The gold that No-Face dispenses to the workers later crumbles into a pile of dirt. Conjured from nothing, No-Face’s fabricated currency undermines the very system of profit that capitalism is premised on. It almost sounds like a bad joke: what do you call a capitalist who doesn’t believe in money? We can further trace No-Face’s rampage back to Chihiro’s initial act of kindness in letting him out of the rain, as well as her gratitude upon receiving the bath token he steals for her. No-Face’s notion that Chihiro’s compassion can be acquired through material currency reveals that the new capitalist structure he establishes in the bathhouse is, in reality, based on the paradoxical desire for human connection.
* * *
Set in the spirit realm, Hayao Miyazaki’s dreamscapes are populated by stylised, nonhuman characters that draw from traditional Japanese Shinto folklore. This is a universe of talking toads, lightly moustachioed disembodied heads, and spirits – from rivers to radishes. In a land where the extraordinary is ordinary, the fingerprints of monstrosity no longer lie in the fantastic and phantasmic. Instead, what emerges is the monster in the machine, welded to our reality of brick and mortar. Monstrosity is manifested in the bourgeoisie, namely through Yubaba, the owner of the bathhouse, and No-Face, the enigmatic and generous new customer.
Exhaling smog and pulsing with the rapid beat of industry, the crimson bathhouse that stands at the heart of Spirited Away looms as a shrine to Karl Marx’s capitalist political economy. Yubaba, the owner, occupies opulent quarters on the top floor while her workers reside deep in the bowels of the bathhouse, packed cheek by jowl. This spatial separation is as much social as it is physical: the bourgeoisie who control the means of production are physically elevated above the proletariat who sell their labour (Marx, 2012, 74). Day-to-day operations in the bathhouse come straight out of Capitalism 101: A Playbook. The complex tasks of operating the boiler room, interpreting bath tokens, and mixing herbs for the bathwater fall to a six-armed man named Kamaji (Fig. 1), who in turn employs an army of soot sprites (susuwatari) to carry out the manual tasks of transporting and tossing coal into the furnace (Fig. 2).
In this efficient division of labour, the susuwatari’s exclusive and repetitive action converts them into a foolproof widget for the boiler room. Kamaji’s infinitely extendable limbs allow him to synchronously operate levers and reach upper cabinets without missing a beat. Intimately connected to the mechanics and rhythm (Marx & Engels, 1903, 342) of the boiler apparatus, he himself becomes an extendable appendage of the machine. Standing at the helm of this steam-powered contraption, Yubaba becomes the kind of monster that Jeffrey Cohen describes in his theses on society and the monsters it produces – the monster that “polices the borders of the possible” (Cohen, 1996, 12). She delimits social spaces through the division of labour and restricts her workers’ mobility through the specificity of their job scopes.
Labour dehumanises. Literally, in this case. Chihiro’s indentured service to Yubaba in order to retore her parents, who have been turned into pigs, ironises Marx’s original concept of labour as a humanising activity – something that sets us apart from the snorting, uncooked bacon in the sty (Marx & Engels 1988, 76). Yet this comes at the expense of Chihiro’s own spiritual essence, when Yubaba palms three-quarters of her signature off the contract and pares her name down to “Sen,” removing it from her memory in order to prevent her from escaping the bathhouse (Fig. 3).
In Spirited Away, the pursuit of physical existence and the loss of spiritual identity are welded together, an inescapable chain that shackles the worker to their unnatural and spiritually alienating labour.
These nightmarish conditions of labour exploitation and alienation, as Marx puts forth in The Communist Manifesto, should give rise to the tidal surge of the proletariat class against the bourgeoisie and overthrow of bourgeois supremacy (Marx, 2012, 84-85). There are rumblings of this as the fault lines of labour and class in the bathhouse begin to break down with the arrival of No-Face, an enigmatic and generous new customer. The panoply of employees – from shrine maiden bath workers to toad spirit receptionists – who line the corridor and beg for “tips” from No-Face (Fig. 4) illustrate how Yubaba’s division of labour and system of remuneration are now abandoned as the collective labour body falls apart.
Yet the social revolution that Marx anticipates never comes to pass, even if it appears to at face value. Instead of directing their attack at instruments of production (Marx, 2012, 81) and abolishing it (Marx, 2012, 84), as Marx would have liked, the employees of the bathhouse mobilise to prepare mountainous platters of food and massive baths for No-Face (Figs. 5 & 6), thus intensifying the old mode of production.
Despite setting up the conditions for the proletariat’s overthrow of the bourgeoisie, Spirited Away does not follow through with Marx’s anticipated class revolution. Instead, the revolution that does occur is merely an intensification of the old conditions of production, only in service of a new bourgeoisie. The seismograph skitters off one page, right into another.
Gorging on obscene quantities of food, devouring employees, and dispensing gold, No-Face – as the new bourgeoisie and new monster – becomes a nightmare version of a dream come true. Cohen puts his finger on this contradiction in his explanation of how fear and desire are twinned in the figure of the monster (Cohen 1996, 16). By swallowing workers and acquiring their voices and personalities, No-Face perpetuates the alienation of spiritual identity inherent in capitalist production. At the same time, the gold ingots that he showers on the clamouring workers positions him as an “alluring project of an Other self” – a projection of the bathhouse workers’ desire to extricate themselves from the proletariat class and enter the bourgeoisie. The six limbs that sprout from No-Face’s grotesque body as he balloons in size (Fig. 7) might also remind us of Kamaji’s six arms (Fig. 8), anchoring No-Face’s monstrous transformation in the proletariat’s reality and imagination.
