Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away follows the perspective of a 10-year-old Japanese girl, Chihiro, through her adventure at a Japanese bath house for the gods. At the story’s onset, Chihiro and her parents are on their way to their new home in another town, when her father, driving recklessly through a heavily forested area, is stopped at a large tunnel with a short stone statue. Against Chihiro’s protests, her parents decide to enter the tunnel, and follow the smell of freshly prepared food into a strange, seemingly abandoned town which her father insists is an abandoned amusement park. Chihiro, following the transformation of her parents into pigs, enters this spirit world and spends the duration of the film completing tasks and working towards escaping with her parents.
Food is a strong motif illustrated throughout the film, one which ties very strongly to Miyazaki’s overall theme of a crumbling Japanese heritage. When Chihiro’s parents first find the food they had been seeking, they immediately begin eating it despite the absence of a store patron, justifying this act of unrestrained gluttony with, “we have credit cards and cash” (Miyazaki). However, it was this rude act which presumably caused their transformation into pigs, with no recollection of what it meant to be human. This represents the gradual erosion of Japanese customs and heritage, as the younger generation of Japanese people begin to view the world around them not as a grand community of which they are a fractional part, but rather as a means for self promotion and advancement. The use of food to convey this point expresses a sense of exploitation of traditional culture; rather than wait for the patron or provider of the food, Chihiro’s parents assume that the food, like so much else in their world, is a product for sale, rather than a rich cultural icon. Gluttony, as a pursuit of physical pleasure through the overconsumption of food, is an accurate tool to help illustrate the selfishness and insatiable hunger for personal pleasure which Miyazaki feels is overtaking Japanese society.
Conversely, when Chihiro manages to cleanse the profusely polluted river spirit, the spirit rewards her with yet another food, this one the apparent opposite of that which her parents had consumed. Whenever a character in the film (for example, Haku and No-Face) consumes a piece of this dumpling, they are immediately thrown into violet fits of vomiting. This act of purging represents a second chance granted to both of these characters, and an opportunity for each of them to negate their prior actions. For example, No-Face purges himself off all of the food and bathhouse employees he ate during this stay at the bath house, at which point he makes a rapid transition from the loud, gluttonous, demanding character he had become since arriving at the bath house, back into the timid, helpful character he had been at the beginning of the film. In this case, it was the extravagant food which caused him to lose sight of his gratitude for Chihiro. Haku also ate the dumpling, which allowed him to vomit up Zeniba’s gold seal. In this way, food which Miyazaki framed as bad or impure is purged, and resets the characters to a former state of safety or humbleness.
However, food is not always contextualized so negatively. Consumption of plainer, less luxurious foods brings about the symbol of memory, and a renewal of cultural heritage. Immediately after Haku prompts Sen to remember her real name, Chihiro, he presents her with a plate full of rice balls. In tears, Chihiro eats each riceball with little hesitation between each, making each seem appetizing and desirable to the viewer. This is in stark contrast to the richer, unidentifiable foods depicted at other points in the film. However, the rice balls’ apparent connection with Chihiro’s realization of both her name and her past creates another avenue for our understanding of food in the film: on one hand, frenzied over-eating symbolizes a loss of appreciation for traditional culture, on the other, enjoyment or simple Japanese “comfort foods” reminds an individual of the values and memories held by a culture slowly dissolving into modern westernized society. In step with Miyazaki’s belief that positive experiences, such as with food and manga, should be limited and deeply cherished, it seems Chihiro’s consumption of simple traditional Japanese foods becomes a near-religious experience, in which she comes to realize the importance of such small ritualistic practices in her own life.