I recently watched Studio Ghibli’s film Spirited Away in the original Japanese with subtitles for the first time. Shockingly, I noticed a number of storytelling differences from the dubbed version of the film I’ve watched for so many years. Adding my rudimentary understanding of the Japanese language, I picked up a few more differences fans of the English version of the film wouldn’t know. I stand to be corrected by anyone with a better understanding of the Japanese language and the creative choices made by the dubbing team, but here are some little tidbits (that change one’s viewpoint a little) I’m excited to share with y’all.
Haku’s full name is Nigihayami Kohakunushi (“flourishing swift-flowing amber (river) god”) The dubbed version of the film tells us his full name is simply Kohaku River, but the original Japanese gives us a longer, more Kami worthy title.
Zeniba refers to Haku as Chihiro’s “dragon boyfriend” in a conversation between Chihiro and Zeniba
Meanwhile the English dub edges around the question, “Are Haku and Chihiro in love?” Way to jump to the chase, Zeniba!
Both Chihiro and Haku call Kamaji “Grandfather,” and Chihiro calls Zeniba “Grandmother” without being asked to.
Although it’s very common in Japan for children to refer to their elders as “Grandmother” or “Grandfather”, this adds an interesting boyish element to Haku’s character and gives Chihiro an extra level of maturity. She’s got this scenario, and she knows how to properly respond to her new acquaintances.
The bathhouse workers use the honorific “Sama” (the most formal honorific used to address guests, customers and divine individuals) when addressing Yubaba or Haku or any of the bathhouse guests.
This gives us an early hint at Haku’s River Spirit status and shows the respect he receives working his job as Yubaba’s accountant. (Yes, if you didn’t already know, according to The Art of Spirited Away, the position Haku holds at the bathhouse, beyond evil apprentice, is accountant.)
The final three lines of the dubbed film are only in the dub.
The dub ends with Chihiro’s parents asking her if she’ll be alright in a new environment and Chihiro responding “I think I can handle it.” However, this section was completely added for the English dub and the Japanese film simply ends with the family driving away. We’ve seen Chihiro handle it, we don’t need verbal proof.
Yubaba promises to kill Haku after he safely returns Chihiro and her parents to the spirit world.
It’s a really good thing Chihiro returned Haku’s name! After Yubaba realizes her baby is missing and strikes up a deal with Haku, promising to return Chihiro and her parents if she can pass a final test, Yubaba asks “What about you?” Haku doesn’t answer and Yubaba, out of vengeance, promises to kill him. That no longer applies when he has his name back, tho! (Luckily)
Instead of implying Haku became Yubaba’s apprentice out of the desire to learn magic, the sub suggests he became her apprentice due to his dragon instincts and claims dragons are drawn to magic and magic users.
Which puts a completely different spine on his character. Moreover, it gives you the feeling that maybe he’s a little bit more dragon than human (or a lot bit). This is an interesting piece of Studio Ghibli dragon lore to play with!
The river Haku presides over was redirected underground instead of filled in as the dub suggests. And at the end of the film, it’s implied Haku plans on returning to his domain.
So that’s a lot more hopeful than the dub’s implications of Haku’s homelessness by the end of the film. It also explains why returning Haku’s name frees him and gives us hope Haku and Chihiro’s interchange at the end of the film may become reality. They already met once in the human world, why not again?
Haku uses the Japanese word “Watashi,” meaning “I” (instead of the more masculine“Boku”)
Watashi can be used by both genders but is usually seen as feminine. Isn’t it a pity there’s no way to really replicate Watashi in English?
EXTRA: About the Voice Actors
The original Japanese voice actors for Chihiro and Haku (Rumi Hiiragi and Miyu Irino) were only 14 and 13 respectively in 2001 when the voice recording was recorded.
Miyu Irino Haku’s voice actor went on to voice a number of other roles in Japanese including Shoyo Ishida, the lead from the anime film A Silent Voice (currently on Netflix) and Koushi Sugawara from the smash hit anime Haikyu!! (the first two seasons of which are also on Netflix.)
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