Understanding Spirited Away: Consumption and Identity [Transcript]

AN: I am still having some difficulty recovering my video for Spirited Away, and since I’ve gotten so many requests, I’ve decided to upload the original script here so people can at least read it while I sort the video out. Thanks for your patience, guys! – Margarita

In my last video on Psycho I talked about how films without clearly linear plots can be understood by their repetition of common themes. Hayao Miyazaki’s animated masterpiece Spirited Away is in many ways an episodic film, with the protagonist Chihiro’s progress marked by repetitive, symbolic quests. If you’ve watched this film as many times as I have, you’ve probably noticed that one of the recurring images or themes that ties these quests together is consumption, and I’m talking about literal consumption here, both the ingesting of food and the expelling of it.

In an unusual twist, consumption in Spirited Away isn’t associated with gain but with loss, specifically the loss of identity. Chihiro’s parents lose their memories after a feeding frenzy that turns them into pigs. Both Haku and No Face have forgotten their identities but are helped by being made to vomit up the corrupting influences they’ve ingested. And Chihiro restores the River God to his true form by helping him essentially excrete decades of pollution. Over and over, our heroine has to symbolically purge characters in order to restore them to their lost or forgotten selves.

Now, like any great film, Spirited Away has a number of possible interpretations. For instance, anime critic Susan Napier reads Spirited Away as an allegory for modern Japanese identity, where Chihiro’s quest to rehabilitate characters who have forgotten their true selves is a metaphor for Japan’s struggle to regain a unique cultural identity in the face of globalization, industrialization, and corrupting foreign influences.

It’s an interpretation that’s well worth exploring, but I’m not going to do it here. Instead I want to look at how the trials Chihiro encounters reflect her own internal growth in a way that makes Spirited Away, in my opinion, one of the most sophisticated coming-of-age stories on film.

One of the things that give Spirited Away its unique feel and tone is its sense of liminality. The word liminality (from the Latin līmen, meaning threshold) is used to describe an in-between or transitional state, like limbo or the Twilight Zone. But it’s also an important term in the field of anthropology, where it refers specifically to the transitional phase of a rite of passage, during which the participant lacks a defined social status. The most obvious example of this kind of liminality is adolescence, when a person is no longer a child but not yet an adult, meaning that they’ve shed their old role in society but have yet to take on a new one. A lot of anthropologists think that this lack of identity is one of the reasons teenage angst and anxiety is common across so many cultures.

Literally speaking, Spirited Away is set in multiple levels of liminal space. For one thing, the whole story takes place during a journey taking Chihiro from her old house and life to her new one. For another, it takes place in a bathhouse bridging the real world and the spiritual. On top of that there are dozens of crucial scenes that take place in literal in-between or transitional spaces like elevators, staircases, bridges, tunnels, cars, and trains. All of these liminalities are reflections of our protagonist Chihiro, herself on the cusp of adolescence.

Japanese speakers will probably recognize that the name Chihiro is formed by the kanji chi, meaning ‘thousand’, and hiro, meaning to search or seek. When Chihiro enters the liminal space of the bathhouse, the witch Yubaba takes away the second half of her name, not only reducing her to a number but stripping away the part of her that seeks and creates meaning. In the same vein, the farewell card with Chihiro’s name on it is an important recurring image in the film, representing Chihiro’s very real fear of losing her former self and being without an identity, a fear symbolized by her recurring and frightening encounters with characters who have forgotten who they are. The fact that these figures are characterized by insatiable hunger is also not a coincidence. Consider No Face, who not only has No Face but also no voice; he consumes people in order to take on their voices and characteristics, implying that his hunger for food is really hunger for an identity of his own.

In his seminal 1990 article, ‘Why the self is empty’, psychologist Philip Cushman argued that consumer culture has fundamentally changed how people in the 20th century approach the problem of identity. In the Victorian era, during the advent of psychoanalysis, the self was framed as an unruly force repressed and contained by civilized society. But in the 20th century the dramatic rise of urbanization, industrialization, and increasing social isolation led to a mass crisis of identity to which industries responded with the so-called ‘lifestyle solution’, an advertising model which imbibes the products it sells with the promise of meaning, personality, and identity. In effect, the self has come to be reimagined not as a force to be subdued but a vacuum to be filled. And in order to maintain itself, consumer culture actively encourages consumers to see ourselves as perpetually empty vessels, always in need of fixing or filling.

And this is a problem because people have to go through rites of passage, or liminal phases where we temporarily lack an identity, in order to grow. The most common criticisms of consumer culture are that it renders people self-absorbed, passive, and infantile – much like Chihiro at the beginning of the film. By purging her of her former identity and pushing her forward into a liminal state, Miyazaki does for Chihiro what she does for the characters she purges: helps her to confront the fear of emptiness that makes her so passive and helpless to begin with. Only then can she really recognize that she is not empty or helpless at all.

And this is the lesson Chihiro learns through symbolic repetition. What Miyazaki is showing her, and us, is the futility of looking for an identity through consumption. After all, No Face’s appetite is counterproductive and self-destructive; the more he feeds it, the more monstrous it becomes. It’s only after he vomits up all his false identities that he can move forward towards a sense of real belonging. Miyazaki is showing us that the only way we can overcome our fear of emptiness is to stop feeding it.

 

Recommended Reading:

Cushman, Philip. “Why the Self is Empty: Toward a Historically Situated Psychology” American Psychologist 45(5): 599-611.

Napier, Susan J. “Matter out of Place: Carnival, Containment, and Cultural Recovery in Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away”” Journal of Japanese Studies 32, no. 2 (2006): 287-310.

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