In Miyazaki Harao’s Spirited Away, food is a symbol of Miyazaki’s greater beliefs about Japanese culture and its evolution over time. The main character, Chihiro, helps to employ this motif. For Chihiro, food represents assimilation and memory to and from her new spirit world. For Miyazaki, the food represents aspects of Japan’s assimilation with the Western world and his reminiscence of traditional Japanese culture.
In the opening scene, Miyazaki contrasts Chihiro with her parents, literally separating them on the basis of their consumption of food. When Chihiro explores the deserted amusement park with her parents, her father ravenously searches for the source of food scent. Chihiro trudges behind her parents and upon the discovery of the source of food, Chihiro refuses to eat, despite her parents’ overconsumption. In this scene, Miyazaki shows the stark contrast between Chihiro and her parents, the contrast between traditional and modern Japanese custom. Despite Chihiro’s young age, she recognizes the strangeness of this encounter while her parents selfishly dove into the meals without permission or direction. Later, Chihiro finds that the food was intended for the gods who visit the enchanted bathhouse. After Chihiro angrily walks away from her parents, she is confronted with the true identity of the abandoned amusement park. This horrifies Chihiro, and she runs back to her parents for protection. However, they have turned into enormous hogs, swallowing plates full of food until the black translucent spirits of the spirit world literally slap them away. Miyazaki uses this as a metaphor for Chihiro’s assimilation into the spirit world as she subconsciously accepts the traditions of it and rejects the customs and actions of her parents. Moreover, it is a step into Chihiro’s assimilation into Japanese tradition.
Soon after this scene, Chihiro flees the abandoned amusement park, crossing the newly filled river. As she sits at the edge of the lapping water, an enormous lighted riverboat cruises up to the water’s edge. As it comes closer, Chihiro buries her head in her hands, squatting, telling herself she’s dreaming and slapping her face to wake herself . She slowly realizes her hands are becoming translucent, justlike the spirits. She seems to disappear slowly into her surroundings. Fortunately, just as the boat docks itself onshore, Haku saves the day by giving Chihiro a treat to turn her back to normal. The treat allows Chihiro to regain her body back from its translucent state, which would seem like a rejection of the spirit world. However, Haku gave her the treat, the first of a few gifts of “cursed” food, as if to initiate her into the spirit world. Miyazaki uses this to show Chihiro is slowly assimilating to become a part of the spiritual world. In other words, she is becoming more immersed in Miyazaki’s nostalgic memory of traditional Japanese culture.
This theme of memory and nostalgia represented through food becomes more prominent when Haku takes Chihiro, now Sen, to see her parents at daybreak of her first night in the spirit world. Her parents are still enormous hogs, sleeping in a pen amongst hundreds of other pigs. After Chihiro sees them in this state, she slowly begins to slip into a state of shock and sadness. Haku sits with Chihiro outside as she begins to cry. Haku tells Chihiro to always remember her human name, as this will allow her a way back to her normal life. He gives her another food offering, which she furiously eats. The faster she eats, the harder she sobs as she slowly remembers her normal life with her human parents and her given name. Miyazaki uses food to represent the theme of memory and nostalgia; foodprovides Chihiro and Haku a way to connect as Haku allows Chihiro into the spirit world and grants her the memories of the human world to provide her with a means of going back. This follows suit with Miyazaki’s previous uses of food as a symbol for assimilation and memory as he continues to show the value intraditional Japanese culture.
Miyazaki continuously uses food in Spirited Away to provide a symbol of nostalgic Japanese tradition and Japanese assimilation to Western cultures.