Spirited Away: It’s for the Foodies

This is a post about food, glorious food.

To be more precise, this is a post about the food depicted in Studio Ghibli films – always mouthwateringly detailed and remarkably true to life. Grave of the Fireflies, for example, featured candies in a rectangular can: they’re Sakuma Drops, still manufactured to this day. Then there was all the fuss about eating a pineapple in Only Yesterday – because at the time, imported fruit was rare and expensive.

various studio ghibli foods

Yeah Studio Ghibli food appreciation for the win! How many do you recognize?

Although food is certainly a scene-stealer in so many Studio Ghibli films, in no other film does it play a more important role than in Spirited Away. Think about it: if Chihiro’s parents weren’t such gluttons, they wouldn’t have become pigs and there would have been no story.

parents-pigs collage

The neat thing about Spirited Away is that much of the food shown is typical Japanese fare – and boy, is there a lot of it. This movie makes for perfect Introduction to Japanese Cuisine 101 stuff. So why not?

First the Savories…

Onigiri (おにぎり) are rice balls. They’ve been around since at least the Heian period, and nowadays are easily available from any convenience store. They’re often triangular with a filling of some kind and wrapped in nori seaweed, although there really aren’t any hard and fast rules when it comes to onigiri. They’re also considered comfort food, so it’s no surprise that Haku consoles Chihiro with them after she finds out her parents really were turned into pigs.

onigiri collage

Of course, the most food-centric event in Spirited Away must be when the bathhouse workers are falling over themselves to serve No-Face. Check out the following scene:

sushi-yakiimo-ikameshi collage

Photo sources: 1, 2, 3

Can you spot the sushi platter? Sushi (寿司) is another classic Japanese dish, made of vinegared rice and some sort of topping or filling. There are loads of different types of sushi, but the ones shown in the screencap are: nigirizushi, rice topped with prawn or tuna or something; and makizushi, a roll of rice wrapped around whatever fillings you fancy and then sliced to serve.

Next to the sushi platter we have ishi yaki-imo (石焼き芋), or sweet potato slow-roasted on hot stones. This is a typical autumn snack in Japan, sold by peddlers from food carts or small trucks. Apparently you can hear the peddlers coming from miles away thanks to the peculiar singsong announcements they make.

Ikameshi (イカ飯) also turns up in this scene. This is a Hokkaido dish of rice-stuffed squid simmered in soy sauce. Ikameshi was born out of necessity: during WWII squid was plentiful but rice was not, so ikameshi was the ideal way to compensate.

… Then the Sweets

Chihiro’s first encounter with Lin, her soon-to-be ally, was when the latter was feeding the soot sprites konpeito (コンペイトー). These knobbly candies are basically just sugar and coloring, and easily available nowadays. Back when they were first introduced by the Portuguese, though, they were considered really posh. In fact, a Portuguese missionary allegedly bribed Oda Nobunaga for permission to preach Christianity in Japan with a bottle of konpeito.

konpeito collage

As a human, Chihiro wasn’t exactly welcomed with open arms by the other bathhouse workers – that is, until she proved herself by successfully bathing the Stink God (who turned out to be the God of Rivers). As a “Hey, you’re all right,” gesture, Lin gives her an anman (あんまん) later that night. This is a steamed bun with a red bean paste filling, originally from China.

anman collage

The sponge cake, castella (カステラ), also makes an appearance. Once again, this is a foreign dish that the Japanese have adopted and made into their own: like konpeito, castella is also Portuguese in origin. There are lots of variations on it now, like green tea castella and chocolate castella, but the textbook example is still the plain, bright yellow castella with brown edges.

castella collage

Honorable Mentions

The foods I’ve mentioned so far are just the tip of the iceberg, really. There are many more dishes in Spirited Away that I don’t know (or don’t consider typically Japanese). So I won’t try to describe them all, but here are a few more that I recognize:

green peas rice-nishime-katsu collage

Photo sources: 1, 2, 3

At the far left you can just make out green peas rice. This is a type of maze gohan (混ぜご飯), basically just rice mixed with some other ingredient. Another variant is matsutake rice – matsutake mushrooms are damned expensive so mixing it up with rice is one way to make the meal go further.

At the bottom middle there is nishime (煮しめ), a typical New Year’s vegetable stew with carrots, mushrooms and konnyaku, a grey, jelly-type thing with practically no calories and full of fiber. Last but not least, right next to the nishime there is some form of katsu (カツ): a chicken or pork cutlet, breaded and then deep-fried.


There you have it! A whirlwind introduction to various Japanese foods, modern and traditional, sweet and savory, of foreign origin or a Japanese original.

Can you spot any other typical Japanese foods in Spirited Away? Or in any other Studio Ghibli film for that matter? Let us know what they are in the comments!

