Spirited Away and The Grotesque

Spirited Away and The Grotesque


“In order to induce the process of decay, water is necessary. I think that, in the case of women, men are the water.”—Natsuo Kirino, Grotesque

I was nine when I first watched Spirited Away on the floor of my uncle’s living room. Richard was a cool uncle—he worked in the music industry and won a Grammy for it, his glasses were tinted a sexy shade of orange and he was all bone, he’d lived so wildly that it seemed like life itself had sucked the marrow from his body. Richard was small and wiry and as a child I imagined he spoke like he had grasshoppers jumping about his chest. He was like a Studio Ghibli character, as if he were plucked straight from Spirited Away itself. Odd limbs and wrinkled skin and patches of black hair—he was of a mystic and earthly materiality, like those of Miyazaki’s animated films. He was suave and always had spicy broth steeped crawfish for my brother and me to eat when we came over. He’d place us in front of his old TV, with a bowl of spicy soup in front of us each, and he’d tuck black napkins into the fronts of our shirts. He was a good uncle, too—not merely a cool but off-putting oddity. He taught us about sharpening knives and how best to wipe tears from the cheeks of those we loved. Often, when we stayed at Uncle Richard’s house, it was because things were bad at home. We’d be dropped off, often in our pajamas, clutching fantasy books and stuffed animals and our toothbrushes, packed neatly in our backpacks. We would arrive, in the late desert night, on his stucco porch, full of a particular sorrow only children can understand—and only grown-ups can faintly remember. The sorrow of being lost. But Richard was good, and he filled that sorrow with his weird wonder. He would make us a feast—dumplings and pho noodles—despite the late hour, and we’d become warm in the soft light of his steel kitchen, singing songs from Fleetwood Mac’s first album and petting his gecko named Blue.

And on those melancholy nights when we were sent to sleep in beds that were not ours, Richard also gave us movies— stories—and let us bask in the glow of make-believe. Every night spent at Uncle Richard’s, my brother and I would press our baby mouths to big soup bowls as we watched, mesmerized, at movies on his big, magic screen. And the movie that haunted us most, most captured our imaginations was in fact, Hayao Miyazaki’s 2001 masterpiece, Spirited Away

In the hopes of unearthing why the film rooted itself in my soul as an already quite haunted child, I recently decided to look back at this animated classic, employing new tools in my interdisciplinary academic arsenal. As my concentration at Gallatin focuses on food, sex and religion in the early modern era, I hoped to rewatch the film using Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of Francois Rabelais’s Grotesque Body to understand the complexity of food, indulgence, carnival, and grotesque bodies in the film and how all of that contributed to the awe-inspiring nature of the piece that I felt so deeply so young. Bakhtin was a Russian literary critic who studied Francois Rabelais’s novels that hinged upon Grotesque realism, which degrades the abstract, spiritual and noble to the physical realm. Grotesque realism is the manifestation of the immaterial into the material. Bakhtin, in his particular study of Rabelais’ treatment of the grotesque, found two pillars of Rabelais’s oeuvre that linked political conflict to human anatomy: the carnivalesque and the Grotesque body. Bakhtin writes that “the body of grotesque realism was hideous and formless,” much like the bodies in Spirited Away.1 They are big and formless, dark and slithering, obese and bumbling throughout the bathhouse. Humans are turned to pigs, spirits come to the bathhouse to wash themselves, to cleanse their bulbous bodies. Bakhtin continues,

Even more important is the theme of the mask, the most complex theme of folk culture. The mask is connected with the joy of change and reincarnation, with gay relativity and with the merry negation of uniformity and similarity; it rejects conformity to oneself. The mask is related to transition, metamorphoses, the violation of natural boundaries, to mockery and familiar nicknames. It contains the playful element of life; it is based on a peculiar interrelation of reality and image, characteristic of the most ancient rituals and spectacles.2

 In Spirited Away, the spirits wear masks as they indulge in carnival— as they drink and party and merrily move through the spirit world. One spirit, Noface, who devours both enormous amounts of food in the bathhouse and the workers themselves, wears a mask. Hein particular is representative of the carnivalesque; his fat body growing fatter as he dishes out gold for gorging himself on food. As a student steeped in Renaissance theory, I frame much of my research (and my interpretation of the film as a theatrical practitioner) on the Italian and Renaissance Grotesque body. In the Western canon, one might think of Falstaff, Prince Hal’s best friend in his pub life—Good John Falstaff who is, in fact, “all the world.”3 He represents the lowly world of partiers, of drink and sex and feasting, but Falstaff is also embodied in his materiality—he, quite literally, is an embodiment of the Globe (both the theatre and the Earth’s sphere) and all the good and bad within it. John Falstaff is the world in its abundance, in its light, and in its unmitigated joy.

