Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away is a film of social criticism that focuses on the greed and gluttony of modern society. Miyazaki presents his case by giving his audience the opportunity to see the world through a child’s eyes. The innocence and naïveté of the protagonist, Chihiro, serve as strong contrasts to the corruption of society in the human world and the spirit world. Throughout the film, food has a strong correlation with characters’ moral standings—consumers of rich food are often examples of gluttonous characters while those who have plain and simple foods are kind and generous.
The introductory scene is vital in establishing the movie’s theme of the innocent saving the corrupt. Chihiro’s parents are model citizens of modern society; they are ready and eager to enjoy wealth. As Chihiro’s father speeds down a forest path in a shiny new Audi sedan, he is drunk on his self-perceived power. He believes himself to be unstoppable because he has money capable of buying a car with four-wheel drive, so he has risen above the need to respect the sanctity and power of nature. This hubris rears its head once again when Chihiro’s parents choose to intrude into the spirit world and stuff themselves with food not intended for them. The richness and amount of the food that Chihiro’s parents eat reflect upon their gluttony. Chihiro’s father reassures a timid and cautious Chihiro to join in the feast because his money makes them invulnerable to any repercussions. Throughout the opening scenes, Chihiro is constantly discouraging her parent’s from intruding into the spirit world. She acts as the voice of respect and humility.
Just as how she has not been integrated into adult society, Chihiro later finds it difficult to fit into the spirit world. At first, Chihiro is actually physically unable to stay in the spirit world until Haku gives her a simple berry-like food, but she is also unable to adapt to the greed that runs rampant in the spirit world. Chihiro appears to reside in a state of limbo, not being able to be a part of any significant social group. It is only with nature that Chihiro has any semblance of belonging with. Chihiro has a history with and a love for the Kohaku River and its physical manifestation of it as Haku. Her attachment to natures is brought up again when she frees the River God from pollution. As with Chihiro’s father’s mad dash through the forest, society seems to exploit and conquer nature. From this event arises an important symbol: the herbal cake given to Chihiro. The cake is foul tasting, as Chihiro demonstrates by nibbling on it, but it is a symbol of Chihiro’s generosity.
Upon receiving the herbal cake, Chihiro is placed into a position of power, but she remains humble and generous. Despite the fact that she initially wished to save the herbal cake for her parents, she sacrifices portions of the herbal cake for Haku and No Face without hesitation. With these scenes, Miyazaki suggests that the generosity of children can save those on the border of corruption. Haku is kind and compassionate to Chihiro, as seen when he offers Chihiro onigiri, a simple staple food, to comfort her. However, he is being forced to into moral bankruptcy by Yubaba, but Chihiro is able to end Yubaba’s control over Haku. No Face is harmless until he enters the toxic atmosphere of the bathhouse. His insatiable hunger is fed by bathhouse employees hungry for gold, creating a grotesque cycle of greed and gluttony. No Face is only freed from this trap by Chihiro’s kindness.
In the end, Miyazaki implies that society’s last hope to lead a more moral life lies in the next generation of children. Those already entrenched in modern society, like Chihiro’s parents, are essentially static throughout the film. It is only those in transition toward immorality that have a chance of being saved by the innocence and honesty of children.