Spirited Away: a Utopian landscape crashed by Western greed

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Described by Donsomsakulkij as ‘a wonderfully composed piece of art with startling images and stunning designs’, the aesthetic nature of Miyazaki’s 2001 film Spirited Away undoubtedly has elements of the utopian about it. An important undercurrent of the film which is often attributed to playing a role in creating utopias is the idea of plenty and excess, particularly in terms of food. There is an undeniable abundance of food throughout Spirited Away, however its role is not always of a utopian nature.

Feasts of overindulgence, alongside other displays of excess, have come to represent ‘a modernising Japan’ for many critics. Capitalism has been identified as ‘the most significant’ Western influence to have provoked change in traditional Japanese culture, and this essay will explore how the characters of Chihiro’s parents and No Face symbolise that influence within this seemingly utopian setting. 

In the first scene of Spirited Away, both parents’ voices can be heard before they are seen, with the mother’s first line showing surprise at the rural location that they are moving into, and surmising that she will ‘have to go to the next town to shop’. This line presents two themes that underpin much of the film’s story: firstly, that the family are foreign in this environment and secondly, the prevalence of consumption. Shopping is the audience’s primary association with the mother and she is immediately identified as a consumer. 

In the English version of the film the parents do not have names, which allows for these characters to be any American, or Western, characters. In this respect, they are able to symbolise entire societies of consumers, which enables Spirited Away to criticise an entire ‘modernising’ culture rather than just this family of characters. The character of No Face is similarly anonymous, as despite having a name, ‘No Face’ only denotes a lack of identity. It is only after producing copious amounts of gold at the bath house, that No Face is welcomed as ‘rich man’, whereby his wealth becomes the feature after which he is named. Like the mother’s reference to shopping, it is No Face’s consumption that determines how he is identified by others.

There is a clear disinterest in any aspect of No Face other than his gold, as when asked who he actually is, Lin responds with ‘who cares’ and just says that ‘he’s loaded’. The focus on gold rather than the customers themselves paints the bath house to be a ‘fantasized capitalistic world’. The visual spectacle of the costumes and food display the bath house to be the most obvious symbol of the traditional Japanese lifestyle in the film, however, gold and capitalistic attitudes replace traditional Japanese values as the incentives around which everything revolves. The family driving into this world serves as a metaphor for the intrusion of Western influences and their consumerism-based identities, which have developed from this way of thinking. 

The bath house workers’ behaviour towards the rich spirits acts as a mirror of the response seemingly expected by Chihiro’s father at the ‘abandoned theme park’. He assumes that he can take what he wants as he has ‘credit cards and cash’, which can be likened to the way in which No Face produces gold and carelessly throws it at the workers as payment for their food. The buffet is not, however, such a ‘capitalistic world’ as they seem to expect, and rather than being given everything they want, they are punished for their behaviour. The parents’ intended use of modern payment methods reflects Suzuki’s ‘modernising Japan’, particularly when compared to the age-old gold pieces that are still traded in the more traditional bath house.

Large amounts of gold are also very visible throughout the film, whereas the ‘cards and cash’ are never actually seen, hinting at their unreliable nature. This is especially prominent following the father’s comments regarding the ‘theme park’ having gone ‘bankrupt’ due to earlier economic problems, which, if interpreted as a reference to Japan’s ‘bubble’ economy, makes the father’s reliance on the contents of his wallet all the more ironic. By highlighting the ongoing aftermath of an economic collapse, the film foreshadows the detrimental effects of excessive consumption, both through the transformation of the parents into pigs and No Face’s destruction at the bath house. 

It soon becomes apparent that this is no human theme park, but rather home to a multitude of spirits, and it is within this sphere that the first feast, or to use Napier’s phrasing, the first ‘orgy of consumption’, takes place. Her description of the feast as an ‘orgy’ alludes not only to its excessive nature but also to the pleasure that comes from overindulgence, particularly in Western culture. As highlighted by Sargent, the mountains of food allude to the place’s utopian quality, and it is clear that it invokes excitement in both the mother and father, who run towards the smell of the food.

There is, however, an uneasiness evoked by this scene. The manner in which the parents eat is purposely revolting – they talk with mouths full, there is sauce dripping down their faces, and grunting can be heard in the background, alluding to their imminent transformation into farmyard animals. This ugly portrayal of the parents characterises Western consumers as greedy and lacking in self-control, and serves to discourage the audience from acting in a similar way by showing the parents to be punished. An equally insatiable hunger is displayed by No Face, who sits on a platform and demands that the workers ‘just keep the food coming’ as he ‘want[s] to eat everything!’. His growing size not only reflects the body’s reaction to overeating, but also serves as a personification of the power of the consumer. No Face grows bigger and more powerful as he continues to eat –  the more he consumes, the more is offered to him, and he eats until he develops teeth and becomes what Napier describes as ‘a literal monster of consumption’.

To refer back to Donsomakulkij, both scenes of overindulgence are worthy of the term ‘startling’, as the visual cacophony of dishes paired with the way in which the characters gorge themselves compels both attention and shock, serving to display the monstrosity of such excessive behaviour. Food is intrinsically linked to social hierarchy and wealth, and the increasingly bloated monster of No Face is a visual symbol of this in the way that he grows to tower over the workers who are desperately begging for his gold. Although Sargent draws links between utopias and food, the way in which this film reflects overconsumption in Western cultures is far from utopian. This demonstration of overindulgence as a staple of consumerist culture in Spirited Away seeks to discourage its further influence on Japanese culture.

