Baba Yaga and Spirited Away

Most of us have seen or heard of at some point Hayao Miyazaki’s animated film Spirited Away. Just in case, I’ll give a quick summary. It starts with ten year old Chihiro Ogino and her parents as they are driving to their new house. After taking a wrong turn her father insists they explore what looks to be an abandoned theme park. Little do they know, the park is really a gateway into a magical world. Her parents are turned into pigs and Chihiro is trapped in the spirit world. She is forced to take a job working in a spirit bathhouse under Yubaba. Yubaba is an old witch who owns the bathhouse; she is also the one who turned Chihiro’s parents into pigs. Here, Chihiro works, makes friends, and solves a variety of different conflicts. Eventually, she is able to make a deal with Yubaba, and after passing a test she is allowed to leave with her parents, who have no memory of the event. I know I’m leaving a lot out here (Haku, No-Face, Kamaji, Lin, Zeniba, etc.); there is so much going on in this movie. For the purposes of this blog, I’ll be focusing primarily on Yubaba and her similarities to Baba Yaga of Russian folklore. Below I’ve included a list of characteristics about the characters Yubaba and Zeniba from Spirited Away vs. some characteristics of Baba Yaga from traditional Russian magic tales.…0…1ac.1.64.img..0.8.396.617Sg3SClAY#tbm=isch&q=spirited+away+yubaba&


-is a very old, ugly woman
-has magical powers (takes names of people to bind them to her, curses, etc.)
-is intimidating (yells a lot at Chihiro, regularly threatens her, etc.)
-has a giant baby called Boh
-lives in the bathhouse (in her office)
-bathhouse is on a boundary place (edge of river)
-runs a spirit bathhouse
-is a tester/donor figure to Chihiro (makes Chihiro work for her, eventually allows her to leave with parents)
-is morally ambivalent (has genuine affection for Boh, eventually keeps her word to Chihiro)
-has a bird-servant who acts as her spy
-makes Chihiro work in the bathhouse bathing disgusting spirits
-indirectly helps Chihiro mature
-is on some sort of boundary point between life and death (I mean, she runs a spirit bathhouse, how could she not be?)
-eventually keeps her word (gives Chihiro back her name and lets her leave with her parents)


-is a very old, ugly woman
-has magical powers (transformation, curses, etc.)
-is intimidating (when she first meets Chihiro, she threatens to rip her mouth out)
-is the twin sister of Yubaba
-lives alone in a hut that is on a boundary point (island)
-is morally ambivalent (threatens Chihiro and Haku multiple times, but eventually proves very helpful to Chihiro and is very nice)
-acts as a tester/donor figure to Chihiro (she became helpful/nice only after Chihiro walked to her hut to apologize about the seal on Haku’s behalf)
-eventually gives Chihiro her help and advice (encourages Chihiro to remember Haku’s real name, forgives Haku and stops trying to kill him)


-is a very old, ugly woman (the tales always describe her specifically this way)
-has magical powers (can fly, cast spells, transform things, etc.)
-controls aspects of nature (horsemen in “Vasilisa the Fair”)
-is intimidating (she lives in a hut surrounded by chicken bones and often threatens to eat people)
-flies using a mortar and pestle
-has “babies” (various reptiles and amphibians she often asks the protagonist to bathe)
-lives alone
-eats people who displease her
-(often) lives in a hut on chicken legs
-house/hut is in a boundary place (forest, field, beach, etc.)
-house/hut is very portal-like (in many tales the protagonist has to ask it to turn a certain way in order to enter)
-house/hut fenced in by human bones
-is associated with bathhouses (not something we touched on much in the tales we’ve read other than that she often has the protagonist bathe things, but Jillian mentioned it in recitation)
-is usually a tester/donor figure (has protagonist perform certain tasks or pass certain tests before rewarding or punishing them)
-is morally ambivalent (eats people, is scary, but usually sticks to her word and can be helpful)
-is associated with birds, often has bird-servants (like the “Swan Geese” tale for example)
-theorized to be guardian of life and death
-also theorized to be guardian/initiator of childhood and adulthood

When testing a female protagonist, she will often…
-make them complete seemingly impossible household chores (“Vasilisa the Fair”)
-have them cook dinner (“Vasilisa the Fair”)
-have them wash her “babies” (frogs, toads, snakes, lizards, etc.) (“Baba Yaga”)

When she is done testing a protagonist, she will…
-punish them if they haven’t been up to standard (the stepsister in “The Stepdaughter and the Stepmother’s Daughter”)
-reward them with gifts and/or advice (fiery skull from “Vasilisa the Fair”)
-keeps her word and let them go (all Baba Yaga tales)

I wish I could have put the Yubaba/Zeniba stuff side by side with the Baba Yaga stuff for comparison’s sake, but I couldn’t figure out how to do so on wordpress formatting. One other thing about Baba Yaga is that in many tales, there are multiple Yagas who act as tester/donors to the hero. The tale that comes to mind immediately is “Finist the Bright Falcon.” So Yubaba and Zeniba being twins sort of correlates with that. But yeah anyway, the similarities between Baba Yaga and Yubaba/Zeniba do kind of make me wonder if Miyazaki drew from Russian folklore, or if Japanese folklore has a character similar to Yaga that Yubaba and Zeniba were based on, which would also make sense given that the two countries are not far apart geographically.

One other thing that I feel is worth mentioning is Howl’s Moving Castle (also by Miyazaki). In that movie, Sophie (who looks like an old woman for most of it) is only similar to Baba Yaga in limited respects, which is why I just focused on Spirited Away in this post. But the castle from Howl’s does seem to have some striking similarities to Baba Yaga’s hut, in that it walks on mechanical legs that look like chicken legs, is on boundary points (when it’s not moving), and is definitely very portal-like as far as the doors go. Calcifur also kind of reminds me of a domovoi, but I won’t get into that; that’s probably more of a coincidence than anything. Just thought it was interesting!