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In Spirited Away, Chihiro is tested to identify her parents from a group of pigs. Chihiro answers that none of them are.

Good. But how did she come to that conclusion? Surely it made sense to say that none of them were her parents (they're pigs, after all ;D), but is there not a clue or any other hint about Chihiro's answer?

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11 Answers 11

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I believe it's implied that it wasn't a logical or conscious realization; it's a 'link' issue; being her family, she had a bond of some sort with them, and was able to realize that none of the proffered pigs were them.

Kind of consistent with a lot of moral stuff both in the movie and in the genre in general; if you notice, she didn't solve many problems in the movie with brainpower, so much as with 'heart', courage, or determination. She was able to identify (or fail to, in this case) her parents because they were her parents, and there was a significant bond; had there not been one, she would have failed, and deserved to fail, as they weren't significantly a family. (Slightly heavy-handed for a moral point, but it was a kids movie :) )


Edit: See Oriol's answer for quotes from the author supporting the logic. A relevant chunk: "...Chihiro simply knows that her parents aren’t there. You ask why she knows, but knowing is human life. That’s all it is."

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    Ah, of course, I didn't consider the illogical part of the movie :)
    – Saturn
    Oct 4, 2012 at 20:37
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    Yeah; it's easy to forget that many movies we discuss here really were made for (or partially for) kids (that being the 'secret' reason behind JarJar Binks, the Ewoks and others...) This movie, however, was made when Miyazaki took a trip with 5 girls who were friends of the family and all about 10 years old; he realized he had never written for that age range, and based Chihiro on one of them. But, it's still meant to be a movie for kids, with messages on a level for them to pick up :)
    – K-H-W
    Oct 4, 2012 at 22:48
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    Although logically... it would have worked out the same way if there were no link, and she simply thought she could recognize her parents with ease. Personally I think Miyazaki simply saw that this was a better story element than Chihiro correctly choosing her parents, or facing no test at all.
    – Beta
    Oct 11, 2013 at 2:56
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According to Rocket News 24, this is what Miyazaki himself answered a few years ago:

“I’ve never explained why Chihiro knows that her parents are not among the group of pigs towards the end of the film. Those people who are constantly seeking explanations often say that it’s illogical. However, I don’t think those kinds of things are important. After all the things she’s experienced up to that point, Chihiro simply knows that her parents aren’t there. You ask why she knows, but knowing is human life. That’s all it is. If you can point out that something is lacking here or there, then the audience should fill in the gaps for themselves. I don’t want to waste time thinking about those kinds of things.”

More recently, again from Rocket News 24, a Studio Ghibli employee said that Chihiro could tell because she had obtained special abilities in the spirit world:

“Chihiro, as a 10-year-old girl, could understand the difference because she had overcome difficulties and had managed to acquire the ‘energy to live’ – which is something everyone can do naturally”.

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    This should be the approved answer since it is based on actual quotes from Miyazaki.
    – RichS
    Nov 23, 2020 at 19:50
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In the scene with Zeniba, Chihiro asked for a "hint" on how to rescue her parents and Haku. Zeniba explained that if Chihiro has ever met them before, everything stays within. Chihiro was able to break the spell on Haku by recognizing that he was the river spirit and calling out his name. By the same token, she was able to recognize that her parents were not among the pigs assembled. The film implicitly explores what constitutes the physical identity, recognizing the essence or nature within and transcending limitations or boundaries. These themes recur in many paradoxical instances throughout the film e.g. the parents were transformed into pigs as a result of their behavior, Boh chose to remain as a timid mouse even though the spell was already broken, the stink spirit that was reviled but turned out to be a river god that was then lauded even though it was the same being, and so on. These themes are important part of Zen Buddhist philosophy that there is essentially no antithesis and no self.

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methroach wrote:

In fact, Haku told her to remember what they looked like. She later dreamed that she would not be able to distinguish them from the other pigs. But at the end, she was able to tell that they weren't part of the group she was shown because she grew up and gained confidence in herself during her adventures.

