Miyazaki’s moral bodies
I’ve always wanted to eat like a cartoon character.
Cartoons eat whole sandwiches in one bite, inhale entire meals like a supercharged vacuum cleaner. They can eat forever and never be full. There is a purity and a vivacity to the way animated characters eat—they eat the way we imagine we do when we’re hungry.
I’m hardly the first person to enjoy watching food in animated movies—countless compilation videos have already been made in praise of gooey cheese pizzas and piles of onigiri. But as a kid, I didn’t just want to eat the foods appearing on screen, I wanted to eat them the way the characters did, gigantic bite after gigantic bite, without any need to stop.
Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away changed all of this.
Miyazaki’s 2001 film is one of Studio Ghibli’s greatest successes, a critical and commercial darling renowned the world over. I was about ten years old when I first saw it on DVD, and I went in expecting to love it. I had grown up on Studio Ghibli movies like Kiki’s Delivery Service and My Neighbor Totoro, had always enjoyed them, had always felt safe and delighted while watching them.
The first five minutes of Spirited Away confused me. A girl sulking in the back seat of a car driving through the woods, eerie stone statues grinning at her from the trees, apathetic parental figures dismissing her. Then they took a detour into an abandoned theme park, and I thought: Here we go. Now the magic starts.
But Chihiro, the film’s main character, the sulky girl who reminded child-me of myself when I had to meet new people or try new things, didn’t like the quiet theme park. It made her uneasy, and I found myself slowly beginning to agree with her. The wind pushing her deeper into the park bothered me. Then her parents discovered a buffet without any attendants, and everything went wrong.
I was horrified as I saw Chihiro’s parents transformed into pigs. They had eaten sloppily as humans, devouring the delicious food, proclaiming that it was all right since they had “credit cards and cash.” And while they couldn’t speak after they had been turned into pigs, it was hard to find too many differences in their overall behavior.
I ran out of the room. I tried to explain to my parents why the scene was so distressing, but couldn’t find the words. I didn’t realize then, but it was probably because I identified strongly with the anxious child Chihiro. Having placed myself in her shoes, I was forced to imagine my own parents losing control, abandoning me, transforming into swine. It was too much to contemplate.
But the scene also tainted my love of animated characters eating animated food. An act that had once seemed so fun and inviting carried a new dark side. The scene wasn’t just scary, it felt mean-spirited, like Miyazaki had judged Chihiro’s parents as bad people. It felt like a betrayal—Ghibli’s animation always seemed to celebrate the little things, especially those that related to food. To turn that on its head, to see eating as something potentially worthy of punishment, was new and frightening. I didn’t like it.
Spirited Away is largely set in the spirit world, at a bathhouse where spirits of all shapes and sizes come to relax. The world that Miyazaki creates is at once inviting and dangerous, likable but vaguely repulsive. There have long been rumblings that the film’s parallels with the Japanese sex industry—where establishments are frequently passed off as bathhouses—are no accident.
Miyazaki knows exactly how enticing the opulence of the bathhouse is. It isn’t just impressive in scale—the richness of its interior is almost hypnotic. This extends to the food: normal dishes the audience knows and loves are mixed in with giant fish heads, roasted newts, unidentifiable meats and vegetables. Rich food is integral to the world of the bathhouse. It’s not a coincidence that Chihiro has to eat some of the spirit world’s food to remain there.
But throughout the film, these sumptuous foods are devoured without any care, whether by Chihiro’s parents or the spirit No-Face. Thus, these lavish dishes become Miyazaki’s symbol for the decadence that doomed Chihiro’s parents to pighood. And nobody eats more than No-Face.
No-Face is greed personified, a spirit that can’t even speak without stealing the voices of others. He is polite and quiet outside the bathhouse, but once inside he consumes everything he can, growing to an enormous size. The bathhouse infects him, as he is only cured when he leaves, spits up the spirits he has eaten, and becomes skinny again. Miyazaki makes it clear that the bathhouse and most of its denizens are a corruptive influence, that despite all its beauty there is something wrong here.
The spirits’ designs are the first indication, as all of them look just slightly off, like they were put together wrong. The anthropomorphic frogs look greasy to the touch, the nude radish man has tendrils that wiggle disconcertingly, and at the top of it all, the bathhouse owner Yubaba’s too-large eyes sit in her too-large head, watching everything.
Yubaba is the greediest of them all, usually depicted wearing jewels or counting coins. The only time she praises Chihiro is when she cleans an ancient river god, and even then it’s not because Chihiro did good work, but because it resulted in lots of money for the bathhouse. Hypocritically, she is harsh to others who get similarly selfish–she became the owner of Chihiro’s parents when they became pigs. Greed is punished with greed in Miyazaki’s world.
