Hidden in the fantastic otherwordly narrative of Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away is an allegory about society’s toxic obsession with work. The Studio Ghibli classic was released in 2001 and commented on Japan’s losing its soul to capitalism in the context of the country’s “lost decade.” Yet the film is eerily relevant to our contemporary idea of hustle culture. While Chihiro may think her liberation comes from 24/7 hustling, in fact, this is what keeps her down. It’s something more intangible and more spiritual that provides her freedom. Here’s our Take on how Spirited Away pulls the mask off living to work and shows us the need for another dimension to life.
Hidden in the fantastic other-worldly narrative of Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away is an allegory about society’s toxic obsession with work. The Studio Ghibli classic was released in 2001 and commented on Japan’s losing its soul to capitalism in the context of the country’s “lost decade.” Yet the film is eerily relevant to our contemporary idea of “hustle culture” the mindset that to get ahead, you need to devote as much of your day as possible to working, leaving little time for anything else.
Elon Musk: “Work like hell, I mean you just have to put in 80 to 100 hour weeks, every week.” - Twitter
Spirited Away shows that idea to be a trap. While Chihiro may think her liberation comes from 24/7 hustling, in fact, hustling keeps her down—it’s something more intangible and more spiritual, that provides her freedom. Here’s our take on how Spirited Away pulls the mask off living to work and shows us the need for another dimension to life.
HUSTLE CULTURE: IN A BATHHOUSE
Spirited Away follows the adventures of innocent Chihiro, who’s forced to become a worker at a chaotic, mysterious bathhouse for spirits while she tries to reclaim her old life and save her parents, who’ve been transformed into pigs by the bathhouse’s villainous ruler, Yubaba.
Yubaba: “I’ll give you the most difficult job I’ve got, and work you until you breathe your very last breath.” - Spirited Away
The bathhouse environment may be bizarre, full of odd characters and spirits for clients, but at its core, it is a place of work. It runs on its own fixed time schedule. Employees sleep top to tail in crowded rooms and are pitted against one another to see who can work the hardest. Chihiro’s productivity is crucial not just to her thriving in the bathhouse, but also surviving.
Simply put, the bathhouse runs on hustle culture, extolling the virtues of overwork and burnout. Dr. Bryan Robinson says: “When the hustle culture drives you, you unwittingly relinquish your personal power and become a slave to internal and external pressures,” adding that 45% of the modern-day workforce brag about ascribing to this way of life. But this lifestyle actually signals a culture of employment that isn’t functioning as it should. If the only way to get ahead is to work every hour of the day, then something is broken. Spirited Away critiqued this culture of work at the end of Japan’s so-called “lost decade.”
Akio Ogino: “It’s an abandoned theme park. See? They built them everywhere in the early ‘90s, then the economy went bad and they all went bankrupt.” - Spirited Away
The bad economy that Chihiro’s father mentions is a reference to the Japanese stock market crash of 1990, which began a period of long-term economic stagnation. In such an environment, work is a trap—no matter how hard you grind, you are always beholden to financial forces beyond your control. The film also brings into focus the class hierarchy that a capitalist society helps create, as the working class toils away for the benefit of the upper class.
Aniyaku: “Welcome the rich man, he’s hard for you to miss. His butt keeps getting bigger, so there’s plenty there to kiss!” - Spirited Away
While the groundworkers at the bathhouse scrub floors and feed boilers and scrape sludge, the boss Yubaba is high up and away in a luxurious penthouse, viewing her workers as lesser beings.
The problem with this structure and attitude toward work is that it is inherently dehumanizing. Workers cease to be people and instead become tools for their employers. Spirited Away takes this to an extreme by literally having Chihiro lose her name, and in turn, her identity, when she signs her contract at the bathhouse and has to change her name to Sen. One of the kanji (or Japanese characters) that Chihiro loses from her name means “to search” or “inquire.” The kanji that is left, Sen, means 1000. So Chihiro is symbolically reduced from a person whose identity is linked with curiosity and independent thought, to nothing but a number—just as capitalism views us as only as valuable as the number of our net worth.
The biggest problem that Spirited Away shows with hustle culture is how seductive it can be. The lure of money encourages a competitive environment among the workers, all of them jostling with each other to provide for No-Face, the wealthy client sowing chaos by liberally bestowing gold coins on the workers.
