Miyazaki Hayao’s Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi) tells the story of a young girl who gets trapped in a magical realm after she and her family find themselves in what is ostensibly the remains of an amusement park. For the purposes of this blog, I would like to examine the first few scenes of the film, up until Chihiro’s parents are transformed into pigs and she is unable to return to the ‘real world.’
What strikes me about Spirited Away each time I see it is how it effectively uses the aesthetic of haikyo (lit. ruins in Japanese, usually referring to abandoned bubble era projects. Love Hotels and Amusement Parks seem to be the most popular photographic subjects) to create the rift between Chihiro and her parents. They see a simple ruined amusement park and place it rationally in a specific frame – the post Bubble. Chihiro sees what most likely the photographers who specialize in haikyo envision: that decay has a rather timeless and mystical quality. The sense of realities that have been left behind but continue to exist permeates the film. The different characters in the world Chihiro enters seem to pile the eras of Meiji, Tokugawa and other times into one phantasmagoria.
Gulliver’s Kingdom (source: http://home.f01.itscom.net/spiral/research2.html)
The amusement park in Spirited Away
So, what does this have to do with food? Decay affects us in different ways, but most of us have a quite visceral reaction to decayed food. Although the food that Chihiro’s parents eat – that which transforms them to swine – is not rotten, it is definitely somewhat unnatural to the viewer. If the Bubble era would represent a high watermark of conspicuous consumption in Japan, Chihiro’s parents seem readily eager to indulge its the pleasures even if the whole enterprise is empty and hollow around them. The notion of rotten materialism is returned to with a heavier emphasis on the ‘rot’ when the Kusare-sama comes to the bathhouse. The film does not make explicit the rottenness of the parents’ consumption, but I believe the impulse is the same as that which led Peter Greenway to fill his dissection of Thatcher era Great Britain, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, with gorgeous sets and rancid meat. The mirror image of consumption as a mark of wealth is the waste of decay and rot.
The non-recognition of the mystical power of food on behalf of her parents is their failing. We see the other side of this when Chihiro eats her onigiri and recognizes its transformative nature. Thus, in the philosophy of the movie food gives us life and that is wealth. The park outside represents the remnants of the lie that wealth allows us to consume to our hearts’ delight.