Consumption and Greed as Crucial Themes in Spirited Away


Spirited Away​ is an animated film about a 10-year-old girl, who leaves her old life behind and is about to enter a new life (town). Chihiro and her parents are driving to a new house. On their way to the house, her dad takes the wrong turn and ends up in front of a tunnel. They enter through the tunnel and come across many buildings grouped together, which her dad assumes to be an abandoned theme park. They explore the place and come across cooked food, but the restaurant is vacant. Her parents, tempted by the food, indulge themselves and invites their daughter to join them. Chihiro refuses their invite and walks away. She discovers a bath house and in-turn meets a young boy, Haku. He warns her to run quickly and get away from there. She runs towards her parents, who is transformed into pigs. Terrified, she tries to make it out of the spirit world, but it is too late.

Stuck in the spirit world, Chihiro’s only option is to get a job at the bath house to save her parents from being eaten. Through many trials and tests, she endures and grows as a person throughout the film. Finally, she saves her parents and is regarded in a different light by the spirits of the bath house. One of the spirits, Haku, helps Chihiro to the edge of the spirit world. She returns to the normal world with her parents waiting for her at the entrance of the tunnel.

In this essay, the semiotics in ​Spirited Away​, will be looked at and discussed, and how it ties into the theme of consumption. The essay will look into and study the signs and symbols throughout film; that is, the symbolism in identity, food and human nature. The use or interpretation of the signs and symbols throughout the film can be related to the theme of consumption, and its underlying theme, greed. Throughout the film, the theme consumption could be the most direct link to the underlying theme greed, which shows the spirit characters' true-nature in the bathhouse and human nature in the normal world. Yet, Chihiro shows no sign of greed contrasting her character against those of spirits in the bath house. 

Theme of Consumption

The tone of the film is a fantasy, with real world problems coating it. “The main theme of this film is to describe, in the form of a fantasy, some of the things in this world which tends towards erosion and ruin.” The ‘erosion and ruin’ can be seen as the over consumption of power (controlling others), food and natural resources in ​Spirited Away​. The characters cause harm to themselves or others in their process of consumption or has been harmed because of over consumption. Through symbolism the signs of the tone of the film are made visible. 

Symbolism of identity

The symbolism of identity in ​Spirited Away​ can be related to the people of Japan losing their identity, by being consumed by Westernization. And this one of the reasons that ​Spirited Away​’s target audience for the film is the children of the island country, Japan. “Surrounded by high technology and flimsy devices, children are more and more losing their roots. We must inform them of the richness of our traditions.”  According to Hoffman, the Western cultural has consumed Japan’s ‘harmony’ (Wa), replacing it with Western ideals, such as setting the strong against with the weak. A signifier in the film for this is the Westernization of Yubaba’s luxurious Western-style penthouse and her Victorian style clothing, and how she controls her employees by stealing their names. The signified can be interpreted as Westernization consuming Japan’s culture, and its people being at risk of losing their roots (identity).

Near the beginning of ​Spirited Away​ Chihiro is slowly consumed by the lively spirit world around her, becoming invisible, losing sight of her true self. This could mean that Chihiro, not being in the normal world, has no roots to connect herself to in the spirit world. With the loss of her parents being one of the factors. In the film, she runs away from her transformed parents, not wanting to believe it is them. She is not seen by the passing spirits. According to Miyazaki, an individual who does not have a history or roots has no choice, but to vanish into thin air. Chihiro’s has no roots in the spirit world. It is evident when she asks her mom the question: “What are those little houses?”, when the drive past forgotten shrines.

Chihiro is seen from an extreme high angle. Proferes describes a high angle, in Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious, as “it feels as if it were “pressing down” on Alex, exposing his anxiety and utter dismay”. In that moment Hayao Miyazaki intentionally is exposing Chihiro’s anxiety and dismay, pressing down on her. The triadic colour scheme which surrounds her desaturated and light colour palette, makes her stand out. She looks out of place. Miyazaki might have done this purposefully to exaggerate her anxiety. Chihiro slowly melts into the world of spirits. Her colour palette becoming less prominent. The spirit world’s colours slowly taking over. The spirits pay her no heed, as if she is not there. Chihirois barely visible. A large negative space surrounds her, pulling focus on her. As stated by Block, contrast of brightness is achieved with very vividly colours against very dark colours.

