Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Both humans and spirits are greedy in Spirited Away, and their greed is always destructive. At the beginning of the film, Chihiro is greedy for her parents’ attention. She whines and complains, and covets the familiarity of her own town and home. Chihiro’s parents’ greed leads them to eat the food that turns them into pigs. The bathhouse workers’ greed blinds them not only to the goodness in their midst, in the form of Chihiro, but also to present dangers, such as No-Face. Even Haku is greedy for power to match Yubaba’s. Human greed is the reason that Haku can’t go home—humans filled in his river to build apartments. Yubaba is the greediest of all. Her greed leads her to serve those who ultimately cause destruction, such as when No-Face rampages throught he bathhouse. She’s so preoccupied with gold she initially overlooks the kidnapping of baby Boh, ostensibly her most precious possession. In every case, greed makes characters oblivious to what is truly important, preventing them from reaching their full potential as people and spirits.
Food has enormous power in Spirited Away, and it can be a force of either good or evil. At the beginning of the movie, food sets Chihiro’s entire adventure in motion. When Chihiro’s mother and father gorge themselves on the food they find in the abandoned amusement park, they turn into pigs, and Chihiro must save them. In the spirit world, gluttonous No-Face can’t fill himself up no matter how much he eats. Food and greed are always a bad combination, but food is also a source of comfort and community. For example, Haku urges Chihiro to eat food from the spirit world so she doesn’t disappear, and he gives her food he’s put a spell on to restore her strength. Later, as Sen, Chihiro feeds both Haku and No-Face a magic cake to cure them of illnesses brought on by what they have consumed. No-Face knows well the comfort food can offer, and he uses it as a substitute for companionship.
Spirited Away examines the consequences of actions that alter the natural world in destructive ways. Haku and the ancient river spirit represent these consequences most dramatically. Haku lost his home because his river was paved over to build an apartment complex, and the ancient river spirit at first seems to be a stink spirit because it’s so polluted. The abandoned amusement park at the beginning of the movie is linked to the issue of land management. Chihiro’s father notes that many theme parks were built in Japan during the boom times, and they were abandoned when the economy tanked. As a result, unsightly, false landscapes dot the countryside. Self-pollution, a more personal aspect of environmentalism, occurs through No-Face’s and Chihiro’s parents’ over-consumption of food. Haku, too, is polluted by Yubaba’s slug. Environmentalism is a familiar motif in Miyazaki’s films, and critiquing the consequences of development and pollution through animated characters sheds new and unusual light on these issues.
Rules give structure to the spirit world, and all who live there are bound to them. Chihiro knows that rules permeate the spirit world from the very beginning of her residence there. When Haku leads Chihiro across the bridge to the bathhouse, he warns her not to breathe or she’ll be spotted. As Sen, Chihiro has to carefully watch what she says and what she eats. If she doesn’t, she risks putting herself or others in danger. Even the most powerful spirits, Yubaba and Zeniba, must follow rules. Despite her fondness for Sen, Zeniba can’t help her in the end because doing so would be against the rules. Even though Haku has returned Boh to Yubaba, Yubaba can’t allow Sen to go without one final test because Haku has agreed to that condition. A sense of helplessness almost always accompanies the characters’ inability to bend the rules, but no one attempts to cast them aside. The final rule Chihiro must follow again comes from Haku: He tells Chihiro not to look back. She knows by now that she must adhere to the rule, and she does as he says despite.