Spirited Away is a Hayao Miyazaki film in which a 10-year-old girl named Chihiro becomes trapped in a mysterious world and is forced to work in a bathhouse that serves the spirits. Chihiro struggles to save her parents, who have transformed into pigs and receives support from creatures all around her. The film contains several scenes in which meals and food are consumed or shared. In Spirited Away, characters over-consume to fill an internal void created by loneliness or hopelessness, and end up exploiting or harming the environment.
Comparing No Face with Chihiro points to food’s role in Spirited Away as “filling one’s soul.” Chihiro and No Face have similar backgrounds, though the film mainly shows the paradoxical aspects of each character. Chihiro and No Face are both alone in this world, without their families. Both wandered into this mysterious world alone, and No Face expresses his feelings by saying “I’m lonely, I’m lonely… I want Sen, I want Sen…” On the other hand, Chihiro, a 10 year old girl determined to work in a place maybe forever to help her parents, behaves dauntlessly saying nothing about abandoning her job (this was also because she was told by Haku that if she said one word of going home or quitting her job, she would never get her parents back). In this scene, however, Haku gives Chihiro 3 onigiris in a garden, promting her to cry out of loneliness. In this shot, Haku has his arm around Chihiro’s shoulder to show relief in a calm garden having soft, melodic background music which also imbues the scene with tenderness. This scene is significant because onigiris have a special meaning to children in Japan. Onigiri literally means “handmade” rice balls, not to mention rice is our soul food in Japan. Haku’s handmade onigiris made Chihiro feel secure and relieved which lead her to burst into tears.
No Face, on the other hand, could not find someone to care for him, and he uses his ability to literally ‘make money’ to consume a huge amount of food, even swallowing three employees in the bath house to abate his loneliness. No Face can be seen as representative of vanity and materialism, regarding money as everything and thinking of grasping whatever he wants- including food, authority, even love. He uses his power to make gold to blind employees with their own greed, and have them bring the enormous amount of food to him. His enormous consumption, however, did not make him full, either literally or in his heart: although he comes to look like a monster, he keeps on saying that he is lonely. Food made without anyone’s heart will never make one full, and he realizes his vacancy despite having money and people around him. Later on, he finds out that money was not the thing he needed when he goes to Zeniba’s cabin with Chihiro and makes a manmade barrette for her using no magic. He looks so happy being needed by someone. This scene is when he appreciates the taste of a cake filled with acceptance. Therefore, from both Chihiro and No Face’s perspective, food, when it is prepared with care or love, plays a role of filling out one’s anxiety of love, care, and tenderness when you are alone or when you feel a vacancy in your heart.
Secondly, Miyazaki deploys food and consumer goods as a metaphor for human carelessness and waste. The above scene depicts a pile of junk coming out of the Stink Spirit, who actually turns out to be a river god. Miyazaki’s environmental message is that while we see polluted rivers and avoid them or try not to get involved with them, it is indeed humans that have made that mess. The Stink Spirit came to the bath house to wash off all the sludge and muck made by the human beings. The scene suggests that throwing one thing away would not be a big deal, but having everyone doing it will lead to a serious pollution of the river and because of the egoism of them the nature will die. This plot point is very similar to that of Haku’s because he is also a river god, and in the end we know that his river had been landfilled due to construction of an apartment.
Throughout the film, Miyazaki used food to represent both human values and vices. Food can be used to fill one’s void coming from loneliness or sadness, but at the same time if you over-consume food, it will also lead to a big environmental problem. As long as we have a wasteful society, we will never have a radiant future with a sustainable world as Miyazaki wanted it to be.