Capitalism in Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away”

©Copyright 2022 Fatima Hammoud, Ryerson University


Miyazaki Hayoa, Spirited Away,(2001). Image from Accessed April 20, 2022, Public Domain.

The Japanese animated film “Spirited Away” by Miyazaki portrays the characteristics of a social capitalist system.  The film’s representation of a capitalist system is demonstrated through the different elements of the film the narratives of the film, the characters and the setting that the film takes place in; the bathhouse. Through the antagonist Yubaba, a Witch who runs a bathhouse in the spirit land for mythical creatures to come and rest, after spending their days roaming the earth’s planes, profits from that investment in making gold from the guests that come to her bathhouse. The protagonist, a young-oblivious teen named Chihiro, is caught up in the spirit world and is soon forced to work for Yubaba because of her parents’ greed which leads them to turn into pigs. Animation films are able to portray more expression and metaphor than that of real-life since with animation the character’s facial expressions and actions can be expressed more intensely since they’re not physically human. It can be argued that the film demonstrates the themes of social capitalism through animated characteristics and archetypal narrative. This essay will focus on answering the following question; how the film uses a visual representation to formulate its theme of capitalism by critiquing and analyzing how Miyazaki uses different literary elements to portray the characteristics of capitalism in his film “Spirited Away.”

Archetypal Narrative: Capitalist setting

Miyazaki’s film is set through an archetypal narrative that is used to create the sense of a capitalist society seen within the foundation of the Bathhouse, that in itself symbolizes the whole theme of a capitalist structure. Yubaba’s bathhouse symbolizes the construct of capitalism through its purpose, workers, and owner. The purpose of the bathhouse is for spirits to come to rest after roaming the earth’s planes. The valued customers pay in golden coins and money that Yubaba profits from. The bathhouse representative form illustrates the modes of profitability and consumer ship. Yubaba exploits her workers by taking away their identities and name, giving them a new names that she creates. This gives her ownership and control over them, as the workers soon forget their old selves and what they had been prior to entering the bathhouse. This is seen with Chihiro when she receives a job from Yubaba, and Yubaba takes her name changing it to ‘Sen’. The power dynamic that Yubaba holds with her workers is not a business relation but ownership, as she now owns Chihiro until she works off her duties, unless she forgets her name and purpose of working. To the audience it’s viewed as a new character as throughout the film she is referred to as Sen, taking away from her original name Chihiro. A name is an individual’s identity, taking that away leaves them with no sense of who they are and what their purpose is.  The trait that an archetypal story has, is it broadens the audience’s perspective of the narrative and story. In Cheng-Ing Wu’s article about the film “Spirited Away” analyzes how Miyazaki’s film emphasizes the characteristics of an archetypal story, stating how “an animated archetypal story nourishes the spectating process by inviting ontological practices, and readers’ responses might be rich in psychological manifestations” (Wu, 192). Miyazaki’s film centers around the theme of capitalism; he incorporated archetypal characters in the film to help illustrate the commonly known individuals that are familiar with the characteristics of capitalism. Yubaba is the owner, and Chihiro is the undervalued worker, who was exploited and taken advantage of by a greedy owner. 

Archetypal Narrative: Characters

An archetypal narrative has characters that make up its story by following a certain motif in Spirited Away; each character plays a role in bringing out the film’s motif of social capitalism. The main two are the protagonist Chihiro and antagonist Yubaba. Chihiro’s role within the film is to be the hero that brings kindness and change into the new land she embarked on, this is symbolized at the beginning of the film with the soot spirits when they take Chihiro’s help as a sign of good fortune entering the bathhouse. (Cooper 2010) As it’s been stated that Miyazaki’s film is centred and foreshadowed through different metaphors and symbolism within the narrative it is no surprise to see symbolism at the beginning of the film and foreshadowing the story unfolding. Yubaba’s character is the evil antagonist who plays the role of being the character that is the cause of all bad within the film. In this matter, Yubaba is the greedy, capitalist profiteer who stumbles on Chihiro to her advantage by attempting to keep her within the bathhouse forever. Yubaba’s character demonstrates the profiter within a capitalist system, the owner of a property building a business within it to profit from this case a bathhouse for spirits. A realistic part of Yubaba is her motherly side which emphasizes the motif by presenting her as a hard-working mother who, fitting the narrative of everything she does is for the sake of her child. This can be argued that being the reason she is cruel and mean to maintain the professional and respected figure that is seen within many businesses. However, Yubaba demonstrated her true motives when near the end of the film Chihrio points out that she had not noticed her son turned into a mouse. This scene shows the audience the true side of Yubaba’s character that all she cares for is herself and riches, further painting her character as the antagonist full of selfishness and greed. 

