Insatiable Adults & Spirited Children
by Katelyn Liu
I remember when I first watched Studio Ghibli’s famed Spirited Away as a young child. All I heard were people celebrating over the magnificent and nonsensical world that Hayao Miyazaki was able to create. Anticipating a work of color and creativity, my memory has only cemented one distinct feeling from years ago - I was horrified. It was more than the shock of watching Chihiro’s parents’ transformation into pigs. Spirited Away implicated how the social conditioning towards materialism proves blinding towards the opportunity for human intimacy.
The protagonist, Chihiro, is a young girl who begins the film by sulking about moving away from her hometown, is sucked into a world of ghosts and gods. After wondering into a deserted theme park, her parents freely gorge upon the mysterious food that is left without supervision, heaping quantities onto plates beyond their threshold of satiety, while Chihiro was adamantly wary, refusing to partake. As a result, their devolution into porcine embodiment ensues and Chihiro is forced to work in Bath House run by Yubaba in order to free her parents. Stripped of her name and renamed Sen, she shuffles along as a lowly worker in Bath House as she tries to make sense of this new reality complete with anthropomorphic frogs. In a quiet moment with her only friend, Haku, she allows herself to cry over a humble meal of onigiri. Even with the safety of her protector, Haku, she is hesitant to eat before allowing herself to eat and cry in his company. The role reversal is clear; as a young child, it seems uncharacteristic of her youth to enter into this thought-to-be abandoned amusement park so cautiously. Rather, her parents—full-grown adults—frolic and eat with no consideration of the strangeness or potential consequences of their presence in the eerie and sacred space.
As Miyazaki unravels the spirit world through Chihiro’s novel eyes, the unassuming god, No Face, is introduced (Figure 3). He begins on a busy bridge, unseen by anyone but Chihiro, who politely dips her head in acknowledgment of his presence. No Face begins similar to an infant; he knows nothing of the world, nor how to interact with those who run it. More and more, he appears around Chihiro who accepts these opportunities to show him kindness, even opening the door to the Bath House for him to enter (mistaking him as a guest). No Face spends most of his time observing behavior, most notably when the Bath House workers clamor to pick up the gold pieces left behind by the river god. No Face, with the ability to materialize gold pieces, soon becomes the most popular and celebrated patron as every worker lines up to attend to his every desire. With more gold, there are more people who adore him.
Little by little, he learns the joy of receiving kindness from others and perceives the systems of currency and the value ascribed to it. As he consumes more and more, even consuming workers, his previously unnoticeable presence evolves into a grotesque, spider-like form. His soundless steps now thud with every movement throughout Bath House. As the workers of Bath House feed his greed, his appetite grows unrestrained and No Face’s education of social norms remains unbalanced, with no conditioning to understand limitations, to the point of swallowing workers. Only Chihiro rejects the gold, what No Face has come to understand as acceptable payment for companionship. The one who originally offered him attention and kindness is the one character who will not accept his gold. Chihiro, perhaps the most desperate for any influence or control in this world, demonstrates her own self-control and teaches the same to No Face. Self-restraint and limitations is not innately understood, it must be taught. In fact, No Face demonstrated that the exhaustion of physical consumption ultimately does not satisfy the underlying desire for companionship and intimacy.
Chihiro’s adventure seems to end where it began. Her parents, now human again, call her back to the entrance of this world, unaware of the whirlwind their daughter has emerged from. Yet the shocking, full-circle transformation of No Face points back to the pig transformation of Chihiro’s indulgent parents from the very beginning. Although they eventually become human again because of Chihiro’s efforts, due to their absence throughout the film and their amnesic venture into the spirit world, they are the least developed characters in the world of Spirited Away. It leads the viewer to consider why the only human adults in this world filled with mystical, physical, and emotional transformations are marked by their insatiable appetite and lack of control. Perhaps we are to consider how the daily transactions that reinforce social conformity for a desire of more, leaves us clueless to the magical wonder of intimate human connection.
Spirited Away. Dir. Hayao Miyazaki. By Hayao Miyazaki. Perf. Rumi Hiiragi and Miyu Irino. Studio Ghibli, 2001.