The way greed washes away identity is front and center in Spirited Away. The spirits of this world are appealing, but also uncanny. For most of them, this goes hand in hand with their status as employees or servants—they may appear friendly or valued, but only so long as they’re making money for Yubaba. The vast majority of them fill in the backgrounds in large groups without individuality, and the few spirits who buck this trend—Kamaji, Haku, Lin, Zeniba—do so because they are kind to Chihiro, helping her even though it doesn’t benefit them.
Similarly, the food that these kind characters eat stands out not because it is lavish, but because it is needed. Chihiro doesn’t eat the huge dishes that No-Face does—she eats rice balls and red bean buns, simple fare that nonetheless gives her the strength to continue.
Hayao Miyazaki is not so simplistic a filmmaker that he would consign all of cuisine to be shorthand for decadence. He knows food is bigger than that, and that’s why special attention is paid in Spirited Away to the food that is needed. Chihiro cries while eating her rice balls, reflects on the spirit world while eating her red bean bun. Even No-Face is tame when he isn’t driven by insatiable greed—he gets downright quaint when he eats tea and cake with Zeniba. Food isn’t just something for wealthy people to devour in huge quantities. It can be celebrated when it isn’t inhaled in pointless gluttony.
So, now that we’ve all been lectured not to be too greedy, we can go back to the beginning. We know how unhealthy it is to consume without thinking whether it’s necessary, polite, or right. I’m ready to face the scene at the beginning of the film, confident that I, like Chihiro, will hold on to my identity and only indulge in moderation. Right?
Well, no. Not really.
Cinema can make you deceive yourself. In most films, we are invited to identify with the protagonist, and this connection can make us think that of all the characters in the story, we are most like the hero. This is obviously false, as not everyone can be a hero or even particularly important. But we’re all the heroes of our own stories, so we identify with the heroes of other stories. And because we align ourselves with the heroes, we also imagine we identify with the artists who made them.
Re-watching Spirited Away today, I initially identified just as strongly with Chihiro, the anxious child navigating a beautiful, terrifying world with caution. But as I thought more about it, I realized that she wasn’t the character I was most similar to.
I’m more than happy nowadays to try strange food as long as it looks tasty, and I likely wouldn’t think twice about plopping myself down in a seat at that buffet and trying a few dishes. I would think to myself that it was okay to eat, because I had credit cards and cash to pay the owner. I wouldn’t worry about the rich food potentially making me gain weight, because I don’t feel shame for being overweight. I would likely comport myself the same as Chihiro’s father. I would fail the first test of Miyazaki’s spirit world. I would be turned into a pig.
I might think that my worldview is closest to Chihiro’s, because I do believe in indulging only in moderation, in not letting an exploitative system take my identity away, in helping others do the same, but I don’t have a train ticket out of the bathhouse. I am a part of a society that justifies consuming at an unsustainable rate, a society that is rendering our planet uninhabitable through its own greed and negligence at this very moment. In Miyazaki’s eyes, a society of pigs.
But that doesn’t mean that Miyazaki conveys this point perfectly. Even if his ultimate goal is to point the finger at society for overconsumption of natural resources—a well-worn theme across all his films—he stumbles in Spirited Away. Miyazaki never demonizes any of his characters, but he certainly conflates the greed of the bathhouse with fatness. Even if you can get past the scene where two enthusiastic diners are punished by getting turned into pigs, which you could easily argue inherently identifies fat bodies with greed and evil, there’s also No-Face, who is “cured” after he vomits up the people he has eaten and becomes skinny again.
Miyazaki makes an impassioned, affecting case against greed, but in doing so he holds up fat bodies as an image of selfish evil, a depiction that has become practically omnipresent in the 20th and 21st centuries. It is a lazy and hurtful cliché, but he falls into it anyway. In his eagerness to condemn capitalist society, he created a ghoulish, literally dehumanizing test, one that isn’t even remotely fair—after all, would you have thought twice before eating at that buffet? Chihiro herself is only saved because she’s scared.
Don’t be greedy, or you’ll become as fat as a pig. Don’t eat like No-Face, or you’ll end up fat like him. This is an oversimplification of the message of these sequences, but not an inaccurate one. Fatness is frequently—though not always—portrayed in Spirited Away as a sign of moral weakness, an argument that ultimately weakens the film by displacing the crimes of societal overconsumption onto individual bodies.
Still, Miyazaki pulls a neat trick, allowing viewers to identify with Chihiro while simultaneously showing them the wrongs committed by side characters, characters that much more accurately represent the viewers’ impact on the world.
In Miyazaki’s metaphor, we are not Chihiro. We don’t line up with her, or the magical dragon boy, or any of the nice spirits. We are the spirit with no face, only a mouth and false gold. And maybe that’s why the film’s lavish, abundant depiction of food is at once so attractive and so repulsive.