scene, Zeniba was literally following a thief to his hideout, she was on a war path then. After insuring the thief will die even with no further influence of her own, she calmed down, did some mischief and simply went home.

Imagine yourself waking up in the middle of the night and finding a thief in your house. You arm yourself and give chase. You follow the thief to his hideout, then realize that the thief is not alone and would die anyway even if you do not do anything.

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  • All of this seems plausible, but can you back it up with any actual evidence or is this simply your own fan-theory? And if so, why is this any more likely than that the spell that was on the seal is now gone and that that was what was causing her to become enraged (for example) or that her cottage has a calming influence on her (for example) – Valorum Mar 4 at 9:57
  • She was in a better mood even before Sen returned the seal to her. – Valorum Mar 4 at 9:59
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    It's not more likely. But there is difference between a person going to the store to argue about an issue and that same person just chilling at their home. Of course the home has a calming influence on people! Zeniba was literally following a thief to his hideout, she was on a war path then. After insuring the thief will die even with no further influence of her own, she calmed down, did some mischief and simply went home. – jo1storm Mar 4 at 10:10
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    It's not a head canon, it's how people in real world behave. To understand Zeniba's actions, we must know what exactly she is reacting to, how bad is Haku's infraction. At her home, she is not reacting to an infraction. At the bathhouse, she is. – jo1storm Mar 4 at 10:17
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    @Batperson I think that you are making an error in the way you are judging Zeniba's character in the movie. Your claim is that she is acting too aggressively for who she is as a person, an that she is essentially all grandmother. But the movie does not give us a one-dimensional grandma. You are making your personal claim on what Zeniba should be, in spite of the what the movie shows us. She is not all grandmother. She is part fighter. When they are guests returning her seal, she is kind. When she is chasing a thief, she is fierce. She is a multifaceted individual, as people often are. – Misha R Mar 5 at 2:46

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