However, the Grotesque body exists independently in the Japanese art and literary oeuvre. In Setsuwa, traditional Japanese folklore, there is a series of magical happenings that convey a moral message, often employing the grotesque body as a metamorphic tool. And so, with this new framing of the Grotesque within Japanese Setsuwa, I began to reimagine Spirited Away as a moral code that employs the Grotesque to reach some lesson— one I’m sure was not lost on me as a child.

On one hand, the grotesque body in Spirited Away is malevolent, posing a very real, very visceral threat—a carnivalesque disruption of order, an indulgent and evil manifestation of the beyond. Grotesque creatures appear in the form of spirits, and in the form of humans transmuting into monsters themselves. However, the Grotesque can also be redeemed—the insolent can become helpful, the gluttonous can turn abstinent, and those who might appear grotesque are often not bad, and perhaps not altogether good, but somewhere in between—and that duality, that prism of goodness, is precisely what evokes the complex and distorted beauty of Spirited Away.

The primary fear that Chiriho, our young heroine, must face, is the fear of being consumed by the bathhouse workers (and the bathhouse itself) if she doesn’t perform as she must. Yubaba, the evil witch who runs the bathhouse, gives Chiriho a job but steals her name to control her (as with the rest of the staff). Chiriho must work in order to one day save her parents, now transformed into pigs, from the slaughterhouse. Yubaba declares to the staff, “If she doesn’t work hard, roast her, boil her.” 4

The fear of turning to food, of being transformed into a thing to be consumed, rings throughout the film. As well as an effective mechanism to villainize insolence and incentivize children to be humble, to work hard, and to resist temptation, this fear of consumption additionally complicates notions of the Grotesque. In Spirited Away, not only do we fear over indulging as humans in the spirit world (thus relegating ourselves into the realm of the Grotesque—of living our days as pigs,) we are dually in fear of being eaten. As humans thrust into this world, we might fear turning into pigs as a manifestation of the grotesque body, or as a young, thin girl, roasted on a spit. The thin and small get eaten, while the gluttons gorge themselves on the weak and indolent. Neither of these fates is desirable. Both leave young viewers both in fear of eating and in fear of being eaten. Thus, the Grotesque plays a double role in this Setsuwa tale.

To evade this fate—of eating or being eaten—the film provides us with answers. On the one hand, thin souls in the bathhouse seem to be the ones that extend kindness. Haku, Yubaba’s good natured henchman/dragon who does not remember where he came from, and Lin, Chiriho’s supervisor, are both young and beautiful, human-looking. They have generosity of spirit and work hard: opposite of the grotesque and the indulgent. The film firstly presents itself as a juxtaposition between abnegation and greed, between gluttony and abstinence. For at first glance, this relegation of goodness in the realm of thinness merely applies to Haku and Lin, but if we look deeper, goodness and indulgence in food are not mutually exclusive. As the film progresses, being “good” and “helpful” is tangibly attached to the consumption of food, thus complicating the initial image that “food is the demise of humans” in this world. Not only do we see food as malignant, but we also see it as generosity in various iterations. This is manifested in Haku’s giving of food to Chiriho throughout the story—to restore her strength, to keep her embodied in the spirit world. Food is also a tool of salvation, as Chiriho feeds Noface the brown ball (the token) that is given to her by the River Spirit. 