No-Face: “Just keep the food coming. I wanna eat everything!” - Spirited Away
However, eventually, as with Chihiro’s parents, the greed of the workers is punished, as they are literally swallowed whole by No-Face. Hustle culture creates this catch-22 to ensnare workers, encouraging them to never stop grinding while keeping them at an arm’s length from any meaningful social mobility that the promise of work should offer. So while work is presented to Chihiro as a means of escape, the message is that it will actually incarcerate her (and us). It is only in abandoning the hustle that she’s able to get back to her old life.
A SPIRITUAL LIFE
On the flip-side, those who do have money also aren’t fulfilled—as we see through No-Face and Chihiro’s parents, who represent overconsumption. Early in the movie, consuming turns Chihiro’s parents into literal pigs—a common symbol for capitalists. Studio Ghibli has clarified they represent the greed of Japan’s economic bubble of the ‘80s, and how the people who became “pigs” in that time didn’t know it or remember what it was like to have a human soul. In 2001, after the economic downturn had revealed that capitalism wasn’t even working to make people rich, Miyazaki was encouraging the younger generation to look back at Japan’s pre-capitalist, more spiritually inclined history. At the very start of the film, when Chihiro notices spirit shrines,
Chihiro: “What are those stones? They look like little houses.”
Yūko Ogino: “They’re shrines. Some people think little spirits live there.” - Spirited Away
her mother’s reaction implies that she and her husband embody a new, materialistic Japan that’s abandoned the country’s more spiritual past. And the parents’ transformation into pigs is a form of punishment for their failure to show respect to the spirits of the place.
The film designs the spirit world to look like Japan from the Meiji period when Japan first began to transform into a capitalist society, something also illustrated in the Tom Cruise film The Last Samurai. As Ayumi Suzuki writes: “The influx of the Western culture brought to Japan both chaos and growth, represented by the mixing of Japanese identity with Western architecture, philosophy, fashion, and values.” But “By having Chihiro live in the era of a modernizing Japan, Miyazaki invites the audience to experience what we really were losing as a nation and personally during that period.” Suzuki underlines “Miyazaki’s equation of labor with wage slavery” and how the workers essentially become Yububa’s property. He also reminds us that Chihiro is a “child whose childhood has been stolen from her”—and this portrayal of child labor makes it clear to us how wrong it feels to give up a whole life to work. Perhaps we might read in a larger commentary, too, about how children are treated in the capitalist system: even when they’re not literal laborers like Chihiro, they can face very early pressure to start training for and proving their value as future capitalist earners.
Through juxtaposing the Meiji era with its modern one, Spirited Away was arguing that the soul of Japan was still being fought over by two warring belief systems. The film centers on the conflict between materialism and spirituality. And this clash between our material world and the pure spirit world is illustrated through Chihiro’s interaction with the stink spirit. When the stink spirit arrives at the bathhouse, he is shunned by the workers as an inferior spirit, while Chihiro is given the job of tending to his needs as a test because of her lowly status. However, Chihiro is eventually able to figure out that it isn’t a stink spirit, but actually a more lofty river spirit—and she succeeds because she treats the spirit with respect. As director Hayao Miyazaki said, “In my grandparents’ time, it was believed that spirits [kami] existed everywhere—in trees, rivers, insects, wells, anything. My generation does not believe this, but I like the idea that we should all treasure everything because spirits might exist there,”
Hayao Miyazaki: “It means that our world is filled with gods. That they are beyond counting.” - Vegas Film Critic
“...and we should treasure everything because there is a kind of life to everything.” When the workers pull what Chihiro thinks is a thorn out of the stink spirit’s side, we see that in actuality it’s years of accumulated human junk that’s been dumped into the river. The pollution resulting from humanity’s materialism has poisoned the river spirit’s essence and turned him into something foul and unpleasant. The reason Haku has forgotten his identity is likewise because the river he’s the spirit of was destroyed to build apartments.
Haku: “My name is the Kohaku River.”
Chihiro: “They filled in that river. It’s all apartments now!”