Miyazaki created a world in which Yababa rules and where the characters are kept on their toes with living amongst dangers that might consume them. “Yubaba rules others by stealing their names.” Chihiro signs her real name away without a second thought. The paper flies out of her hands and her name is consumed by Yubaba hand. She now has become Sen and belongs to Yubaba. In an article written by Deluzain, identity is closely linked to a name and changing a name means changing of identity or even a loss of identity, because identity is associated with a name. Chihiro’s name being consumed by Yubaba’s hand, caused her to accept the new identity given to her with the name Sen. When Haku gives her back her old clothes, she finds a farewell card in between it and in shock she releases what her real name is and who she is. In that moment she has found herself again.

Haku’s real name is another name that Yubaba has stolen. Ando states that Haku was referred to as a ‘transparent’ character and to convey this he designed Haku’s eyes to look ‘strange’. His ‘transparency’ as a character can be signified as being without an identity, because of the loss of his real name. Yubaba’s control over spirits by taking their names can signify her greed for power and control. From the moment we are introduced to Yubaba her character, most of the time, takes up more than ⅔ of the screen space. Pulling focus to her and it makes her look powerful, thus making her greed become more evident. 

Symbolism of food

Food in ​Spirited Away ​carries the physical theme of consumption, but signifies greed as a primary theme. The consumption of food can be seen as an parallel idea to the amount of greed of each character. “Can you believe it, they’re all restaurants”

Chihiro returns to her parents, to find them transformed into pigs, after consuming the spirits’ food. This can be signified as people being unable to overcome their desire for wanting more and not knowing when to stop. The transformation into pigs is a sign of her parents greed and materialism. Lin’s action of greedily stuffing the roasted newt into her mouth, in front of a co-worker (who desperately wanted a piece), is one of first signs of greed amongst Yubaba’s workers. The signifier in this instance is Lin consuming the roasted newt, thus it could evoke the mental concept of greed.

The word frog in Japanese share the same word as return. Frog in Japan symbolizes return as something good; return of money or return from travelling. Little Green Frog ‘returns’ to the big tub in hopes to find gold. Miyazaki could have use this as a symbol for comedic effect and show the true nature of the frog, because frog is an important symbol in their culture]. Little Green Frog comes in contact with No Face and it is lured by the gold in No Face’s hands. His greed leads to its demise, as he is eaten by No Face. This leads to No Face transforming. He obtains some of Little Green Frog’s features and gets consumed by the greed of Little Green Frog. Little Green Frog can be seen as an indexical for No Face’s transformation.

“No Face swallows the bath house workers, and I thought it might have been interesting if he acquired their personalities and ability to reason. This way he might become more human and appealing.”. No Face doesn’t become more appealing, but rather grotesque. His character design seems to be based of a silkworm. After he consumes Little Green Frog, he starts to consume food rapidly and constantly, leading to his expand in size. His mouth is below his face-like-mask, just like a silkworms.

The colour yellow is a primary colour. It surrounds No Face, signifying his sickness, madness and obsessive nature. The green around Sen makes her desaturated red worker’s uniform pop, thus drawing the viewers attention towards her. The reason being that complementary colours increases each others saturation. The colour scheme in this scene is analogous. “The third rule of color interaction states that when analogous colors are placed next to one another, they appear to push apart, or separate, in their position on the color wheel.” In this case the yellow, being the primary colour, makes the other colours feel more yellow. This gives the atmosphere of the scene. It makes No Face’s madness of greed more evident. Miyazaki might have purposefully chosen an analogous colour scheme for the reason the colours ‘appear to push apart’, to make the space between Sen and No Face feel wider. To make the contrast in their personalities more evident to the viewer.

The use of flat space shows the size difference between Sen and No Face. Again showing the contrast of their personalities and how the bathhouse’s atmosphere affected them. The blue lines represents Sen and No Face being framed in by the panelling of the doors and walls behind them. The thick panel between them divides Sen and No Face. The two characters are in complete contrast with one another. No Face being corrupted by greed and Sen’s unselfish qualities.

The shape langue and size variation between Sen and No Face’s silhouettes contrast one another. The triangular shape of Sen shows she is attentive and ready for action. Diagonal lines in triangles, makes them the most dynamic shape. No Face’s primary shape is circular. It makes him look slow and without direction. It also makes him look no threatening. The size of No Face can be seen as a representation of greed consuming him, causing him to go mad, thus contrasting him against Sen’s small figure.