Greed: Parents turning into pigs

Parents turning into pigs scene. Image from (2017). Accessed April 20, 2022. Public Domain

The concept of greed is demonstrated by Chihiro’s parents turning into pigs after eating foods that were not theirs.  The visual transition of the parents to pigs demonstrates a compelling contrast between the metaphor of animals representing improper manners when it comes to human mannerisms Singing explains, how authors in the film make complex “story world” metaphors understandable is by basing them on conventional metaphors, however unconventional the spatialization maybe” (Prokhorov 230). To the audience, it was an unexpected transition but is understood in the context of the connection between pig and eating food that is not your own. The message portrayed by that scene is how the consequences of greed take place. First, looking at the imagery and illustration in the film, the transition of the human to pigs emphasizes the message of punishment towards taking something and not paying for it. She warns her parents to not eat the food however they simply reply with “Chihiro we are guests the food is for us” (Miyazaki 2001). The constant look of worry across Chihiro’s face indicated how she feels; that her parents should not be eating the food. Moments pass as the transition of the parents begins turning into pigs. The illustration of the parents turning into pigs portrayed a phenomenal transition between human to pig, further emphasizing its context. Wu explains “mythic narratives are metaphorical texts distanced from the reader/ audience’s present reality. Although distant, these stories reflect universal human actions, compelling characters and an imaginatively habitable world” (Wu 190). The social customs that are built into our society have been created to function in a manner of respect and understanding for others and the world around us in which we live. The consequences of turning into a pig were to demonstrate the parents’ faults of not following social customs or mannerisms; not taking or eating something without the permission of the owner.

Japenese Animation

The animated world that the story is set in creates both realistic and unrealistic ideas of the norms and culture the audience is familiar with. The fantasy theme that Miyazaki uses is to emphasize the film’s story and to take the audience on a journey away from reality. The characters’ physical features and reactions demonstrate more emotion and expression than that in real life. Faces can express emotions about how an individual is feeling. Simply the way a person moves their eye or raises their brow can indicate fear or anxiety about a situation. Our eyes perceive objects and faces through the perspective that is looked at Elkin discusses how the closer inspection of a person’s face can bring about more detail about who they are (Elkin 146).  Japanese animation known commonly as “Anime” is popular within the filming industry as this type of cinematic filming prevails much more emotions and realistic characteristics than normal animations. Japanese animations portray realistic features with characteristics, facial expressions and actions. Miyazaki is famously known for his work with Japanese animation “Miyazaki Hayao, considered one of  Japan’s greatest animation directors, in many ways exemplifies contemporary Japan’s complex cultural identities (Napier 287). The film’s animation is both famously used in Japanese culture and popular all across American culture because of its realistic and phenomenal animation glance. The physical features and expressions of the character illustrate phenomenal expressions that help elaborate the story of the film and follow along the character’s journey. 

Chihiro’s Growth Journey

Miyazaki Hayao, Spirited Away, (2001). Image from Accessed April 20, 2022. Public Domain

