In Spirited Away, Miyazaki uses various devices to illustrate vices of human nature as well as virtues; specifically, he often uses foods as part of his design in constructing these narratives. However, not only does Miyazaki simply employ food in general to elicit different responses in his viewers, he also choicely selects what types of foods best matches with his intended plot lines. In fact, meat is only used in instances characterized by negative vices like gluttony or greed, while meat free diets are used in scenes depicting gentler qualities like healing, or regeneration. Through analysis of this technique that Miyazaki utilizes, we can draw broad generalizations of his attitude towards food consumption, and of the subtle nuances he is able to employ through careful selection of different types of foods.
Miyazaki couldn’t be more obvious in portraying ugliness than during the beginning scenes where Chihiro’s parents are gobbling down on the street food they came across. In that scene, the meal was indeed predominately made up of beef, chicken, and fish. In order to amplify the effect that Chihiro’s parents are stuffing themselves without any appreciation for what the act of “eating” actually means, the food is drawn in a rather abstract manner; they take on a rounded form and do not actually resemble real life food. At the same time, instead of biting and chewing, the fact that Chihiro’s parents are more close to “slurping” down their meals is used to dramatize their disrespect for resources and their conspicuous consumption. Miyazaki could very well have shown the parents to be binging on rice or noodles, but choosing meat instead, especially in a spiritual realm for setting, further stresses the negativities of their act of eating another live being.
Similarly, during No Face’s wild rampage, there was the ubiquitous presence of meat. No Face stumbles around the bathhouse, with a bottomless desire to devour everything in sight. As he eats, his physical form contorts as well; he swells significantly in size and loses his original shape. This symbolizes how gluttony, or an excessive hunger for substances, essentially corrupts his self-image and distorts his morality. Especially in the context of a spiritual world, to be unable to contain oneself (in the literal sense), or to lose balance (in bodily proportions), signifies disturbance within a person’s spiritual wellbeing. In both cases characters are eating some form of meat, which carries an extra element of distress because it essentially came from another animal, and is hence a more “vulgar” form of sustenance. It is clear that in Miyazaki’s opinion, consumerism involved meat eating behavior, which could be due to the fact that widespread meat eating culture was first introduced into Japan more as a luxury than a staple food. And has since then carried with it the image of modern indulgence.
On the other hand, while meat serves as a representation of contortion and excessive consumption, the opposite, namely, simple and meat free diets are used to illustrate virtuous qualities of human nature. Miyazaki is optimistic towards seemingly banal foods taken in reasonable proportions and also properly appreciated when eaten.
Of all the forms of nutrients, a plain onigiri is chosen to have regenerative powers in the film. Haku gives Chihiro only a small amount of food, but just enough for it to take effect in helping her regain energy. Onigiri carries with it the long tradition of Japanese culture before the introduction of western consumerism, and with it, the nostalgia frugalness for many older Japanese people. It would definitely resonant with these folks well to only eat just enough food for functionality, and not in surplus. In this way people can continue to live harmoniously with nature, and find a proper equilibrium within themselves.
This idea of simple foods as being “better” than meat carries throughout the film. When Chihiro returns Haku the favor and saves his life, it was with a plain colored small round pill. Contrary to the flamboyance of European royalties, the Japanese people have always valued humbleness and modesty. This is exemplified in religions like Buddhism or other traditional events like tea ceremonies. They like to believe that powerful forces can lie within simple and ordinary objects; and have a great appreciation for unostentatious beauty. This cultural consensus is well represented in Spirited away, as both of the most powerful pieces of food are both quite basic and ordinary externally.
In conclusion, while modern science affirms the nutritious values of meat as a great provider of proteins, in a symbolic sense they are not the most elegant form of sustenance. Within a spirit world Chihiro stumbles into, eating the life of another animal seems to carry a complete different set of consequences. Because for duration in Japanese history, meat was only for the rich, it still retained that image of excessive desire, and indulgence in a very ugly sense of the word. Thus in Spirited Away, meat appears in the two scenes where the characters are clearly submitting towards their very worst natures. In effect, meat free meals, and especially the seemingly unsophisticated ones, can carry great value and power. Though these contrasts, Miyazaki animatedly illustrates the pitfalls of modern society, and urges for a return to simpler values.