Food, although often overlooked in a multitude of literary works and film, plays an important role in essentially everything we read or watch. Spirited Away is no exception. The food in Spirited Away acts as the main gear that weaves a plethora of ideas into one coherent and whole piece of art. The role of food, therefore, is extremely important as a sort of medium for the overarching themes of the film. Like, for instance, cultural integration and how that affects modern culture/society.
For the purpose of clarity, I would like to start with Kaonashi, a character I find essential to the story. The fact that his name means “no face” means that he represents what Miyazaki sees as the general population of modern humanity, an entity that does not yet have a clear identity. He is especially fond of Chihiro, possibly because she, like him, has not fully discovered her identity and is still learning about what society has to offer. At first, Kaonashi appears to be a harmless spirit who desired attention(much like a child), but later we find out that he feeds on the greed of others and “becomes” what he eats, a ravaging gluttonous monster, much like Chihiro’s parents at the beginning of the film (adults who are corrupted by society). Kaonashi’s behavior and growth into a monster puts a different perspective on food, and presents it as something intangible, like greed. After all, Kaonashi “feeds” on the greed of the bathhouse workers. This in turn gives food a more abstract purpose, and can be interpreted as those differences in society/culture that we “adapt” to. We feed on the customs of our society and we learn to adapt to other cultures as needed. I think that food in this sense, especially in Spirited Away, creates a connection that greatly attributes to the depth of the film.
Take, for instance, the situation that Chihiro is thrown into in the film. She has to cope with a new environment, new food, new species, and yet in the end she adapts to the food as much as she adapts to the crazy environment. This relationship between the food/culture is deliberately evident throughout the film. The food (as well as the environment) in the film has this noticeable strangeness, almost Asian but tweaked to fit the obscurity of the spirited world (e.g. fried newt and the architecture of the buildings). Because the food is unfamiliar, it feels uncomfortable as opposed to what we deem as “normal Japanese food”. However, Miyazaki’s response to this is clear, if one is stubborn and refuses to accept the changes in culture, they shall perish. After all, culture is not static, it is always changing, and Japanese culture in particular is in fact “an instance of a larger Asian culture”.
We notice that, at first, even Chihiro is frightened by the cultural differences in the food. She refuses, at first, to eat what Haku gives her and cries later while eating that Onigiri rice balls. There is an underlying significance in the fact that she eats Onigiri, a symbol of traditional Japaneseness. Almost as if Miyazaki is saying that even though people are scared to deviate from a supposedly “pure” Japanese past, people should, much like Chihiro, learn to adapt and become in fact, even stronger and more mature. An especially powerful scene that depicts a noticeably changed Chihiro is when she calmly and clearly tells Kaonashi: “You can’t help me with what I want”. By this point in the movie, she not only has adapted to her environment but she has also learned that what she holds most dear to her is her relationship with those important to her and not money or fame. Her resilience against feelings of greed shows Miyazaki’s ideal younger generation, untainted by unworldly desires like fame or money. The natural human relationships are what Miyazaki feels should be encouraged in the modern world.
So in the end, Spirited Away presents two topics of main interest: one, that Japanese culture is an inclusive culture, and two, that modern society should focus on interactions with people and nature instead of a shortsighted desire for money and fame. Both these topics are reliant on the presentation of food that connects the modern aspect of greed to the hybrid-cultural aspect of the film.