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Spirited Away and the critique of Capitalism


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2016 marks the 15th anniversary of Japanese animation film Spirited Away (2001), one of studio Ghibli’s best-known releases, and its most successful.

Spirited Away

I was five when the movie first came out, and remember being terrified by it. In fact, it’s only during the past winter break that I bravely decided it was time for me to give the film another chance.

I’m glad to say I don’t regret this decision one bit.

Spirited Away lingers on you for a long time once you’ve seen it, a trait so particular to great films. It deals with ten-year-old Chihiro, who becomes an employee at a spa-like retreat for worn down Gods and Spirits, after her parents are transformed into pigs as a punishment.

There is a lot to be said about Spirited Away. First, the animation itself`. Few other words than “enchanting” and “beautiful” would do it justice. It uses a wide colour palette that gives way to vivid images. The Spirits and other characters range from sweet creatures to creepier ones. This all allows for a mystical, intriguing, and eerie setting for Chihiro and the viewers themselves.

Perhaps the reason why this film has so much appeal for children and grown-ups alike is because its themes resonate with us all. Indeed, at the heart of Spirited Away lies a real critique of Capitalism and consumerism.

It begins with Chihiro and her parents moving away to a new province, in their gleaming Audi car. The child is gloomy over being separated from her friends and old life.

Soon, they get lost in an abandoned town, where her parents feast on a freshly made banquet. Chihiro’s dad reassures her that he has “cash and credit cards” to pay for the food, before devouring it in a voracious manner. They then get transformed into literal, capitalist pigs, as a punishment for eating a meal meant for the Gods.

This discreet and yet ubiquitous critique of Capitalism continues throughout the film. The owner of the retreat (the witch Yubaba) is the only one dressed in Western clothes and living in a European-style house. Her employees are all dressed in customary Japanese clothes, and the bathhouse’s architecture is traditional. This can be seen as a metaphor for the impact Western companies have in Asia, and their use of cheaper, Eastern labour.

There is also a moment in the film when a dirty, “stink god” arrives to be cleaned. He turns out to be the god of a river, gravely spoiled by pollution and waste. Once again, this highlights the Capitalist society that consumes and consequently over-pollutes.

Spirited Away draws attention to the superficiality of materialism and calls for a renewed respect for nature.

In the end, Chihiro represents the pure character, untouched by this society of consumerism. This is made explicit when the character of “No Face” magically creates and gives away gold to the workers. Whereas all her fellow employees are greedy for the money, she refuses it, stating that “she doesn’t need it”. It is thanks to this modest way of thinking that she manages to survive in the bathhouse.

Spirited Away has had a long lasting impact on animation. It won the Academy Award for “Best Animated Feature”, and is ranked ten in Empire’s “The 100 best films of World Cinema”(2010).

It has become an icon of Studio Ghibli, and brought the Japanese studio to worldwide fame. It is also Japan’s highest grossing film of all time, having made more than $280 million worldwide.

Ironically, it seems that Spirited Away has become victim of its own success, and has entered the capitalist and Western society.


If you would like to see Studio Ghibli films, the Prince Charles cinema is screening a film each Sunday starting in March, including Spirited Away on April 17th.


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