In Miyazaki’s anime film, Spirited Away, the artist’s choice of medium allows viewers to examine an understood reality under the lens of cartoon fantasy. Viewers from across cultures can compare Miyazaki’s concept of the cartoon to the underlying concepts of a political cartoon. Political cartoons and cartoons in general function via two main principles. First, they provide the artist with the latitude to voice potentially offensive opinions on and critiques of the human condition. The artist utilizes various techniques in a cartoon to create this veil of permissibility. For Miyazaki, his cartoon protagonist takes the shape of a young heroine named Chihiro. Her age and innocence allow Miyazaki to critique society without seeming too overt in his presentation of lessons in morality. Moreover, situating the viewer’s perspective in that of a young girl forces the audience to suspend disbelief in the face of questionable elements of fantasy.
Secondly – and in conjunction with the aforementioned function of cartoon fantasy – cartoons enable artists to concretely represent abstract ideas. In this sense, the cartoon becomes primarily symbolic. As the viewer transitions from Miyazaki’s representation of a real Japan to his fantasy spirit world figurative events become literal happenings. To illustrate the malaise of Chihiro’s parents’ rampant consumerism, Miyazaki transforms them into pigs. As they devour the food – most of which consists of meats like pork – reserved for Yubaba’s revered customers, they literally become food staples themselves. This scene sets a premise for many other depictions of food and consumption throughout the film. Humans are consumed by the things they most commonly consume. Miyazaki’s pointed reversal of the human’s relationship to food serves to reveal the detrimental effects of pure gluttony. While vices like gluttony figuratively consume humans in the real world, gluttony and types of food attain a greater power to literally define and characterize humans in Miyazaki’s fantasy world.
A tendency towards literal transformation and characterization remains true for others like Kaonashi and the twin witches. When the greedy frog encounters Kaonashi, Kaonashi consumes the frog and assumes his meal’s identity. Kaonashi acquires the frog’s voice and rough body shape, but he also exhibits the frog’s avarice through his voracious appetite. Thus, Kaonashi as a blank slate precisely replicates the frog’s behaviors once he consumes the frog – he becomes exactly what he eats. Since Kaonashi effectively maintains no identity of his own, his character functions as an experimental control group. In terms of morality, Miyazaki’s cartoon critique suggests that consumption habits expose a human’s less visible character traits. Similarly, the common narrative trope of twinning in the case of Yubaba and Zeniiba draws instant comparisons between the sisters. Although the audience sees them as identical copies of each other, their habits as consumers differ greatly. Zeniiba comments on her sister’s gaudy living arrangements and the audience understands Yubaba’s overindulgence in her material life to be indicative of deeper moral vice as well. Conversely, Zeniiba’s semi-isolated lifestyle represents the virtue of modesty – she provides a reasonable amount of food out of politeness for her guests.
Ultimately, the nuances in Miyazaki’s awareness of his medium demonstrate the elegance of his underlying message. Rather than clumsily stating that gluttonous consumer habits foster immoral character traits, he relies on the transitions from reality to fantasy and back again to emphasize the fact that vice within the human heart is not always apparent. Miyazaki uses food and its consumption in Spirited Away as an object lesson cautioning viewers not to be figuratively consumed by material items. Therefore Miyazaki inserts himself into a tradition of cartoon social critique and introduces it to the genre of animated films.