Full Name: Nigihayami Kohaku Nushi
Name Translation: God of the Swift Amber River
Species: River Spirit
Film Premiere: Spirited Away (2001)
Voiced By: Miyu Irino (Japanese) Jason Marsden (English)
It should come as no surprise that Haku is my top favorite character from the film Spirited Away. In point of fact, were it not for his shape-shifting nature as a River Spirit, I would have included him amongst my top ten favorite dragons.
In a roundabout way, Haku is akin to the “white rabbit” insomuch that while he is not strictly the one to lead Chihiro, and her parents, to the spirit world it was because of him that she knew to approach Yubaba and ask for a job so that she could find a means of returning her parents to normal. Like all who are under Yubaba’s employ, Haku had part of his name taken and thus was renamed as “Haku” and with the loss of his name came the loss of his identity and true power as a River Spirit.
That’s not to say that Haku is weak by any means as he is Yubaba’s chief… muscle I suppose is the best word for it. He reports directly to her and everyone in the bathhouse know better than to stand in his way or raise protest against him. Many are justifiably afraid of him as they are embittered towards him as quite a few of the employees of the bathhouse are under the assumption that Haku is able to leave Yubaba’s employ whenever he wishes but chooses not to.
Even Chihiro, innocent girl that she is, didn’t know what to make of Haku though she knows, however innately, that she can trust him more than anyone else in the entirety of the Spirit World.
Being a River Spirit, Haku can use magical spells and enchantments though not to any degree beyond what most would call simple tricks. In the film, he demonstrates mild bits of telekinesis and telepathy alongside his chief ability of shifting between the form of a young boy and that of an oriental dragon. Being a River Spirit, it is likely that the dragon body is Haku’s natural form as, in most Asian mythologies, dragons are creatures of water and the lower tier of them are in charge of rivers and waterways. This is likely so for Haku given that his magic is limited and his dragon form only bears four toes.
Random trivia fact boys and girls, dragons of the Orient are noted by the number of toes as to whether they are “common” dragons such as those in charge of rivers and lakes to those bearing five toes and rule over the celestial skies. As a dragon of a river, Haku is capable of flying at tremendous speeds and was able to unlock this potential into his human form once he regained his true name and his memories of being a River Spirit.
Given both his size and appearance as a dragon and as a human, one can surmise that Haku is quite young even by the standards of his extremely long-lived people. Though still large enough for Chihiro to ride comfortably on his back with little to no effort on his part, Haku is still lacking in many of the chief details often attributed to Oriental dragons. Namely, his horns are quite small and not yet fully pronged out like that of a deer’s though he does possess surprisingly long tendril-whiskers. His coloration is also something to note as well since white is commonly referred to as the colors of death and mourning in Asia though, as of late, it has taken a more popularized turn towards purity.
Like most of his kind, Haku is first and foremost a protector and goes well out of his way to try and protect Chihiro initially because he, for reasons he cannot recall, remembers her. As it turns out, back when she was a child, Chihiro had fallen into a river —Haku’s river— and he rescued her from drowning. Unfortunately, not long after this, the river was filled and the land turned to apartment buildings, leaving Haku as a River Spirit without a river to safeguard and so he had, essentially, lost his very identity and his home in one fell swoop.
Thus, he sought out the likes of Yubaba in the hopes that her magic could reveal what he had lost and how he might regain it. Unfortunately, as those under her employ lose a portion of their name and thus their freedom, Haku had made himself a slave to her bidding and she utilized him with extreme prejudice even if it meant costing him his life in the process. She even went so far as to put a vile slug inside his body as a means to control even further, limiting him to how much he could stand against her and her wishes.
As much as love Haku as a character, the thing that I truly adore about him is his design. While Disney did their best to make a dragon out of Mushu, Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli went above and beyond with Haku. They looked into every little detail they possibly could to make him seem as a true blooded creature brought to life.
They studied the head and jaws of a dog to the right feel for how Haku’s jaws would work, watched various species of snakes swimming to get an idea as to how a dragon might soar through the air, and even looked up how geckos cling to walls for Haku to do the same while in his pained stupor. Heck, they even go so far as to detail the scales on his hide whilst also highlighting the fact that he has fur! That’s a level of dedication I never would have expected to see in a traditionally animated movie!