Whilst capitalism is named as the ‘most significant’ of Western influences to have affected traditional culture, Suzuki also names ‘the loss of spiritual value and identity’ as contributing to a ‘modernising Japan’. A lack of identity has already been made apparent in the anonymity of the parents, and their transformation into pigs strips them of their identity as human beings. This absence of an identity is accentuated further in scenes showing the parents in their animal forms, where it is impossible to tell them apart from the hundreds of other pigs.

Whilst their transformation is an immediate result of their own overindulgence, it may also be their ‘loss of spiritual value’ that is punished within the film. Before discovering the feast, Chihiro’s mother separates herself from traditional Japanese beliefs when she says that ‘some people’ believe that ‘little spirits’ live in the shrines on the roadside. ‘Some people’ detaches herself from that belief, and use of ‘little spirits’ is patronising, and may suggest that belief in spirits has no place in a modern world. The mother further broadens the gap between herself and Japanese culture when she says: ‘I wonder what this is called’ whilst devouring something from the buffet. Her quick consumption of the food, despite not knowing what it is, or its origins, is reminiscent of the fast-food culture that has developed within Western culture; the ‘rapid expansion’ of which is very visible in Japan and other ‘westernised’ Asian countries.

No Face can be seen to replicate this mentality during his binge-eating at the bath house, where he shows no regard for what he is eating and mindlessly swallows everything in sight. Workers also perpetuate this idea of quantity over quality, with the instruction of: ‘cook everything you’ve got, even leftovers if you have to!’. Producing lots of food as quickly as possible is shown to take precedence over providing the quality of food and hospitality that would traditionally be of great importance at a Japanese bath house. Whilst the mother implies her own lack of spirituality, and her transformation can be read as a response to that, No Face’s behaviour accentuates the bath house’s identity as a ‘fantasized capitalistic world’. Despite being full of spirit creatures, its playing host to such consumerist behaviour suggests that the bath house has very much lost its traditional Japanese spirit.

It is only after purging himself of everything that he has eaten that No Face leaves the bath house and finds solace in the simple home of Zaneba. In this respect, the character of No Face is one of hope; although he is monsterised by consumption, he is able to return to his original form and it is implied that he continues to live and work away from the consumerist mindset of the bath house. It is through No Face that we are presented with a happy ending, however it is suggested that this can only be achieved through leading a traditional life away from the consumerism that taints both the bath house and the world of Chihiro’s parents.

Napier describes the end of No Face’s story as providing the audience with a ‘guarded optimism’ for the future. The parental figures, however, offer little consolation to those already deeming Japan to have succumbed too easily to consumerism. At the end of the film it is clear that they have no recollection of what has happened, and whilst No Face represents a ‘guarded optimism’, Chihiro’s parents can only symbolise a negative future for Japan. Their complete unawareness of what has happened suggests that they are unable to learn from their punishment, and therefore unlike No Face, are unable to correct their monstrous behaviour. 

Spirited Away takes excesses of food as an element of westernised utopia, and by placing it amongst a fantasy setting, distorts it almost to the point of unrecognition, where it provokes monstrous behaviour. The characters of Chihiro’s parents and No Face all undergo a physical change as a result of their consumption and become visual representations of the damage stemming from consumerism. Through this, they serve as a warning to audiences as to what increasing levels of Western influence may look like. References to ‘gold’ and ‘credit cards and cash’ allow for reflection on Japan’s economy and the way in which decades after financial ruin, the aftermath is still visible, yet not necessarily heeded or learned from. A loss of spirituality and by extension, identity, is also presented as a condition of a ‘modernising Japan’, which is displayed most powerfully in the juxtaposition of the traditional bath house and the consumerist behaviour to which it plays host. These are some of the detrimental effects of capitalism explored by the characters of No Face and Chihiro’s parents, and they offer alternative outcomes for Japan at the end of the film. No Face suggests that the country is able to redeem itself should it choose to reject Western societal influences, whereas the parents project a much bleaker possible future. Spirited Away is certainly a beautiful film with utopian features, however, woven throughout is the ugly portrayal of an increasingly consumerist society that will only grow in influence should Japan’s traditional past continue to be shunned in favour of a Westernised future. 

Filmography 

Spirited Away dir. by Hayao Miyazaki (Studio Ghibli, 2001)

Bibliography 

Clark, Scott. ‘The Japanese Bath: Extraordinarily Ordinary’ in Re-made in Japan: Everyday Life and Consumer Taste in a Changing Society ed. by Joseph J. Tobin (New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1992) 

Donsomsakulkij, Weeraya, ‘Spirited Away: Negotiation between Capitalism and Reminiscent Environmental Ethics’, Resilience: A Journal of the Environmental Humanities, 2. 3. (2015) 

Fletcher, Miles W. ‘Dreams of economic transformation and the reality of economic crisis in Japan: Keidanren in the era of the ‘bubble’ and the onset of the ‘lost decade,’ from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s’, Asia Pacific Business Review, 18. 2. (2012)

Meliyanni Johar, Shiko Maruyama and Jeffrey Truong ‘The contribution of Western fast food to fast-growing body mass in China’, Applied Economics, 49.8. (2017) 

Napier, Susan J. ‘Matter out of Place: Carnival, Containment, and Cultural Recovery in Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away’, The Journal of Japanese Studies, 32. 2. (2006)

Sargent, Lyman T., ‘Everyday life in Utopia: Food’ in Food Utopias: Reimagining Citizenship, Ethics and Community, ed. by Paul V Stock, Michael Carolan and Christopher Rosin (London and New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2015)

Suzuki, Ayumi. ‘A Nightmare of capitalist Japan: Spirited Away’, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 51 (2009) <http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/jc51.2009/SpiritedAway/index.html> (accessed 1 January 2019)

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