Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away follows the story of a young girl, Chihiro, who accidentally wanders into the world of spirits with her parents and becomes stranded when darkness falls and her parents are turned into pigs. In a world unfamiliar to humans, Chihiro receives help from a spirit, Haku, and throughout the film, several other spirits, to save her parents and escape the spirit world. Transformation is a key theme of the film as Chihiro starts off as a lazy, whiney, and unwilling girl and transforms into a more independent and confident one. Food is a key element that symbolizes this theme in a more literal and physical sense as it has the power to transform both humans and spirits.
The first instance we see of food transforming people is when Chihiro’s parents pig out on the food in the stalls and are literally turned into pigs as punishment for eating the food for the spirits. Food also transforms people to help them as Haku gives Chihiro a berry to eat from the spirit world so she stops vanishing. Later, he also gives her rice balls with a spell to help her gain strength, as she would need it to work for Yubaba as she finds a way to save her parents. A notable difference between the foods Chihiro eats and her parents eat is the amount of preparation in the meals. While her parents eat marinated, flavored, and cooked meat that are laid out in huge batches, Chihiro eats food that is either natural, like the berry, or more simply prepared, like rice balls.
There is also the difference of why they eat. Chihiro’s parents eat because the food looked good and it is there. They also eat more for the sake of eating. Chihiro eats because of necessity. She needs to eat the berry in order to stop from disappearing and remain in the spirit world and she needs to eat the rice balls to regain her strength. She eats so she can be strong in this unfamiliar world where she must save herself and her parents.
The difference between the transformations when consuming cooked, well-decorated food and more natural, simple food is also evident in the spirits. When No-Face gets the attention of the bathhouse workers with his ability to create gold, they bring him piles of dishes with all kinds of well-prepared food to please him, and he gobbles it all up greedily. The more he eats, the more he turns into a monster, and is only able to return to normal when Chihiro gives him the special dango from the river spirit so he throws up all the food he had eaten. Chihiro also forces Haku to eat this dango in order to save him from Zeniba’s curse that is killing him, but it also releases him from the spell Yubaba had on him to control him.
Food is a necessary element in all life, even for spirits, but one must not abuse their ability to eat. Spirited Away shows how what you eat and why you eat can define you are.