In Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, food has a dual nature. When eaten in excess, it serves to corrupt the consumer. On the other hand, when it is consumed in moderation, it can purify the eater and help him or her recover from the corruption that stems from overeating.
One particular example of the dual role food plays in Spirited Away is when No-Face is in the bathhouse after the incident with the River God. The first step in No-Face’s corruption is when he lures in one of the bathhouse attendants with a fistful of gold nuggets, and then proceeds to devour the attendant to gain a voice. This first item of “food” represents a threshold No-Face crosses as he is driven into madness by the bathhouse, especially since the attendant is forcibly eaten and caught off guard by this turn of events. Immediately afterward, No-Face catches the attention of another attendant and demands food and a bath. Since this request is during the hours when the bathhouse is officially closed, it immediately disrupts the normal routine for the house and its employees, who are driven to action by the promise of gold and their personal greed.
In accommodating No-Face’s demands, the bath attendants bring excessive amounts of food as he consumes plate after plate, bowl after bowl, and dish after dish. To visually drive home No-Face’s corruption, he swells to many times his size and gains a disgustingly distended belly. Also, he becomes more aggressive and demanding as his previously peaceful nature is disrupted by the extravagance of the bathhouse. In essence, as he is consumed by the house’s greedy atmosphere, he becomes a huge stomach with legs. In this state, he is the ultimate consumer: ravenous for whatever he can get his hands on and willing to pay in gold for it.
The final straw comes when Chihiro encounters No-Face in his new state and declines his offer of a vast pile of gold in order to continue up to Yubaba’s quarters to see what happened to Haku. After being rejected by what could be considered to be his anchor in a sea of vice, the transformation is complete as No-Face becomes truly corrupted by the nature of the bathhouse and its excesses, including food. In his rage, he eats two more attendants, which provides a sharp contrast to the meek and innocent character that Chihiro initially let into the bathhouse.
The scene that follows, when Chihiro goes in to negotiate with No-Face under Yubaba’s orders, perfectly exemplifies just how much the avariciousness of the bathhouse with its gratuitous amounts of food, among others, can corrupt an otherwise pure spirit. The entire room is littered with overturned dishes and half-eaten food, while a gluttonous No-Face sits in the center of the disarray. This lair can also be viewed as a window into No-Face’s mental state: blinded with ecstasy of consumption, all he can do is destroy everything that lies in his path.
This scene also serves as a turning point for No-Face, as well as shows the second nature of food in Spirited Away: that of an agent of purification in the form of an herbal cake that was a gift from a river god to Chihiro. When Chihiro first feeds this cake to No-Face, he is violently ill as his corrupted body reacts to the purity of the cake as it begins to cleanse him. One important thing to note is how small the herbal cake is in contrast to the mountains of food that helped to corrupt No-Face. It really emphasizes the notion that there is such thing as the right amount of food (or anything in general), while consumption in excess is what causes a person to be corrupted.
Ultimately, No-Face successfully overcomes his negative reaction to the herbal cake and escapes the corrupting influence of the bathhouse and its vices. These two faces of No-Face: the aggressive consumer corrupted by the thrill of excess and the innocent-natured spirit who only wants a friend, showcase the dual role food plays in Spirited Away and, by extension, the way food and other forms of consumption in everyday life can become perverted through excess and overindulgence. In short, it truly emphasizes a common piece of wisdom: everything in moderation.