Critiques of Capitalism in Spirited Away

There are two truths that must be acknowledged before this article continues. 

Firstly: Some people do not like capitalism. You might like it. The Flame as a journalistic entity might too. But at least some people don’t (myself included). 

Secondly: Some people like anime. You might hate it. The Flame might too. But at least some people do (myself included). 

And a person who both dislikes capitalism and likes anime is legendary Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki. Miyazaki had a long, storied, lucrative, and awarded career, notably winning the Oscar for Best Animated Feature for his film Spirited Away. Considered one of this century’s best films, Spirited Away is both an anime and a critique of capitalism, and whilst the former is clear immediately, the latter may require further explanation.


Spirited Away follows a young girl named Chihiro, as she navigates a bathhouse for spirits after her parents are turned into pigs. For them to become humans again, she must work for the evil witch Yubaba. Yubaba is the film’s main villain, and so, the film’s capitalist. She is the sole income-earner; she is where the money goes. 

It is apparent from the moment you first see her that Yubaba is a piece of work. In animation, character design is everything. Her nails are pointed, her face is wrinkled, she smokes profusely, and most notably, she is 50% head and hair: she is quite literally big-headed. Furthermore, she appears distinctly European, with blonde hair, light skin, a frilly gown; her penthouse office is furnished with expensive Western decor. Meanwhile, her employees have modest Japanese living spaces and clothing: they sleep on sleeping bags in wooden rooms, and wear thin jinbei uniforms. Thus, Yubaba acts as a visual symbol of Western capitalism, deliberately separating herself from her workers from which she gains the means to pay for her luxuries. 


Yet, to call them “workers” is an understatement:to get a job from Yubaba, Chihiro (千尋) signs her name away and becomes Sen (千), meaning “a thousand.” By holding her in servitude like this, Yubaba has stripped Chihiro of her identity to the point where she has become a figure, a data point, a number. (We later find out a similar process happened to Chihiro’s friend Haku.) Perhaps “employee” is a better term than “worker”, in that she is “mak[ing] use of” people. 

This distinction between the employee Sen and the human Chihiro was so important to Miyazaki that the two are treated as separate characters in the original Japanese title: Sen and Chihiro’s Spiriting Away (千と千尋の神隠し). This, coupled with Chihiro’s status as the only human bathhouse employee and the disgust of her coworkers at this fact, demonstrates the dehumanizing, dividing effect of capitalism on people (even if those people are black half-frog mask-wearing monstrosities.)


That description was oddly specific for a reason: it is describing the film’s secondary portrayal of capitalism: No-Face. Near the beginning of the film, we are introduced to No-Face as a medium, black, legless ghost, floating on the bridge to the bathhouse but not entering. When he does enter, it is through a backdoor left-open, after the arrival of the highly paying and incredibly smelly “stink spirit.” Late at night, No-Face finds a frog worker and then conjures up some gold to offer to him, deliberately mimicking the ‘stink spirit’. The frog worker is enthralled and greedily takes it, unaware of No-Face’s intentions. The dark ghost proceeds to eat him. Seeing his luring success, No-Face proceeds to go throughout the bathhouse, doling out gold and consuming people as he pleases. 

This demonstrates two more facets of capitalism; firstly, that the system thrives on imitation. No-Face first achieves success through copying and, more importantly, contorting the ‘stink spirit’s’ actions and ideas. He then continues his success by repeating it, again and again, eating more and more workers. Though it could be argued that this is an example of “capitalism ‘bettering’ products through competition,” the first step of this betterment was plagiarism, and the second was murder. 

Secondly, despite the capacity for charity, capitalism breeds selfishness. No-Face can create gold from thin air and could freely dispense it to all the workers (who show great joy to receive gold), and yet he merely uses it as bait to gain things he wants; after all, private profit is capitalism’s end goal. However, because it is a transaction, No-Face can still justify his horrendous actions. Through both of these points, Miyazaki again demonstrates the negative effects of capitalism on workers. 

And yet, we also see that capitalism also has a negative effect on itself. As he gorges on workers, No-Face goes from being a small, smooth, nimble spirit, to a giant, wrinkled, monstrous frog, spewing saliva for his toothy mouth, incapable of walking on his own. Despite this, he still continues to eat; his greed only dissipates when Chihiro makes him regurgitate all he’s consumed. 


And so we come to Miyazaki’s final criticism; even those poor eaten people or Chihiro’s pig-turned-parents, the workers and consumers respectively, are also at fault. 

As previously mentioned, nearly everyone is repulsed by Chihiro’s humanity and baffled by her altruism. They are basically selfish things, almost as self-serving as their superiors. Even in the face of No-Face, the workers do not band together; it is a free-for-all to get the gold, and a free-for-all to escape No-Face’s maw. This obsession with private profit, at all levels, is inherently encouraged by capitalism. 

Additionally, Chihiro’s parents are greedy people. Like No-Face, like the workers, like Yubaba, like almost everyone but their daughter, Chihiro’s parents are consumers in a capitalist society. After taking a wrong turn, they feast on food in an abandoned theme park, eating and eating until they become pigs, the archetype of animalistic greed. They don’t care about where the food’s come from or who made it, they just buy without pause. When Chihiro expresses concern at their actions, her father justifies it, much like No-Face with his gold, by saying “I’ve got credit cards and cash.” Chihiro’s parents are also, like Yubaba, symbols of the West; they arrive in an Audi wearing Western-style polo shirts. 


It is evident that Spirited Away (which is a children’s movie, remember) paints a pretty bleak picture of capitalism. Over its course, Hayao Miyazaki condemns the capitalist (Yubaba), the corrupted proletariat (the workers), the consumers (Chihiro’s parents), and the system itself (No-Face). 

And yet, Miyazaki also suggests the audience can enact change. Yubaba bows to none but the consumer, notably the ‘stink spirit’. If Yubaba is where the money goes, it is the ‘spirit stink’ from which the money comes. So despite his appropriately awful aroma, Yubaba puts up with him. Similarly, No-Face bows to none but the worker, in this case, Chihiro. She is the only character who he respects, who he selflessly offers gold to, and the character who eventually rids him of his greed. Chihiro, through a combination of goodness and hard work, also makes her parents human again. 

And so, as consumers, we can influence companies to make products we want; to put up with, if not listen to, our complaints regarding, shall we say, the state of the world; to fundamentally overhaul themselves, if we ask nicely enough. 

As workers (or students), we can join together to achieve our goals; hell, we can organize a strike if we so choose. 

As people, as the incoming generation, we can be like Chihiro: kind, selfless, confident, adventurous, and polite to boot. 

And if we do all that, maybe, just maybe, we can make the world a better place. 

(P.S. And we could also abolish Hollywood and the Western capitalist film industry and replace all the major studios run by rich white men with worker-owned anime studios.