Embodying the bathhouse workers’ twin fears and desires, No-Face reveals how capitalist mindsets and aspirations are deeply entrenched within the proletariat itself. It is this internal, rather than external, obstruction that snuffs out any class revolution in Spirited Away, even before it can be kindled.
But the gold that No-Face dispenses to the workers later crumbles into a pile of dirt. Conjured from nothing, No-Face’s fabricated currency undermines the very system of profit that capitalism is premised on. It almost sounds like a bad joke: what do you call a capitalist who doesn’t believe in money? We can further trace No-Face’s rampage back to Chihiro’s initial act of kindness in letting him out of the rain, as well as her gratitude upon receiving the bath token he steals for her. No-Face’s notion that Chihiro’s compassion can be acquired through material currency (Fig. 9) reveals that the new capitalist structure he establishes in the bathhouse is, in reality, based on the paradoxical desire for human connection.
In this light, we see that neither class revolution nor bourgeois aspiration lie at the heart of Spirited Away’s answer to its capitalist conundrum. Rather, it lies with humanity and the direct relationships it forges.
Resolution arrives in the train that pulls away from Yubaba’s bathhouse, ferrying Chihiro and No-Face – who reverts to his amorphous form – to the rural countryside where Yubaba’s twin sister, Zeniba, dwells. Untethered from the seething bathhouse, Zeniba’s pastoral cottage still preserves the direct relationship between worker and product. We see No-face using a spinning wheel to process fibre into thread (Fig. 10), knitting with the spun yarn (Fig. 11), and Zeniba gifting Chihiro with a magic hair-tie “made from the threads [her] friends wove together.” In this straw-thatched haven, the individual worker is involved at every step of the production process and has ownership over the final product.
The shot of No-Face delicately sipping tea and forking a slice of cake, a far cry from his earlier gluttony, further characterises the pastoral setting as a restorative environment. In this way, the reversal of monstrosity in Spirited Away occurs alongside the reversal of political economy, establishing the rural space as the antithesis of, and thus antidote to, the ills of capitalism.
It is possible to locate Spirited Away’s Marxist problem and resolution within the fabric of Japan’s larger historical, cultural, and socioeconomic context. Film critic Suzuki Ayumi notes that the fusion of Western and Japanese elements in the abandoned town at the threshold of the spirit realm (Fig. 12) resembles architecture from the Meiji period (1868-1912), a time of Western influx that contributed to Japan’s capitalist reorganisation of society.
Likewise, Yubaba’s sharp European facial features, ruffled petticoat, and rooms furnished in the gilded Victorian style of the late 19th century (Fig. 13) stand out in sharp relief against her workers’ traditional Japanese attire and quarters laid out in the style of tatami rooms (Fig. 14).
This juxtaposition might suggest a larger divide between the East and West, a tension that Ayumi describes as a dramatisation of power dynamics of the West over Japan. Through these lenses, Spirited Away’s Marxist monsters and setting might be seen as a cautionary allegory against Western industrialisation and consumerism.
However, this binary between Japan and the West doesn’t quite hold when we consider the film’s ambivalent and culturally ambiguous depictions of Yubaba and No-Face. The physical similarity between Yubaba and her beneficent twin sister, Zeniba, down to their Victorian updo and dress, might make us hesitate to demonise the capitalist bathhouse as a Western infection. Japanese folklore researcher Noriko T. Reider also notes that No-Face, an amorphous shade with an expressionless Noh-esque mask, does not have obvious connections to conventional images of Japanese folk spirits, and brings in Doris Bargen’s observation that Noh masks symbolically blur identities and “create the impression of immutability, thereby claiming universality” (Reider, 2005, 20). These ambiguous elements situate but also distance Yubaba and No-Face from their cultural and historical contexts. Even as the film’s monsters serve as a time capsule of Japan’s capitalist anxieties at the crossroads of industrialisation, they question our binary association of capitalism with the West – and even the specificity of this situation to Japan itself. In this light, the Marxist problem and resolution that Spirited Away proffers becomes both local and universal.
Through the cresting and ebbing of monstrosity in Spirited Away, we see how the tide of capitalism is stemmed through a form of retreat instead of advance – rather than propelling forward with class revolution, the film dials back to a time before capitalism itself. But time is a fickle thing in the spirit realm. It skips ahead again, when Chihiro and her parents emerge from the abandoned town to find their car dusty and the stone entryway overgrown (Figs. 15 & 16).
Spirited Away may move backward, instead of forward, along the axis of Marx’s timeline, but in so doing it slams the button for social reset. Like Chihiro, we are spirited out of the pastoral past and even the capitalist present, into a future that lies in wait beyond the crimson bathhouse.
Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. 1996. “Monster Culture (Seven Theses).” Monster Theory: Reading Culture, University of Minnesota Press, pp. 3–25. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.5749/j.ctttsq4d.4.
Karl, Marx, and Frederick Engels. 1903. Capital: A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production. Translated by Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, S. Sonnenschein, HathiTrust Digital Library, https://hdl.handle.net/2027/inu.39000003062853.
Karl, Marx, and Frederick Engels. 1988. Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. Translated by Martin Milligan, Prometheus Books.
Marx, Karl, et al. , 2012. The Communist Manifesto. Yale University Press. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com.
Reider, Noriko T. 2005. “‘Spirited Away’: Film of the Fantastic and Evolving Japanese Folk Symbols.” Film Criticism, vol. 29, no. 3, Michigan Publishing (University of Michigan Library), pp. 4–27. ProQuest, https://www.proquest.com/docview/2062174.
Spirited Away. 2001. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli.
Suzuki, Ayumi. 2009. “A Nightmare of Capitalist Japan: Spirited Away.” Jump Cut, no. 51, Federation Internationale des Archives, Spring. ProQuest, https://www.proquest.com/docview/2067870350.