This is seen with Chihiro throughout the movie her fear of this strange new world. The world that Chihiro enters is an unfamiliar place and the emotions she expresses emphasize her anxiousness about the spirit land. This is Miyazaki’s goal stating  “His primary agenda in Spirited Away was to show the maturation of a contemporary young girl in the face of an array of frightening and fantastic encounters” (Napier 288). The setting of the film creates a familiar scene for the audience to follow along the journey of the characters. Chihiro’s journey through the film represented growth, another example of the characteristics of capitalism from a social viewpoint. The motif of her parents turning into pigs was mentioned throughout the film as the purpose of her journey to turn her parents back into humans, giving her a reason to get a job and work unconditionally that is not suitable for a young teen. The audience is able to sympathize with her as many are teens themselves, or individuals who’ve experienced working conditions unethical for young adults. At the beginning of the film, she is introduced as an impatient pre-teen who was not ready to change her home and life. The progress and encounters she undergoes throughout the film demonstrate her character growth that the audience can relate to, as we all live in a capitalist society where upon entering the real world, growth is necessary to survive the lifestyle. Chihiro’s first moment of growth is seen when she must ask Yubaba for a job. The journey to Yubaba’s tower was a mission in itself which was implied by Kumanji when he told Lin to bring her to Yubaba “Would you take her to Yubaba? She’s a tough little girl” (Miyazaki 2001. ) His implicit comment made the impression to the viewer that Yubaba is someone to fear, instigating that he saw potential in Chihiro. The potential he saw in her allowed him to lie to Len about Chihiro being his granddaughter as she was human, adding to her mission of avoiding being noticed as a human. Her experience throughout the film portrayed a character that many people can relate to in the sense of entering the capitalist society of working and labour. The bathhouse represented Chihrios’s workplace, where she had to work to break the contract to free herself and her parents, turning them back into humans. In society, people work to make a livable wage to reach their goals and live a content life. Young adolescents begin experiencing that when they enter the workplace for the first time, entering the world of profit and labouring, understanding the value and hardship that comes with working. Chihiro had to convince others she was something she was not in order to convince her way to get a job, something that shockingly isn’t uncommon within the working industry. 


 Miyazaki’s film demonstrates the motif of capitalism throughout the narrative of the story through the characters and setting using the characteristic of an archetypal narrative. The bathhouse represented the consumers and labour factors of capitalism. Through its purpose and owner Yubaba portrays the stereotypical greedy profiter who only cares for themselves and their profits. Chihiro being the representation of a young adolescent experiencing the capitalist system and exploring the ways that it creates a journey to achieve a goal; Chihiro’s goal being her and her parent’s freedom and turning them back into humans. The setting and landscape that the film is presented in demonstrating the realism within real-life experiences of entering the working industry. Miyazaki’s film accomplished the goal of representing the characteristics of capitalism and greed by incorporating realistic values and customs seen within society. By centring the film’s motif around the parents transitioning into pigs it gives the audience a grasp of the film’s narrative and the purpose of the character’s journey. The transition from human to pig symbolized the theme of greed and self-indulgence that centred the film’s narrative overall. Furthermore, Miyazaki’s film Spirited Away accomplished the portrayal of capitalism through both the different elements of the film’s narrative and characteristics. 

Works Cited

Cooper, Damon. “Finding the spirit within: a critical analysis of film techniques in Spirited Away” The Free Library, 2010.…-a0243357392 

Elkin, James. “How To Use Your Eyes.” New York, 2000. Pdf 

Napier Susan. J. “Matter Out of Place; Carnival, Containment, and Cultural Recovery in Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away.” The Journal of Japanese Studies, vol. 32. no.2, Summer 2006, pp. 287-310. 

Prokhorov, Artem. “The Hero’s Journey and Three Types of Metaphors in Pixar Animation” Taylor and Francis Online, vol. 36. no. 4,  2021, pp. 229-240, 

Spirited Away. Directed by: Miyazaki, Hayao. Music by: Joe Hisashi, Distributed by: Toho Co., Ltd., Walt Disney Pictures, Universal Pictures, StudioCanal UK, July 20, 2001.  

 Wu, Cheng-Ing. “Hayao Miyazaki’s Mythic Poetics: Experiencing the Narrative Persuasions in    Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle and Ponyo.” Animation an interdisciplinary journal, vol. 11, no. 2, July 2016, 

Image sources:

Miyazaki Hayao, Spirited Away, (2001) Accessed April 20, 2022. Photos.

Community Member. “Studio Ghibli Finally Explained Why Chihiro’s Parents Turned Into Pigs.” 2017, bored panda, utm_source=google&utm_medium=organic&utm_campaign=organic


Image Copyright Right Statement

Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education