The masked ghost, Noface, a signifier of the carnival, appears to us first as evil. He helps Chiriho, but with the other employees, he conjures up gold to eat as much as he can. He gorges himself on the delicacies of the bathhouse, growing sinister and Grotesque. Noface begins as a black, almost see through spirit with a mask instead of a face. He cannot speak save for quiet and almost entreating grunts. Once he is let inside the bathhouse by Chiriho (and her good nature) he begins to eat. First, he consumes a frog (an employee). Afterwards, his voice is that of the frog, amplified in a monstrous way. As he conjures up gold between his fingers, the employees rush to feed him. He eats everything they offer. The rooms of the bathhouse are strewn with fish carcasses and broken plates and splattered sauces. Noface’s body becomes bulbous, and he squats like a frog. He becomes animalistic and manic; at one point, his entire body fills an enormous room. But once Chiriho feeds him the ball of food the River spirit has given her, he vomits up all the things he has consumed. Food is healing and magical—food can save. For once Noface eats of the magic ball, he becomes quiet, and follows Chiriho to Zeniba, Yubaba’s kindhearted twin sister’s country home, where he stays for what we assume is forever—the years to come. Although Noface was greedy and gluttonous and grotesque from over indulgence in the bath house, it is food that saves Noface, and he ends in the bounty of Zeniba’s warm cottage—a bounty not of greed but of goodness.  When Haku is dying, Chiriho feeds him the other bit of the brown ball. He, like Noface, vomits up the cursed gold token he stole from Zeniba, and he also vomits the curse Yubaba has placed upon him as a slug-like form, which Chriho promptly squashes with her foot. Here, Chiriho’s love breaks Zeniba’s curse (which we find out from the boilerman and Zeniba herself) and the brown ball makes him purge. In these, the most profound digestive symbols, in order to become good and free, one must purge, and give up food. This might, initially, lead me to argue that, in Spirited Away, food is the enemy, because although the brown ball is food like, it is its magic that saves, its cleansing ability that transforms.

However, if we look closer, food is not merely evil, and can actually be the restorative substance, not merely a magical vector for purging the grotesque body of its grotesqueness. When Chiriho first meets Haku, he gives her food. After seeing her parents turn to pigs because of their gluttony, Chiriho is found by Haku who forces her to eat, as she is trapped on the spirit side and will disappear if she doesn’t consume food from this magical world. The more moving moment of food giving, however, is after Haku brings Chihiro to see her parents, trapped as pigs, fit to be slaughtered if she does not remember them. He reminds her of her real name, a name Yubaba has stolen to control her, and finally, he gives her food to eat. As she bites into the white dumpling-like forms, she begins to cry. Big droplets of blue tears well in her eyes and stream down her face, her childlike cheeks moving as she weeps and chews. Chiriho cries as she eats Haku’s token, food blessed to give her strength. She cries again, much later in the film, as Haku and she fall from the sky after he remembers who he is: the River Spirit of the Kohaku river. Water—in Chiriho’s crying eyes, dropping falling upwards into the air, and in Haku (a river himself)—cleanses and saves. But it is the giving of food, the catalyst of life, that nourishes beyond the magical realm. 

When I watched the film for the first time, I too cried while eating, and I too have cried over many meals thereafter. It was in Uncle Richard’s living room, on his dusty rug, as I stuffed a dumpling into my mouth—I thought of my parents, of our black house—that I felt a severance. Not only within our family, but within myself—a rift between the child I was and the adult I would become, the food that made me grow bigger and smarter, and sadder, perhaps. And I cried, my tongue wet and my cheeks too. A cacophony of senses, I felt then. Food filled my mouth and made its way to my belly, and I was crying. It was then that I felt a flickering. Food and stories—however malevolent they might seem in Spirited Away, in the gorging of ourselves we are advised against as children to thin mothers and health-conscious fathers—are tools of inspiration, and modes of divine salvation. Food is not the villain, but rather a gateway for fullness. Much like Bakhtin’s consideration that grotesque realism is the manifestation of political conflict and the Grotesque is an embodiment of the noble realm, I realized, then, watching the film, that food is a vector for the oral tradition of telling tales, both tall and small. It was then, so young and unmolded (as still I am), that I recognized the unyielding power of story, of parallels between a character’s life, and our own. And while the fear of the Grotesque imbues the film in blue, while the tale might seem a moral admonishment against indulgence, it is food that likewise nourishes our souls, and teaches us, like stories, how to love.

  1. Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World. Trans. by Helene Iswolsky, (Indiana University Press, 1984), 40.
  2. Bakhtin, Rabelais and his World, 40.
  3. William Shakespeare, Henry IV, act 2, scene 4, The Complete Works of Shakespeare, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
  4. Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi (Spirited Away), directed by Hayao Miyazaki, (Toho, 2001).
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