Symbolism of human nature

A noble river spirit enters the bathhouse as a stink spirit. He is covered in rotting matter, because of human nature. ​(A river whom has been force to consume human-made matter) The noble river spirit is an icon of a physical river, polluted, because of human greed. Miyazaki drew inspiration for the stink spirit from real life experience. In a interview he mentioned he was cleaning a river in the countryside and was shocked by all the decaying matter that filled the bottom of the river. He also said that people have been tossing their debris into the river over a period of years, making it an absolute clutter. Miyazaki might have also included this scene because it shows human’s “neglect of spiritual value in post-modern Japan”.

From an article, Suzuki claims that the occasion between Chihiro and the noble river spirit does not only signifies the neglect of spiritual morals, however; it also shows the strengths of Spirited Away​ - pliable visual expression. He states that the director masterfully exploit the strength to animate the imagination and to envision hidden emotions. Like in ​Princess Mononoke: “..., when a boar god who was supposed to protect the forest and humans got injured by an arrow, it transformed itself into a cursing god raging against humans. Its rage was manifested as dark stringy tentacles around the boar that demonstrated both the rage's force and also the ugliness of human actions when considered from the perspective of nature.”

Similarly in ​Spirited Away,​ by forming a noble river spirit into a stink spirit, the director specify that the junk enveloping it was a manifestation caused by humankind’s current style of living. Haku is another icon of a river. Although he is no more a river.but a reminiscence of one; ‘a spirit without a body’. “She said they’d drained it and built things on top”. He lost his ‘physical form’, because of people consuming the world greedily, exploiting it. ​


From beginning to end the primary theme of consumption is visible throughout ​Spirited Away​. The secondary theme, greed, is not always present as an underlying theme of consumption, but sometimes it becomes a primary theme of its own. This is visible through the visual elements in the film that signifies consumption and greed. The symbolism of identity mainly signifies consumptions with almost no underlying theme of greed as another signified, but Yubaba’s hand physically consumes Chihiro’s name which can be seen as an implied sign for greed of power and control.

The symbolism of food mainly revolves around the theme consumption, but has a much stronger link to the secondary theme, greed, underlying it. The symbolism of human nature consuming the world and resources without constraint and their consuming of worldly materials to make up their identity has the strongest link to the theme greed. It can be argued that the primary theme is greed and consumption the underlying theme in this instance.

To conclude, the colours, character designs, camera angles and visual elements in ​Spirited Away, ​throughout, have ties to the theme of consumption. Some physical interpretations and other metaphorical interpretations. Although greed is not always an underlying theme in some cases and can easily become a primary theme in the film.

Reference List

  1. Oniki, Yuji. ​The Art Of Miyazaki’s Spirited Away​. Viz Communications, 2002 (Introduction of book by Miyazaki, Hayao and comments by Ando, Masashi) Proferes, /nicholas T. ​Film Directing Fundamentals Second Edition See Your Film Before Shooting​, Elsevier Inc., 2005
  2. Hoffman,Michael. ”Western culture and the end of Japanese 'harmony'”.​ the japan times.​ (3029/02/27)
  3. Deluzain, H. Edward. ”Names and Personal Identity”. ​Behind the name.​ ​(2019/02/26) Block, Bruce. The Visual Story. Focal Press, 2008
  4. “Spirited Away: The Amount of Greed and Desire Consumed”. ​Food and foodies in japan​.​wordpress.​ (2019/02/27)
  5. “Greed in Spirited Away”. ​Screen and sound assignment 3.wordpress.
  6. “Western Effects on Japanese Culture During the Meiji Period”. ​Joi's Blog.​ (2019/03/02)
  7. Kawamura, Honami. “Spirited Away: An Exploration of Japanese Identity”. ​Geeks.​ (2019/03/02)
  8. “How Filmmakers Use Colors To Set The Mood Of A Film”. ​Digital Synopsis.​ (2019/03/02)
  9. “Pig Meaning And Symbolism”. ​The Astrology Web.​ (2019/03/03)
  10. Venefica, Avia. “Animal Symbolism Frog”. ​What is your sign.​ (2019/03/03)
  11. Venefica, Avia. “Symbolic Meaning of Frogs”. ​Symbolic Meanings.​ (2019/03/03)
  12. “Spirited Away Trivia”. ​IMDb​. ​
  13. “Common uses of silkworms”. ​Everything Silkworms​.​ (2019/03/03)
  14. Mes, Tom. “Hayao Miyazaki”. ​Midnight Eye​.​ (​2019/02/27)
  15. Suzuki, Ayumi. “A nightmare of capitalist Japan: Spirited Away”. ​Jump Cut.​ (2019/03/03)
07 April 2022
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