Despite the supernatural setting of Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, the film deals with issues that are prevalent in contemporary Japan. As Shiro Yoshioka notes, Spirited Away can be seen as a critique of the rise of consumerism in Japan (Yoshioka, pg 259). However, while it does criticize the growing consumer culture, I believe that the film is more of a warning against overindulgence in general. This message is particularly exemplified through the dual uses of food throughout the film; it is used to either show gluttony and self-centeredness or compassion. Through this dichotomy in meaning, the use of food in Spirited Away promotes the theme of moderation.
In the start of the movie, Chihiro, the protagonist’s, parents enter what they think is an abandoned amusement park and start gorging themselves on the food at an unattended stall. This scene is a great example of using food to show gluttony, as Chihiro’s parents seem to grow more ravenous as they eat, practically shoveling food into their mouths. Also, as they continue to wolf down the food they get fatter and fatter until finally, they turn into squealing pigs.
In contrast, food is used to show compassion later in the movie when Haku, a boy from the spirit world, offers Chihiro some rice balls. As opposed to the previously mentioned scene where food causes harm, in this scene food is used to show the developing bond between Haku and Chihiro. Haku tries to relieve the stress of Chihiro’s day by offering her rice balls infused with a spell to give her strength. As he hands her the food, he is almost hugging her as if to protect her from the dangers of the spirit world. Additionally, Chihiro starts to cry as she eats the rice balls, finally letting go of her emotions. Therefore, by offering her this food Haku shows his attention to Chihiro’s needs.
Food is used in a similar way during a later scene with Chihiro and her co-worker Lin. Previously, Lin only saw Chihiro as a burden, but after Chihiro’s first day of work Lin brings her some meat buns and shares her hopes of eventually leaving the bathhouse. In this scene, food is again used to show friendship as both characters eat comfortably together in a casual manner. Even Lin, despite her previous reservations towards Chihiro, is lying down and talking with food in her mouth, creating a relaxed and familiar atmosphere. Both the meat buns and rice balls serve as a means for the characters to provide comfort.
During the previous two scenes, the atmosphere was positive and gave the audience a sense of intimacy between the characters. Both Haku and Lin were considerate of Chihiro’s needs and sensed that she needed support, which they provided through food. However, in the first scene mentioned, Chihiro’s parents ignored her because they were too busy stuffing themselves. They disregard Chihiro’s repeated pleas for them to pay attention to her, even as she gets progressively louder. Also, when Haku takes Chihiro to a barn to visit her parents after they’ve turned into pigs, they continue to ignore her because of food, although this time it’s because they’re sleeping off their food coma.
As opposed to the two other scenes, the scenes with Chihiro’s parents have a negative and dismal atmosphere. Whereas Haku and Lin were especially attentive to Chihiro’s feelings, Chihiro’s own parents neglected her. I believe this difference in tone is related to the amount of food in each scene. In scenes where there is an excess amount of food, it becomes a source of trouble and leads to greed and selfishness. This outcome is shown when Chihiro’s parents are so absorbed in their magnificent feast that they ignore their daughter. However, when there is only a small amount of food, it turns into something that brings people together. This is exemplified in the scenes with Haku and Lin. Although there is only a small amount of food, such as a few rice balls or meat buns, in both of these scenes Chihiro gains a closer relationship to whoever offered the food.
Overall, when there are small amounts of food in the scenes it becomes a positive force, but when there is too much food it becomes harmful. Therefore, the use of food in Spirited Away warns against overindulgence and stresses the importance of moderation. Miyazaki shows that while things can be beneficial in restrained amounts, if they are taken to excess they can be detrimental.