Spirit Away: Self-recognition in Materialism
In Spirited Away, Hayao Miyazaki describes the adventure of a ten year old girl, Chihiro, in the extra-dimensional world called Bath House. Yubaba, the boss, tells her to use Sen as her name instead of Chihiro. Afterwards, Haku gives her special-made onigiri, and the farewell card from her friends with her original name on it. In the Bath House, No-face, a creature who gets lost in the material joyfulness in the Bath House, longs for her. Miyazaki uses the symbols such as the names of Sen and Chihiro, the figure No-face, and the comparison between Chihiro and other workers in the Bath House in order to demonstrate the importance of self-recognition in materialism. His emphasis on self-recognition is a reminder for Japanese society, which had become addicted to materialism; self-recognition is a strong weapon to cure the addiction.
Losing name indicates loss of identity. Yubaba detaches “Sen” (千) from “Chihiro Ogino” (荻野千尋). Yubaba takes people’s name away and force them to work for her. No one can leave without regaining their name. Spirited Away was on screen in 2001, right after the collapse of Japanese bubble economy in the 1990s. The people in the Bath House are emblem of the Japanese society during bubble economy; they have lost their identities in materialism. Not only an ID card, identity is also the tool to position oneself in the society. The workers forget their identities and never want them back, addicted to the materialistic life in the Bath House. This life style traps the workers, wiping out their spirits. As if floating buoys on a river, the Bath House workers loses direction in the materialism.
When Haku gives Chihiro his specially made Onigiri instead of fancy cuisine, he helps her reclaim her identity. As fancy cuisine indicates materialism, Onigiri, a humble, traditional Japanese dish, represents the spiritual virtues such as love. Chihiro cries out loud while devouring onigiri, moved by the fact that it is specially made for her. Onigiri and Haku’s kindness evokes Chihiro’s memories of the original world. She remembers that she aims to return to the human’s world. Chihiro’s recaptures her self-recognition, which is a powerful tool to anchor herself in the supernatural world. Self-recognition solidifies the love, a spiritual support, for her parents and Haku. This substantiation within love and self-identification is a reciprocal force; Chihiro’s love for her parents and Haku prevents her from losing herself in materialism.
Chihiro holds on to herself, and the “delicate dishes” pose no attraction on her. Embodiment of materialism, cuisine from the Bath House in the Gods’ world attracts No-face. He is a mirror image of anyone in front of him, with a transparent body and a mask. When he is around Chihiro, he is the helpful, lovely figure, who helps Chihiro in her time of need. Nevertheless, like an empty shell, anything that people give him fills him up. The greedy crowd who try to earn his gold by giving him the most dedicate food makes him a symbol of gluttony. Sadly, occupying a much larger space with so much food in his body, No-face yells “I am lonely…I want Sen”. No-face is a sarcastic embodiment of the people in 1990s Japan, whose spirits are filled with money. Miyazaki criticizes their addiction through No-face’s yelling, but also expresses his reminder that learning from Chihiro is their cure. Chihiro, who cares for No-face, is the spiritual support for No-face. No-face’s solution of disposing of his loneliness is to find Sen, and the materialistic society at that time needs to find themselves and their spirits back.
If one is full of money, then losing money is losing purpose in life. Money is a tool to make a living, but should not be the stuffing for people’s spirits. In the 1990s Japan, after the bubble collapsed, people lost both their living support and spiritual support. This is why the crisis push the society down towards desperation. The workers and maids in the Bath House, immersed in their desires, bury themselves in the mountain of gold made up by bubbles. The moment when the bubbles pop is the time when they loses everything, but Chihiro does not care about the popped bubbles. Chihiro’s faith is to help No-face, and rescue Haku and her parents, so she is not lost and lonely.
Miyazaki, using the comparison between Chihiro and the crowd, recalls the importance of self-recognition in the materialistic society. Self-identification can settle people in their own social position, and save people from materialism.