“I don’t know what my needs are, but I know what they don’t have,” is what you might have said to yourself as you browsed the racks at your favorite clothing shop looking for the item you were searching for. Or, did you go to your local grocery store to purchase an item and leave with an assortment of impulse buys? These are common situations for most consumers. Hayao Mishazaki’s “Spirited Away”, highlights the problem modern-day consumption and its relationship to identity loss. This film tells the story of Chihiro Ogina (a ten year old girl who is trapped in the spirit realm while on a trip with her parents). Yubaba forces Chihiro, the owner of the spa, to work at the bathhouse. Miyazaki touches on topics such capitalism, inequality and consumerism even though it is directed at children. These themes can all be explored from four perspectives in sociology: functionalism, symbolic interactionism and feminism.
Symbolic interactionism is a view that sees society as the result of everyday interactions and the shared meanings of people, groups and individuals. Spirited Away relies heavily on symbols and nonverbal interactions to communicate many of its deeper messages. Interactionism is the best way to understand the film. Yubaba signs a contract with Chihiro to get started working. The witch takes half of the signature off and changes Chihiro’s last name to “Sen”. The Chinese symbols Chihiro, which mean “one thousand,” and “hiro,” respectively, are used to create the name Chihiro. The act to steal half of Chihiro reduces Chihiro’s identity and also makes her a number. This symbolism is further illustrated by the constant theme hunger throughout the story. The story continues with characters eating excessive amounts of food until the transformation is complete. Noface is transformed into a monster by Noface’s parents eating pigs at the buffet. This symbolises the dangers associated with consuming materialistic goods. Miyazaki explains that needless consumption leads to loss of touch and eventually loss of self. Contrary to conflict theory, which holds that societies are made up of individuals with opposing interests and competing for control. These groups often control each other through coercion and force, rather than consensus. Yubaba exerts complete control over her workers. She uses threats and coercion to get their loyalty. The struggle also manifests in an unequal distribution of wealth and discrimination between workers. Yubaba is the richest person in this country. Yubaba has servants, lives in a mansion and always wears lots of jewelry. Meanwhile, her employees live in rags. Finally, discrimination between employees is evident when one of them is given the task of cleaning the most filthy tub in the bathroom. The task is called “frog-work” by her, implying it’s a lowly job that should have been given to frog employees.
When you see the bathhouse society from a wider perspective, it is easy to see how functionalists view things. This sociological theory is concerned with how all parts of society interact to ensure stability. The bathhouse of spirit world is a capitalist society in which you have to work to become a member. Chihiro is warned early on by one of our characters that Yubaba would turn you into an animal if your job doesn’t come through. This is a reminder of the importance that being a functioning member in this world holds. Another example is the scene in which bits of dirt were transformed by magic into workers. Kamaji, their boss, mentions that they will be “turned back into soot” if they stop working. This supports the functionalist theory that every member of the society contributes to it.
The feminist perspective also holds that women are not treated equally in society. This theory is not well-supported by the film. The opposite is true, in fact. Chihiro is seen as a strong, womanly protagonist who guides other characters and helps them to find their way. Chihiro could be criticized by feminists.
The movie’s opening scene featured a shy, scared girl as Chihiro, who is portrayed as weaker and incapable of taking care of herself. This argument is easily refuted by the fact that Chihiro is a child and was likely given these characteristics to compare her to other ten-year-olds.
Hayao Mikaziki’s “Spirited Away,” which Hayao Miyazaki wrote, is a warning about the dangers of consumerism. It demonstrates that you can lose your identity and what makes you unique. Spirited Away can be best described by the sociological theory symbolic interactionism. It is used in many aspects of Spirited Away to support the main themes.