Fusion cuisine is like a guilty pleasure. It’s hard to deny: the enticing juxtaposition of tradition and innovation. To the staunch traditionalist, fusion food is blasphemous, a scar on the face of “authenticity.” But, hybrid cuisine acts as further proof that culture is alive. Culture, like language, is living, breathing and changing, undergoing constant revision in order to keep up with the hustle and bustle of the modern world.
This embracing of hybridity and change is what makes Miyazaki’s Spirited Away so delicious. The land of the gods is not a forever preserved, stagnant relic. It is alive. It is flourishing. It has buildings that look both vaguely Western and vaguely Japanese. It has street signs with twisted, yet recognizable kanji and foreign words. And this world exalts food, food that is familiar, but utterly different. This contradiction is further emphasis on the otherworldly nature of the gods, yet it too, is further proof of how close to humanity the gods really are. Ultimately, food acts as the cultural bridge to link the human Chihiro to the spiritual world of the various deities she encounters.
Cut to the scene where Chihiro is about to disappear and Haku prevents this by feeding her a berry from the gods’ world. In some way, Haku has just inducted her into his world, both literally (as she metamorphosizes from ethereal translucence to a distinct physical presence) and on a deeper, more psychological level (as from now on, Chihiro really begins to belong). Here Haku fits the older brother figure role, an atypical Charon who helps ferry Chihiro from one world to the other. At first, like Yuasa Katsuei’s Ryuuji, Chihiro is reluctant to eat food from another place/culture. Chihiro and Ryuuji’s similarities continue, as upon eating this foreign food, they have crossed a cultural bridge and are leaving behind the strait-jacket ideals of traditional isolationism. Even the music—reminiscent of the hybrid style of Okinawa—alerts her to the kind of crossroads she has just encountered. This is the beginning of Chihiro’s transformation into a liminal character, one who, like the world around her, is a mix of various things—human and otherworldly. It is only fitting that her transformation occurs during twilight, near the threshold space of the expanding river.
However, there also appears to be some form of opposition to this idea of cultural unity via the mixing and fusion of foods. When Chihiro finally signs the contract for a job, Yubaba takes away her name and recreates Chihiro as “Sen.” Much like how Ryuuji tries to “Japanese-ify” Kan’nani by changing her name, this is an attempt by Yubaba at assimilating Chihiro into her own world, a way of ruling her by cultural means. By taking away her identity as “Chihiro,” a very clearly human Japanese name, Yubaba makes “Sen” an almost spiritual being. Fast-forward to the sequence where Haku feeds Chihiro onigiri after her visitation with her parents and it’s clear that Haku is sensitive to the nostalgic properties of food. In this scene, Haku reminds Chihiro who she is, giving back her human clothes and providing her with food for strength and comfort. Throughout the movie, the food of the gods is depicted as strange and otherworldly, vaguely recognizable but not true to something in reality. But here, Haku gives Chihiro onigiri, which is very traditional Japanese, perhaps as a deliberate reminder to Chihiro as to who she truly is. It is no wonder that Chihiro cries, being reacquainted with a past and sense of self that she had almost forgotten.
It is here that one might wonder what exactly Miyazaki is trying to do. Is he extolling the merits of the inevitable fusion of cultures? Is he reproaching society for forgetting their traditional, historic roots? Even the perspective of the movie flicks back and forth—between that of Chihiro and that of an outside character, both inviting us in to this world and pushing us away. In the end, one might conclude that food is just as much of a cultural bridge as a cultural anchor. On one hand, it allows for the intermingling of cultures and practices, and on the other, it stations people quite firmly in their own customs and rituals. Maybe here, there is commentary being made on the importance of knowing one’s own traditions and historic rituals in order to fully reap the benefits and pleasures of watching a culture change and grow as it incorporates the new.