Haku: “That must be why I can’t find my way home, Chihiro.” - Spirited Away
Thus humanity’s obsession with overconsumption is shown to have devastating environmental (and spiritual) costs, a point which echoes the messages of other Studio Ghibli movies like Ponyo and Princess Mononoke. Spirited Away shows spirituality and respect for the non-material world to be antidotes to the potential ugliness of materialism. It is spirituality that saves Chihiro—her holding onto something that she can feel and trust even though it can’t be articulated, valued, or measured.
CHILDREN ARE THE FUTURE
There is a clear generational divide in Spirited Away. Right from the start, Chihiro senses the danger of the world they’re entering while her parents don’t.
Chihiro: “Did you hear that building? It was moaning.”
Yūko Ogino: “It’s just the wind.” - Spirited Away
Chihiro is out of place in the bathhouse, too, the only other young people being the ambiguously aged Haku, and Yubaba’s gigantic baby son, Boh. In Spirited Away, youth is a kind of superpower, yielding a sixth sense that the adults don’t have. For Chihiro, this sixth sense manifests in her relationship with Haku—and how she’s able to hold on to her trust for Haku throughout the film, despite older characters telling her she should be wary of him. From her very first meeting with Haku, he seems to know her, and it’s later revealed that’s because he’s a river spirit who once saved her when she nearly drowned. In the end, she’s rewarded for trusting her intuition about Haku, instead of what others told her.
Tasha Robinson argues that Chihiro, and indeed all of Studio Ghibli’s child heroes and heroines, embody the Japanese idea of Genki, or as Robinson puts it “a mixture of driving energy and indomitable good cheer.” Whereas Lin, an older human who works in the bathhouse, idly dreams of escaping one day, Chihiro’s youth gives her the tools to actually do so. Chihiro saves Haku by revealing to him his real name,
Haku: “You did it Chihiro! I remember! I was the spirit of the Kohaku river!” - Spirited Away
and she saves No-Face from his greed, turning him back into the gentler, less threatening No-Face she first met.
There is a sense that because Chihiro is a child, she is uncorrupted by the material trappings of the adult world. She sees it for what it can be: dangerous, inhospitable, soul-destroying. Miyazaki once said that “Children understand intuitively that the world they have been born into is not a blessed world.” Indeed, many films in the Studio Ghibli canon focus on independent, strong child protagonists who are able to navigate their own way out of difficult situations. In My Neighbour Totoro, the two daughters, Satsuki and Mei, can confidently move between the human and spirit world in a way their father cannot, as only young people can see the spirits of the forest. In From Up On Poppy Hill, students at a Japanese boarding school work together to save their school’s clubhouse from demolition.
The things that feel important to adults - progress, money, consumerism— are put in perspective by the young heroes and heroines of Studio Ghibli, especially Chihiro. Chihiro succeeds by never losing sight of who she is, or what she thinks is right. So if we’re plunged into a society that runs counter to our own worldview, we can (like her) hold onto our original spirit, listen to our own inner child, and just maybe get out of the rat race, too.
This is a film about greed, and how giving in to greed blinds us to what actually matters.
Aniyaku: “Beg for tips, this is the time. Beg for tips, make yourselves a dime.” - Spirited Away
Yubaba, the greediest of all, even overlooks her baby going missing (the thing she supposedly loves most) because she’s so focused on her gold. But while the consumerist greed of the bathhouse is trapping, for Chihiro the actual act of working is often liberating. She’s able to retain a healthy perspective on the benefits work can offer because, unlike her colleagues, she never allows herself to be invariably motivated by money and greed.
Chihiro: “What, they’re all for me? Thanks, but I don’t need anymore.” - Spirited Away
Ultimately, what keeps Chihiro incorruptible to capitalist greed is that she has a greater purpose: she’s focused on saving her parents, and getting back to her old life. As David Foster Wallace put it, “Everybody worships… And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship…is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things… you will never have enough.”
Increasingly, as we’re seeing mass burnout and backlash to hustle culture, we’re also seeing the rise of practices like mindfulness, meditation, and digital detoxes—though often with a distinctly capitalist bent as if you can “buy” wellness without making deeper changes. Spirited Away, while grounded in specific Japanese ideas and spirits, is looking at spirituality as a broader, more immutable thing: the importance of a name, family, friendship, and love. Working harder and harder won’t ever deliver you to the promised land, but it’s these things that will save your life.
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