  • http://www.facebook.com/jmaphoenix Jennie Johansson

    Such great and educting post! Thanx!!

  • Kamizushi Akinari

    I hadn’t realize there was so much food in this movie.

  • HongVan

    Thank you so much for this article.

  • simplyshiny

    this movie always makes me hungry

  • DAVIDPD
  • http://www.tadaimatte.com/ Ashley Haley

    Well, NOW I’m hungry.

  • http://twitter.com/KillingJar_89 Gianmarco Russo

    Great post!

  • Andrew C

    Awesome post. I actually wrote a short paper on exactly this topic in undergrad! Might as well post it here since people seem interested in the theme:

    Eat or disappear: food, identity and the supernatural in Miyazaki Hayao’s Spirited Away

    「この世界の物を食べないとそなたは消えてでしょう。」
    “Kono sekai no mono wo tabenai to sonata wa kiete deshō.”
    “If you don’t eat something from this world, you’ll disappear.”

    Miyazaki Hayao’s film Spirited Away, or Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (千と千尋の神隠し), has often been described as a “visual feast.” Yet the “feast” is more than just visual—representations of food are constant and ubiquitous, transcending mere motif status into becoming a device that joins together many of the other themes of the movie. Food is not only key to the plot of Spirited Away, but scene after scene shows that it also serves as its emotional and spiritual core, taking on a vast number of metaphorical roles. From roasted lizards, rice balls and bitter dumplings to pigs, radish spirits and konpeitō, eating is portrayed as a transformative, identity-shaping act, and food becomes the link between the human and the supernatural.

    Near the beginning of the film, Chihiro and her parents find themselves in what they assume is an abandoned amusement park, bewilderingly filled with what seems to be empty restaurants. One, however, draws them in with its smell, and they find huge plates heaped with man-sized piles of delicious-looking food. Chihiro’s parents partake immediately, but she refuses, instead choosing to explore the area. Yet after an encounter with a mysterious young boy—who tells her that night is falling and it is no longer safe for her to be there—she runs back to the restaurant, surrounded by emerging amorphous spirits, only to find that her parents have become huge pigs. This is the first of many transformations in the movie, and it is brought upon by food—after Chihiro’s parents participate in what the spirits see as unrightful consumption, they make the metaphorical become literal by turning the two into the archetypal eater, the constant consumer: the pig. Not only that, but as pigs, they become possible sources of food themselves, the eater eaten, a fate from which their daughter must save them. And so the plot begins.

    Chihiro, after realizing there is no way for her to escape from the realm of the spirits, realizes she is undergoing another kind of transformation—she is slowly becoming transparent. The boy she saw earlier, Haku, appears and makes her eat what looks like a little candy, saying that if she does not eat “something from this world,” she will “disappear” (Miyazaki). Chihiro must consume some of the substance of the world to be part of it, or else she will cease to exist. Food becomes the instrument with which she transforms herself to into a more spirit-like figure—the only kind that can maintain a presence in the spirit world—and, more importantly, food thus becomes the vehicle through which she is able to join society (albeit a very strange society).

    This use of food in the film as central to the formation of community—as a kind of communion, perhaps, with the experience of others—ties in closely with another significant role it plays, that is, food as something that heals, physically, emotionally and spiritually. Food in Spirited Away is often offered to Sen (Chihiro’s spirit world name) by other characters as a sign of affection to her—her mother wants her to taste a piece of chicken after exclaiming how tender it is, Haku gives her enchanted rice balls to recover her strength, her adoptive big sister-figure Rin is often seen bringing her breakfast and bowls of rice, and even as Sen expects to be eaten by the chaotic spirit No-Face (Kaonashi), it encourages her to try a tasty dish it was enjoying. Of these examples, Haku’s rice balls are most explicitly taking the role of emotional medicine, and not only because he cast a spell on them—Chihiro, having just seen her transformed parents in a pig pen, eats the rice balls ravenously, and eventually, begins to cry for the first time in the film while still eating. The food is a catalyst to the cathartic experience that allows for her to move on and take control of her situation.

    The food-as-healing motif continues later on in the film, with the arrival of the Stink God—Sen realizes that something is wrong with the gruesome new customer, who despite having access to the best of the bathhouse’s purification facilities does not become any cleaner. By pulling what looks like a thorn out of its side, Sen realizes that she is in fact grabbing onto a bicycle, at which point a landfill’s worth of garbage comes spilling out of the Stink God’s body, revealing it not to be a Stink God at all, but a River God polluted by humans. The river is healed from the sickness caused by its forced consumption of human trash by a deconsumption, a spewing out of that which should not have been ingested. As a reward, a bewildered Sen receives a ball of organic material—a bitter dumpling (nigadango, 苦団子), which she correctly assumes has healing properties, planning to give it to her pig-parents so they can resume their true forms. Before that is possible, however, she finds Haku—transformed into a dragon—seriously wounded while out on a mission for the bathhouse’s villain-like owner, Yubaba. When Sen gives Haku half of the bitter dumpling, he spits out a cursed seal—later revealed to be the thing that kept him as Yubaba’s thrall— and transforms back into a boy. He is indeed healed, physically and spiritually, and once again food is the factor that brings on a transformation and a reclamation and strengthening of one’s identity, specifically Haku’s taking control over his self outside of his service to Yubaba.

