In Spirited Away, Chihiro, a ten-year-old girl, learns to grow up while working in the Bath House in the spiritual world after her parents turn into pigs. There, Chihiro survives the materialism, and helps kind-hearted dragon called Haku and an identity-less creature called No-face to gain salvation. In the end, Chihiro saves her parents and returns to the normal world. In this movie, the literal image of food are taken deeper with symbolic meanings to imply growing up, materialism with negative effects, and salvation. These presentations of food, all together, shows that normal things like food, have different sides.
First of all, food implies growing up and adaption into new environment. As Haku said before to the workers of the Bath House, Chihiro’s human smell will go away in three days as long as she eats the food in this world. This symbolizes Chihiro’s acclimation to the new world. This implication is later presented in detail, as Chihiro eats the Onigiri from Haku. At first Chihiro was afraid to eat the Onigiri, symbolizing her unwillingness to grow up. Under the encouragement of Haku, Chihiro then takes a small bite, symbolizing her first try on becoming braver. After that Chihiro speeds up and chews big bites while crying because she now realizes that she’s on her own now, without parents to rely on. Through eating the Onigiri, Chihiro realizes that she is the one who needs to take the responsibility to save her parents and to help herself return home, and thus Chihiro becomes a more independent person.
Food in the movie implies money, or materialism: No-face originally has no identity, and he learns from things happening around him. In other words, No-face is just a mirror that reflects the society, or the Bath House specifically. While he is in the Bath House, No-face learns materialism from the workers in the Bath House, and begins to get attention using “gold”. At this stage, food to No-face is like money to the workers at Bath House, and it symbolizes materialism in the Bath House. Just like workers at Bath House has no limit of their greed toward gold, No-face grows to become extremely greedy for food. He gulps tons of dishes, and even workers of the Bath House, but his appetite can’t be satisfied. This is not because No-face really has infinite appetite for food, but because his true intention cannot be recognized and satisfied. In the end, what No-face really wants is just love and care – he even yells out “I feel lonely” when he faces Chihiro. This is also why No-face gets so angry when Chihiro refuses to take gold from No-face: Chihiro, the only one who truly cared about No-face, denied No-face’s material success. This implies that materialism cannot bring the true happiness. All the temporary satisfaction that materialism brings will vanish, since materials can only give superficial pleasure but cannot enrich people’s inner-self. This implication is revealed in the movie later, as No-face throws up all the food he engulfed, while the “gold” he gave to the workers all turns into dirt.
Another aspect of food presented in the movie is salvation. This aspect is presented with the magic cake. Chihiro uses half of the magic cake to save Haku’s life. Haku doesn’t just tamely accept the magic cake, instead he is forced by Chihiro to open up his mouth and swallow the cake. This shows that salvation doesn’t come without struggles. By eating the magic cake, Haku doesn’t only come back to life from the curse of Seniba, but even breaks free from Yubaba’s spell that imprisons him from leaving her or disobeying her. The salvation Haku really gains isn’t his life, but rather his freedom – he is now finally free from Yubaba’s control, and he is free from the sins he unintentionally committed under Yubaba’s control. On the other hand, Chihiro uses the other half of the magic cake to save No-face from the greed and materialism he learned in the Bath House. As No-face throws up the filthy content in his body, his mind and heart is cleaned up as well. No-face gains salvation from the materialistic contamination in his heart.
In Spirited Away, food, a very normal everyday type of object, is presented to imply growing up, materialism, and salvation. Taking all parts together, Miyazaki shows to audience that even normal objects like food also have both positive and negative sides.