The metaphors for capitalism and hustle culture in Spirited Away
Hidden in the fantastic, escapist narrative of Hayao Miyazaki's Oscar-winning movie Spirited Away, is an allegory about the horrors of capitalism and society's toxic obsession with work. Even two decades after the movie's release, it is still eerily relevant to our contemporary hustle work culture.
Spirited Away follows the adventures of young Chihiro, who is forced to work at a mysterious bathhouse for spirits for the safe return of her parents, who have been transformed into pigs by the bathhouse's villainous ruler, Yubaba.
When Chihiro goes to Yubaba in search of a job, in an attempt to save her parents, she is told, "I'll give you the most difficult job I've got, and work you until you breathe your very last breath." She has to prove her worth by working.
Her survival literally depends on how well she can work, as she is told early on, "If you don't get a job, Yubaba will turn you into an animal."
Despite the eccentric spirits, bright colours, nostalgic music, and bustling environment of the bathhouse, it is a place of work at its core. It runs on its fixed schedule; employees sleep in crowded rooms and are pitted against one another to see who can work the hardest, and the person who works the hardest is rewarded.
There is a clear hierarchy in the workplace and those who are at the bottom have to work to prove their worth. The bathhouse feeds off of the exhaustion and overworking of its employees. Sound familiar? It's because we live in almost an alternate version of this world today, minus the flying dragons and masked spirits, of course.
Greed and capitalism are pretty clearly some of the prominent themes of the movie. In the film, we see how greed can literally transform a person. Chihiro's parents are turned into pigs – symbolism for capitalists – as they fail to stop devouring the food.
Moreover, Yubaba is the epitome of what greed can do to a person. She is so obsessed with money and riches that she fails to realise her baby is missing at one point in the story. The child she supposedly loves and cares for the most pales in comparison to riches and success.
Spirited Away also shows just how seductive hustle culture can be. The lure of gold encourages a competitive environment among the bathhouse workers, as they pour over each other in an attempt to please a customer called No Face, who rewards them by showering them in gold coins. As tempting as the money seems, this is a trap. No Face ends up literally swallowing some of the workers whole, symbolising how easily we can lose ourselves in work and be consumed by a false fantasy.
Work is Chihiro's way to escape from the bathhouse and save her parents. It's her salvation. But it is also a double-edged sword. She finds herself getting pulled more and more into the hustle culture at the bathhouse as she struggles to complete tasks in time. Though she remains clear-headed throughout most of the movie and does not fall into the trap of money and greed unlike many of her colleagues, it is only when Chihiro is able to let go of her job and find an alternative, spiritual fulfilment that she is able to leave.
That is not to say the hustle culture doesn't tempt her.
At one point in the movie, we see her almost forget her real name, a metaphor for losing her sense of self, her identity, as she delves deeper into the work culture. Ultimately, Chihiro stays incorruptible to capitalist greed, not because of her lack of greed, but rather because she has a greater purpose. She is too focused on saving her parents and getting back to her old life for the lure of riches to tempt her into staying.
Unlike Chihiro, her roommate Lin, is unable to escape. She can only lament over her unfulfilled future plans and dreams – "I've got to get out of here. Someday I'm getting on that train." For Lin, freedom and a life outside of work will always remain a dream, a wish that keeps her going. Most people don't get to magically leave their 9 to 5 jobs and live a life of luxury; most spend their entire lives dreaming of that "someday", until "someday" turns into "never".
From the outside, the world of Spirited Away looks beautiful. However, Chihiro is not fooled. She sees it for what it is even when her parents fail to do so. Despite all that, the story gives us hope. With the act of Chihiro finally breaking the curse put on her parents and retaining her sense of self by regaining her real name from Yubaba, Studio Ghibli attempts to give viewers a glimpse into what hope could look like.
Maybe we too can someday hold on to our identity, listen to our inner child, and get out of the rat race that is work.
Sara Kabir is a dreamer, a Literature major, and a writer. She is often found juggling academics and her countless hobbies. Help her figure out what to write about next @scartletfangirl on Instagram.