    The closest linking of eating and identity, however, occurs in the plotline dedicated to the only character with ostensibly no identity of its own—No-Face. The spirit, let into the bathhouse by Sen, is an amorphous black thing with an expressionless white mask, completely silent except for some sparse, halting vocalizations. That is, until it starts eating people. First it consumes a frog-spirit and takes on its nasal voice and general silhouette, and it grows larger with every bathhouse worker it subsequently eats, its hunger insatiable and the bathhouse spirits frantically trying to appease it with an endless parade of delectable platters. In a matter of “you are who you eat,” the faceless, voiceless spirit takes on the identity of whomever it consumes, mistaking that consumption to be the only road to companionship and communication, the only way to cure its loneliness. To repay Sen’s kindness, trying to make her stay, No-Face offers her food, then gold, but Sen refuses unless it eats the last half of the bitter dumpling. This prompts one of the most (in)famous sequences of the film, a protracted chase scene where No-Face, constantly vomiting great quantities of black ooze along with the (seemingly unharmed) spirits it has eaten, barrels through the bathhouse after Sen. Only after coughing up the frog does No-Face return to its original, silent self, and Sen sees it as a fit companion to take a train ride with her to the cottage of the grandmotherly Zeniba. It is here, at the place where No-Face decides to remain, that we see No-Face become civilized, join society and find companionship, and again we realize it through food: uncommented on, at the side of the frame during a conversation between Sen and Zeniba, we see No-Face eating a piece of cake—not the mad, heedless consumption we saw before, but with a knife and fork.

    In Spirited Away, at every key plot point, emotional change or transformation, food plays a central role. Not only does it heal (or curse) and change the characters, but, more generally, it can be seen as the link between the worlds of the human and the supernatural—the instrument by which a human can become a spirit, a river can become a servant, a parent can become a pig. In a way the gigantic Radish Spirit with whom Sen shares an elevator is the most appropriate representation of the importance of food in the film—often ignored, but big, and, its in own way, sacred. But why is food used in this way? Is it just a common trope of any Alice in Wonderland-inspired story, that food have transformative powers, where something labeled “Eat Me” or “Drink Me” can have untold effects on one’s body and identity? Is it not food, but consumption in general, that is significant in this film, a comment on pollution in Japan, a portrayal of a consumeristic, throw-away, abandoned amusement park of a culture? Is it the synthesis of themes addressed by Miyazaki in his other films, like the healing corncob of My Neighbor Totoro, the environmental ravaging of Nausicäa of the Valley of the Wind and Princess Mononoke and the endless identity-shifting of his next film, Howl’s Moving Castle? As intriguing as looking at the film in a vacuum may be, looking at it within the context of the canon of fairy tales, both Western and Japanese, reveals it is not alone in its obsession with food, and would be an interesting direction to take. Opening up even further, to take a symptomatic view of the film, a parallel examination of the changing attitudes of the Japanese concerning food over the last few decades would certainly be illuminating as a course of further study, something that perhaps may begin with the relationship between food and modern consumerism, and how it is reflected in the film, the most consumed film ever in Japan. Whatever the case may be, a consideration of food is essential to any discussion about Spirited Away, and disregarding it would be a case of ignoring the elephant in the room—or the Radish Spirit in the elevator.

  • Fee_Fi_Fiona

    Aya! I see what you did there with No-Face (wink)

  • Fee_Fi_Fiona

    Hey Andrew C! I think you’re spot on about the role of food in Spirited Away.

    I’ve always wondered what exactly it was that Haku gave Chihiro at the start – what you call “what looks like a little candy” in your essay. That scene keeps reminding me of the Matrix somehow (red pill? blue pill?).

  • Flora

    I noticed there was a lot of food in this movie, but I didn’t realize that most of it was real – I just thought they were all made up dishes (it is a fantasy, after all). The only item I could recognize as being true to life was the onigiri.

  • http://twitter.com/breerly Grayson Koonce

    You should do a follow up about Toriko :)

  • Lizzy

    stuffing a squid is ingenious! I can’t believe I’ve never thought of this before, sounds tasty!

