Studio Ghibli’s works are often lauded, first and foremost, for their technical artistry. The Japanese animation studio, which received an honorary Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival on May 19, is known for its highly expressive, unique characters. They lead stories surrounded by color and movement. Each moment given to the appreciation of a mountainous landscape in Princess Mononoke or the fluidity of water in Ponyo steals away our breath, creating worlds seemingly beyond our perceptions of reality. Yet what makes Hayao Miyazaki’s films so striking is what firmly grounds them in the midst of all their fantasy. No movie demonstrates this so well as Spirited Away. More than 20 years after its release, the Oscar–winning film continues to shine, both as a cinematic masterpiece and as a movie whose meaning grows with you.

Centered around Japanese folklore, Spirited Away tells the story of Chihiro, a girl who finds herself in an unexpected job—working in a bathhouse for spirits. On their way to move into a new home, Chihiro’s family stumbles across what looks like an abandoned amusement park, and her parents transform into pigs after devouring a tempting meal. Chihiro teams up with a boy–spirit named Haku who guides her to safety. Haku tells her the only way to survive is to make a deal with the witch Yubaba and work among—and for—the spirits. The movie’s gorgeous score, brought to life by legendary composer Joe Hisaishi, captures both the most violently dramatic and wistfully tranquil moments.

Spirited Away paints a picture of a complex and vibrant world. Upon first watch, its dreamlike plot and aesthetic might remind Western viewers of Alice in Wonderland. The guests and employees of the bathhouse range from cute to creepy, and no one is exactly how they seem. No–Face, a well-loved hungry spirit, undergoes a massive transformation in the film, demonstrating the unpredictability of Chihiro’s new environment. Every individual in the story, whether more humanoid or less so, reveals different sides to their identity, either through literal physical metamorphosis or more nuanced development. It’s in this fantastical setting that Chihiro must accept what she hates most: change.

On her family’s ill–fated car ride at the beginning of the film, Chihiro laments moving to a new town and clutches a bouquet to her chest in the backseat. Nestled in the cluster of pink flowers is a miniature goodbye card, decorated with childish doodles. Shortly afterward, on the way through the tunnel that leads to the park, Chihiro holds tightly onto her mother’s arm, protesting any further exploration. Later, after losing her parents—her most important ties to safety and security—Chihiro signs an employment contract and accepts a difficult condition. She loses her real name and becomes “Sen,” a shift that leads to further struggle with remembering her own self in the presence of all these dangers.

By the end of the film, Chihiro’s circumstances have tested her courage—she has grown. On the way back, Chihiro still clings to her mother—despite all her trials, she remains a child. But, while her parents get in the car, she looks back, gazing into the darkness.

Viewers aren’t sure if Chihiro remembers her ordeal in the place beyond the tunnel. Her mother tells her not to be afraid, and in the car, her father discusses their move again. In the English version of the movie, Chihiro answers: “I think I can handle it.”

When I first watched Spirited Away, I was only a little older than its protagonist and was preoccupied with many of the same worries—not including, of course, her contract with a witch. In sixth grade, I moved, started middle school, and in the same year, lost my grandmother. I saw myself in Chihiro. She was just an ordinary girl thrown into a very difficult situation without the support she had grown to rely on, a girl on the edge of a precipice. Spirited Away centers around Chihiro’s realization that she, like many of her spirit friends, is in the middle of a transformation: one called “growing up.” In a 2002 interview with Roger Ebert, Miyazaki said, “I wanted to make a movie especially for the daughters of my friends.” Yet, while Chihiro’s struggle with identity mirrors that of so many young people, it also strikes a chord with those later in life.

The characteristics that allow Chihiro to help Haku, save her parents, and guard her identity don’t stem from magic powers or rare abilities. Instead, it’s her kindness and resilience that truly defines her. Miyazaki is well–known for his strong female protagonists, and Chihiro is no exception. Instead of framing her sensitivity as a weakness, Spirited Away reveals it’s a strength—and thus, as a virtue well within our grasp, no matter our age.

As recent college graduates, the Class of 2024 is facing a similar shift. Most of us are, like Chihiro, finding jobs. Our professional lives will probably look very different from Yubaba’s bathhouse. But maybe we feel the same fear of the unknown, the same apprehension at the thought of really, truly growing up. As we move into the “real” world—which can seem as difficult to navigate as a fantasy land—Spirited Away reminds us that to be vulnerable and empathetic is to be courageous.

In the final scene, when Chihiro looks back toward the spirit realm one more time, her purple hair tie—a protective item made by her friends—shines. Its glimmer reminds us that, as my favorite quote from the movie goes, “Once you’ve met someone, you never really forget them.”

We can’t all identify with Japanese mythology and culture—let alone the experience of being a young girl in Japan. But the sheer ordinariness of its heroine and her internal journey are what make Spirited Away so universal. As the film draws us into an imaginative, vivid world populated by dragon servants and trains to nowhere, its story transcends itself and demonstrates how the arts truly express what it means to be human.

With 12 more years and a college education under my belt, I can’t say I feel that much more secure in my identity than I did at ten years old. As all humanity knows, if there is anything permanent about life, it is change. But after experiencing Spirited Away, I can say that, maybe, like Chihiro, I can handle it.