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She got told by Haku that if she forgot she wouldn't be able to help her parents and would get stuck in the world of spirits, so she always tried to remember what happened. That's how she could tell.

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Kind of conspiracy but it makes sense. Here it goes: I think that Yubaba (the witch lady who came up with the challenge) didn't know the difference either. By putting pigs that were recently turned into pigs, she guarantees that none of the pigs are Chihiro's parents, and then that nullifies her spell (which states that if Chihiro can tell which pigs are her parents, they can all go home human). That is supposed to make things easier for herself; but all along Chihiro knows its impossible to know which pigs are which, and therefore knows that the witch won't risk something as stupid as putting random pigs together, because the witch herself doesn't know which pigs are her parents. Its complicated, but basically boils down to this: if you figure out the secret to the spell (none of the pigs are her parents), the answer becomes invalid (which one of the pigs are her parents) and thus you deserve the prize (the pigs in question are human again).

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I think in the earlier scene when Chihiro's parents first eat much at the restaurant, they have some kind of hairs left on their head. Meanwhile, the pigs were chosen by Yubaba seem had no hair on their head. But of course it's also a family bond I think

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I think logically this is what happened:

Yubaba uses the test as a last attempt to not let go of Chihiro and her family. Logically she does not know which of the pigs are who anymore as there are no tags or distinguishing features. There are only 2 options: Chihiro got answer incorrect or not. So Yubaba chose some of her workers in the bathhouse and turned them to pigs. If Chihiro does not answer correctly Chihiro and family stay and she can just turn the pigs into workers again. If Chihiro is right the workers will be back and only her parents will be turned into humans (the other greedy humans will stay pigs).

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    I’ve read this a couple of times and I’m not entirely sure how it answers the correctly. It might just be me missing something but could you edit to clarify?
    – TheLethalCarrot
    Nov 23, 2020 at 8:21
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This is what I think happened. I think this was a trick question. Yubaba didn't want Chihiro to go home and leave the spirit world. I don't think Chihiro ( and Yubaba) knows which pigs were there, so there were only two options left: Answer correctly and go home, or answer incorrectly and stay there forever. So, even if Yubaba herself didn't answer correctly, if Chihiro answered that there were her parents in the crate, there would be a greater chance of that being incorrect. I think she knew that, and I think Yubaba did too. I think Chihiro assumed the best answer was that her parents were not in the crate since there was actually more of a chance that her parents were not in the crate because she knew that Yubaba wouldn't risk giving her the chance.

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    Hi, welcome to SF&F. As you say, this is a theory; do you have any evidence it is true? One of the other answers includes a quote from Miyazaki himself saying it was simply something Chihiro knew, without explanation. You're saying she used a game-theory approach to give an optimal answer, which goes against what Miyazaki said. Note that answers are supposed to be based on things we know about a work, not just the theories we have.
    – DavidW
    Aug 21, 2021 at 16:15
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Chihiro noticed that the pigs were very excited and enthusiastic to see her. I believe she has never witnessed her parents act in such way towards her. So maybe thats why

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    Hi, welcome to SF&F. This seems a bit of a stretch, considering we have never seen Chihiro's parents react to a long absence from her; even inattentive parents would be excited to see their child again after a long unexplained absence. Do you have any evidence for this?
    – DavidW
    Oct 13, 2022 at 21:16
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I genuinely think we're all overthinking this. Chihiro proved herself throughout her journey to be kind, brave, resilient, and resourceful. She positively affected everyone around her through her words and actions. Her uncertainty in identifying her parents was paralleled with her uncertainty going down the steps in the beginning of the film. Both requiring a leap of faith. Being able to identify them wasn't the real problem, it was believing she could. Chihiro never goes on a training arc, she doesn't level up her stats. She was already a beautiful person inside at the start of the film. The only lesson she needed to learn was that she was enough. And I think that's a beautiful lesson to teach young children.

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    Jun 3, 2023 at 6:57

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