‘Call Me Chihiro’ Characters, Explained: Exploring Loneliness And Sadness In Rikiya Imaizumi’s Film

Rikiya Imaizumi adapts the story of a former sex worker named Chihiro from the manga “Chihiro-san” by Hiroyuki Yasuda in the movie “Call Me Chihiro.” The eponymous character is a woman whose personality seems almost too benevolent to be real, but she’s perhaps one of the most selfless characters we’ve seen in Japanese movies for a while. The movie is about Chihiro and her tenure as a worker in a bento shop, the lives she touches during this time, and how she improves everyone for the better. Every person that comes in contact with her instantly comes to take a liking for her because of the delightful personality she has, but underneath, she hides an ocean of sadness that never fills. The movie can make for a light-hearted watch with a few tears here and there because of the themes of sadness and loneliness that the following characters poignantly express.


Spoilers Ahead

Chihiro (Kasumi Arimura)

From the get-go, Chihiro earns a spot in the warm corners of our hearts when we see her play with a fuzzy cat named Madame on the streets, petting her and following the cat around on all fours. A 29-year-old cashier in a bento shop, Chihiro is a former sex worker who is well-liked by male customers because of how playfully unabashed she is in accepting her past. Chihiro enjoys going on swings and playing with children on monkey bars, and she could be best described as a light breeze on a summer day, glossing through life like a rolling stone. The kind smile she wears makes it very easy for people to accept her as a homily person whom everyone can be friends with. Chihiro happens to attract like-minded people – or in this case, others who are equally lonely and melancholic as she is. She doesn’t think twice before offering her bento box to a raggedy homeless man and inviting him to her home to offer him a bath. Even when a pesky kid stabs her in the arm with a compass when she grabs him for annoying her, she offers him a bento box and becomes friends with him, along with a high schooler named Okaji. Interestingly, Chihiro is just a nickname, and her real name is Aya.


Chihiro’s approach to life might be questioned, given how selflessly she lives and how she willingly devotes a large portion of her time to people who might be starved for company and affection. Her caring nature has never been one where she expects anything in return, and it’s purely benevolence and selflessness that drive her. Upon finding the homeless man lying dead in a deserted byway, Chihiro buries the man all alone, and she does the same for a dead bird she finds. As a former sex worker, she has met a lot of people, one of whom even stabbed her in the back, but she doesn’t hold a grudge, nor does she feel remorse over the hurt she has experienced over the years. A woman so kind and so giving, who loves spending time with the woman whom she replaced at the bento shop because the elderly woman’s eyesight failed, did take something once. She took on the name of the first sex worker she ever met when she was a little girl of 9 or 10, who was probably the first person to complement Aya’s cooking.

Beyond this bubbly charm and effervescent nature that can cure even the gloomiest moods and feels like the first rays of sun after a heavy rain, Chihiro suffers from extremes of loneliness. The reason she keeps finding people who are broken and suffering, only to heal them emotionally, is because she’s as broken and in pain as the ones she finds. Chihiro keeps saying she’s from a different planet—something she had first heard one of her clients talk about—and has rarely found people who she felt belonged to her planet. There’ve been two people amidst the countless countenances she has encountered: the first was the sex worker Chihiro, who sat and enjoyed the little Aya’s Norimaki, and the second was the elderly woman named Tae, whom she thought of as a mother. She learns that her mother has passed but chooses to avoid going to her funeral and goes through a strange phase of shutting herself in, trying to figure herself out. In the end, she doesn’t make any substantial discoveries; maybe she smiles a little less. Struggling to find her own crowd throughout her life, Chihiro does put together a group of people who were lonely by themselves but, united by Chihiro, became a close-knit group, but she leaves. It’s not like she was looking for something that she finally found because she abandoned the bento shop she used to work at and joined a cattle ranch as a ranch hand. The only thing that changed, though, was her background. Now, Chihiro would say that she used to work at a bento shop because it was during this time that she met some of the best people she had ever encountered.


Seo “Okaji” Kuniko (Hana Toyoshima)

The first time you meet Seo, she might come off as a creep, clicking pictures of Chihiro surreptitiously and then looking at them during her class. Seo is part of a girls’ group where the others are obsessed with characters from anime, and that’s all they ever converse about. Back home, she’s the elder daughter of a conservative father and a submissive mother, and the patriarchal backdrop of the family is a huge reason for her timid disposition. Whatever her father says, the rest of the family—three women—are expected to quietly accept it. It’s only when Seo meets Chihiro that she gets the sense of what a “family” should feel like. Thanks to Chihiro, she’s also introduced to another girl, who’s also in her school, named Betchin. Seo and her become manga buddies, and the bashful Seo suddenly hugs Betchin one day, and she even takes up tutoring and playing with the little kid named Makoto (Tetta Shimada). Throughout her life, Seo has been the loner—she was the quiet one in her group, and the moment she expressed her dislike for the anime the other girls were obsessing over, she was written off.

Seo, much like Chihiro, has never quite felt at home with her family, which is why, even though her mother was a trained chef who made exquisite meals, the food never really tasted very scrumptious. Chihiro tells Seo that she believes in sharing food because food tastes better when eaten with the right people. Seo’s family sat to eat together, and her father planned to take her for pottery classes one weekend, but there was no warmth in any of the actions, and her mother heavily took her husband’s side—dutiful and obedient wife that she was. This meekness of her mother finally frustrates Seo one day when she’s caught making rice cakes by her mother and is blamed for the fact that the girl doesn’t understand her mother. She retorts loudly that her mother doesn’t know her either before heading to Makoto’s house with the rice cakes. That night, sitting at the disheveled table with the hurriedly made noodles that Makoto’s mom brings, Seo breaks down in tears. She finally knows how a real family feels and how humans who love each other behave. This behavior is seen once again at the big rooftop gathering where all of Chihiro’s close people gather for food, and Seo plays with Makoto, finally having found her tribe of people.


Satake Makoto (Shimada Tetta)

Makoto arrives on the screen to scare Chihiro with a plastic snake and stabs her in the arm with his compass when she decides to discipline him. Makoto is a little child and is at the age where he needs a parent’s love and attention the most, but his single mother spends her entire day working and collapses in bed when she returns. Despite the little care he receives from his mother, Makoto remembers to praise his mother’s fried noodles while eating with Chihiro and Seo, the two people who feel like family to the kid. He even makes a card and buys a bouquet for his mother’s birthday after seeing a commercial for the same on TV, and at such a young age, he’s quite capable of heating his own food, pouring juice, and eating all by himself. Even though he has had to learn to be independent to avoid starvation, the love and guidance that his mother isn’t able to provide come from Chihiro, whom he comes to see as a surrogate mother, and Seo as an elder sister. The independence, however, is a double-edged sword because Makoto will grow up knowing not much else other than loneliness unless his mother can be there for him a little longer.

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Indrayudh Talukdar
Indrayudh Talukdar
Indrayudh has a master's degree in English literature from Calcutta University and a passion for all things in cinema. He loves writing about the finer aspects of cinema, although he is also an equally big fan of webseries and anime. In his free time, Indrayudh loves playing video games and reading classic novels.

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