Note: All frame grabs in this post are my own, but feel free to use them.
It’s no secret I’m in love with the films of Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. I’ve blogged a few times regarding the treasures we can find in his movies. I’ve discussed the child heroines featured so often in his work, I’ve posted about the character of Howl in Howl’s Moving Castle, and I’ve explored the unsung companions found within the periphery of Miyazaki’s movies. It’s also no secret that I enjoy food. A lot. And I think Miyazaki and his characters do, as well.
I’ve noticed over time that I tend to eat more Asian-inspired cuisine when I watch these movies, maybe because the food and the movie themes complement one another? My Ramen noodles just taste better if I’m waiting for a magical cat bus at a rainy bus stop, and my salmon miso feels just a bit cozier if I’m outrunning an otherworldly tsunami to reach my seaside home. Finally recognizing this, I’d like to discuss the food we see in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away and explain its importance in the film. Other Miyazaki films give us foodgasms, for sure, but Spirited Away, in particular, places focus on food throughout, almost as a narrative device of sorts.
In many ways, the plot of Spirited Away is driven by food. When Chihiro and her parents wander into what her father suspects is an abandoned theme park, her mother notices that every building is a restaurant. Chihiro’s parents are then turned into pigs because they eat the food of the spirits, which tosses the girl into the spirit world, fighting for her parents’ safe return to human form. Shortly after Chihiro begins work at the bath house, she even warns her parents that if they get any fatter, the spirits will eat them, finding no use for the humans-turned-pigs as anything other than sustenance.
When Haku guides Chihiro as she transitions to the spirit world, he gives her what looks like a small berry to eat. He tells her, “You have to eat some food from this world, or else you’ll disappear.” She follows his instructions, bewildered by the sudden change of scenery.
Haku also brings Chihiro food after waking her one morning in the bath house. He tells her that she must stay strong and that there’s still hope for her parents. The food seems to be a catalyst for catharsis as Chihiro cries not only for her parents, but also because of the expectation that she grow and mature in this bizarre new world. It looks like maybe what she’s eating here is sticky rice.
Chihiro first meets Lin when Lin is delivering Kamaji his lunch and feeding the cute little stars to the soot sprites; hence, the need for food—for both Kamaji, the boiler man, and the adorable workers—is what brings Lin to the scene. Kamaji gives the item to Lin as he tries persuading her into taking Chihiro to see Yubaba, so that she can get a job at the bathhouse. Immediately afterward, Lin taunts an employee of the bath house with a roasted newt, which is apparently a much sought after delicacy in the spirit world. In this way, food is used as a bargaining chip and again as a distraction in order for Chihiro to go unnoticed as she makes her way to Yubaba’s headquarters at the top of the bathhouse.
And then there’s No Face. We love No Face…once he composes himself, of course. Out of both kindness and naiveté, Chihiro invites him into the bath house and out of the rain, but he becomes crazed and begins to eat everything in sight. We even hear him shout, “I want to eat everything!” at one point. While Chihiro tells Lin that being inside the bath house is what makes him crazy, his greed is evidenced by his insatiable appetite. He explains that he’s lonely and has no companions, so it seems that he fills this void with food, much like some people do. No Face longs for friendship—particularly Chihiro’s approval—and this is illustrated by his eating all the food the bath house residents offer to him, along with a few of the bath house employees themselves.
With all the eating and delicious depictions of food throughout the film, it’s especially significant that No Face purges what he’s eaten, and even says “Excuse me” at one point, as he pursues Chihiro.
We’d also be fools not to notice the delightful edibles seen at the stern but nurturing Zeniba’s table. We’re relieved that No Face has become a well-behaved guest, instead of a hunger-crazed nightmare. The lost spirit fittingly stays with Zeniba after helping himself to some tea and cake.
Within most of Miyazaki’s films, we see a theme that’s present in all cultures: food equals love. Food is meant to be shared with others and prepared with our loved ones in mind. However, in Spirited Away, we’re also reminded that eating the food of a specific area is like inviting its inhabitants into our lives, or like crashing dinner in their homes. Here, food symbolizes our need to survive, its nourishing energies making way for change and growth in our lives. However, No Face’s narrative also exemplifies food’s ability to ostracize and alienate when used as a substitute for love and friendship. No Face reminds us that food is good and lovely and wonderful, but too much is never a good idea.
Also worth mentioning are the ode to Ramen we find in Ponyo and a delicious breakfast of eggs and the thickest bacon you’ve ever seen in Howl’s Moving Castle.