  • http://www.facebook.com/miguel.r.pereira.86 Miguel R. Pereira

    I am from Portugal and although I am aware of some of the Japanese everyday life aspects that were influenced by my ancestors, I hadn’t realize these flashy appearances of the castella cake (which I actually know as ‘pão-de-ló’) and of konpeito (we pronounce it ‘confeito’, although I’m not sure this word would be the correct Portuguese term for these sweets, nowadays..) on Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi.
    Now I’m oh so proud.. -)

  • Aya

    I DID NOTHIN’ ;)))) Fufufufu~~~

  • ZXNova

    Anman? I thought it was called Anpan?

  • Fee_Fi_Fiona

    They’ve both got a red bean paste filing but anpan’s baked instead of steamed. Do a google image search of the two and you’ll see.

    Don’t quote me on this, but I think all stuff ending with “-man” is steamed. Like nikuman, that’s a steamed bun with meat inside.

  • Fee_Fi_Fiona

    Yeah you should totally try it out! Cooking with dog on youtube has a video tutorial on how to make it :D

  • Fee_Fi_Fiona

    Hey, thank you for reading! : )

  • http://twitter.com/MireilleLubbe Mireille Lubbe

    I’m getting so hungry! I think I’ll make some onigiri today. Hmmm! Thanks for the post!

  • mouselander

    This post makes me happy. I’m always on the lookout for anime and manga that feature food- or better yet, cooking. The moments featuring food in all these Ghibi movies are highlights of the movies for me. Some manga with excellent food-related plots are Oishinbo, Ekiben Hitoritabi, Kino nani tabeta, Yotsuba, Moyasimon, XXXholic and others I have not yet discovered. I didn’t like Yakitate, Kitchen Princess, Mixed Vegetables, and other similar titles, because it didn’t seem like the authors really cared about the food. Please do more articles like this! Perhaps one on cooking-centric manga, anime, and other Japanese media. Also maybe one about other obscure manga genres like fishing manga and gardening manga. They are very hard to find!

  • http://twitter.com/memedai Meme Dailan

    I first thought of Confetti when I read konpeito. It looks somehow like confetti, but it is delicous Im sure.

  • Fee_Fi_Fiona

    Have you watched the movie Megane? That revolves around food too. Highly recommended two thumbs up :D if you’re into that sort of thing of course.

    Also, thanks for the article suggestions!

  • Fee_Fi_Fiona

    It’s sugar, it’s bound to be delicious, haha!

    There are more adult flavors too though. Some specialty shops sell sake-flavored konpeito for example.

  • Jo Somebody

    *cries* Stoppit Fiona! I can’t claim ‘bite marks on laptop screen’ on my insurance!

  • Jo Somebody

    Wow! Really well written! A+ and a smiley face! :-)

  • Ash

    ×この世界の物を食べないとそなたは消えてでしょう。
    ◯この世界の物を食べないとそなたは消えてしまう。

  • http://www.youtube.com/user/YAMAstudios Jon Walmsley

    Ah yes, Ghibli food; it often looks tastier than the real world equivalent! I had a few あんまん whilst in Japan recently though I didn’t know what they were called at the time. They were おいしい however so thanks for identifying them so I can look out for them in the future.

  • Fee_Fi_Fiona

    Hi Jon! I don’t know where your travels will take you next, but if you’re on the lookout for あんまん and happen to be in Malaysia (where I grew up), ask for “tausa pau” :D

  • http://twitter.com/scarlett_fu Scarlett Fu

    Andrew, that’s absolutely fantastic! Cheers for sharing that. I’ve always been fascinated by the detail of the food in Spirited Away, and glad I finally found a place where the fascination is shared =)

  • http://twitter.com/ZuRi_212 Z-laFlame~

    So. BEAUTIFULLL~~*!!

  • DenjinJ

    I’ve seen articles about “manga meat” like you see in that picture. Apparently there is no cut of meat that looks like that, but some have reconstituted similar things so that people can have the “manga meat experience.”

  • Liz

    There is one item of food I’ve always wondered about! It’s these globular tan things that look like tiny fat chickens (because of the bits sticking out) but when eaten with chopsticks they look like they behave like water balloons, or little bags stuffed with jelly. You can see them in the last picture, front and center, or above, in front of the sponge cake and to the right. And in the picture of Chiriho’s parents eating, on the front of the plate between them. What are they?! And do they really look/act like in real life?

  • blue

    Don’t forget pocki at the very beginning when Chihiro was in the car with her parent xD

  • MH

    This made me hungry. =)
    Thank you for your knowledge and sharing it with us.

  • Rei Cross

    I think I spot some Mantou in that bamboo steamer.

  • Remy

    I always thought the thing Haku gives Chihiro at the start was umeboshi but I don’t know if it’s too small to be umeboshi or not. It could just be candy or a berry of some kind.

  • Final Requiem

    I think they are pork soup and crabmeat dumplings…. Here’s a pic http://munchimonster.wordpress.com/tag/dumplings/

  • Miss Zombeh