Directed by Hayao Miyazaki, Spirited Away is an animated Japanese film that follows the adventures of Chihiro, a young girl struggling to return to her human life while entrapped in a mysterious spirit realm. When her parents are transformed into pigs for trespassing and consuming spirit food, Chihiro has no choice but to sign herself into Yubaba’s service, a witch overseeing a bathhouse for spirits, in the hopes of saving herself and rescuing them. With Haku’s assistance and help from others, Chihiro manages to maintain her identity and prove that love really does conquer all.
Miyazaki uses food in his film as a platform for discussing motifs of transformation and identity. When Chihiro’s parents voraciously devour a feast spread in an empty vendor stall, they are transformed into the animal equivalent of greed and gluttony for their lack of self-control and disrespect for a stranger’s property. Miyazaki used images of engorged pigs devouring food, without order or decorum, to exaggerate insatiable desire gone awry.
Later, Haku urges Chihiro to eat so that she does not vanish in the spirit world. Her identity as a human girl fades with her transition into the new environment, so she must adopt a new identity to establish her place there. When she begrudgingly eats, her body solidifies, marking the loss of her old identity and allowing her to assume the new one. This event also signifies the loss of her naiveté, and as her journey continues, she gains the knowledge, courage, and maturity which characterize her growth into the newer and stronger Chihiro with the ability to save her parents and return home.
In the cases of the River God and No Face, two powerful spirits who visit the bathhouse, Miyazaki shows how food can transform our bodies and mentalities. When the River God first appears, the staff mistakes him for a Stink Spirit, but they soon discover that all the waste he has consumed from the outside world has defiled and crippled his body. This speaks of the pollution of the world, showing that what we consume affects our entire constitution; when we take in bad things, we become polluted, dirty and slow. After Chihiro saves him, Miyazaki shows the River God emerging powerful and shining radiantly like a diadem, a stark contrast to his previous form.
Similarly, No Face originally intends to aid Chihiro but becomes defiled with an insatiable lust for food, then eats people when it cannot be abated. He transforms from a lithe figure into a monstrous entity, until Chihiro uses her magic herbal ball to heal him. Like Chihiro’s parents, his gluttony shows that what we consume can change our mentalities and overconsumption may cause us to lose sight of priorities and values.
Although created for young audiences, Spirited Away is a testimony for all ages to respect our bodies and nourish our spirits, taking care with what we consume and assume (otherwise we could end up pigs… or worse!).