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In Miyazaki Hayao’s animated film, Spirited Away, Miyazaki presents a young girl Chihiro who visits an abandoned amusement park, only to become trapped in a fantasy world where spirits reside. Although most of these creatures are very unique and quite unlike the others, most of them have one thing in common: their body features are very disproportional compared to the size of their bodies. This strange similarity depicted by Miyazaki invokes strong feelings of fear and appreciation in particular for the viewer. While many characters have ominous, creepy appearances similar to that of a ghost, they still have large eyes, blob-shaped bodies, and they make little-to-no-noise. These three characteristics emphasize the helplessness— the cuteness—of these creatures.
The ominous appearance of the characters does, however, quickly begin to clash more obviously with their cute defining factors. In one early particular scene, Chihiro encounters a radish spirit: a large, round creature whose body shape resembles a radish. At first, the creature is threatening to the viewer, as it is large compared to most characters and its appearance is foreign and bizarre. But even though the spirit appears scary, Chihiro sticks around it briefly, and the viewer is prompted to further observes its figure. At that point, the roundness of the spirit radish’s figure becomes more apparent, and the viewer is lead to see him as not just threatening anymore, but also cute. But objects that are cute are generally seen as appealing, whereas something threatening is generally seen as repelling. This raises the question of how can a creature be seen as scary and threatening but nonetheless cute at the same time? Furthermore, why does Miyazaki apply these opposing connotations to the radish spirit and also to other characters in Spirited Away? This tension between cuteness and threat can help us to illuminate an obscure but profound relationship between Miyazaki’s film and consumer culture.
The definition of “cuteness”, as defined by Sianne Ngai in her journal article “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde”, holds that “cuteness” comes from our instinctive desire to handle or have control over other objects (Ngai 816). This is seen most apparently in the way that people treat infants or children that still have baby features – for example: a round face or puffy cheeks. Oftentimes, people can be seen pulling the cheeks of babies, morphing them at their disposal, and all the while calling the babies “cute”. In addition, figures that appear “blobbish” and malleable, without many defining features, are seen as cute, as they can easily be shaped at one’s will. Ngai calls these characteristics the defining factors of cuteness. These factors demonstrate why the radish spirit in Spirited Away appeared cute despite its strange appearance; it was very round, had indistinct facial features, and seemed as though it could be easily morphed and manipulated. But these factors do not answer the question of how the radish spirit and many other characters in the film can be seen as frightening and cute at the same time.
Although Ngai’s definition of cuteness is applicable to many cases, it is important to remember that the radish spirit in Spirited Away appeared both scary and cute. Ngai claims that just as there are characteristics that are defining features of cuteness, there are also characteristics that are completely contradictory to cuteness. She brings up the example of glamour, which is always seen as something high-strung and untouchable. Models are beautiful and pleasurable to look at, but people generally feel powerless when viewing such perfection. But on the other hand, objects that appear cute seem like they can be easily controlled as stated above. Due to this direct contradiction, Ngai states that if cuteness (or weakness) were ever imposed on any kind of model, it “would immediately break the Schein of glamour” (816). In addition, Ngai calls cuteness something that is “subjectively imposed” (816). But in the case of glamour, it is in a threatening realm of its own that cannot be infringed upon by those below. And thus, cuteness cannot be imposed on the realm of glamour.
The fear of a foreign and horrifying creature is the same fear that puts glamour in a realm of its own above common people. So if glamour cannot be associated with cuteness, why can the radish spirit be considered cute? We can answer this question by delving deeper into Ngai’s article – particularly in the sections that discuss Japanese culture, as Spritied Away is primarily based on Miyazaki’s Japanese background. At one point in the middle of Ngai’s article, she states that the word “kawaii” is used in Japanese culture to embody cuteness, but it has “sonorous proximity to kowai, which means ‘scary’…” (822). This similarity should not be written off as a coincidence, as it is highly likely that these two words derived from one; this similarity may imply that Japanese culture associates cuteness with fear or threat. Hence, it makes sense that Miyazaki can couple cuteness with threat in many Spirited Away characters. For more evidence of the connection between cuteness and threat, we can look at Ngai’s opposition to the idea that “cuteness traditionally entails an absolute lack of anything threatening…” (823). Ngai states that because observers see cute objects as easily controllable, a violent desire for control is “always implicit in our [acknowledgement of a] cute object…” (823). And this violence that observers direct towards cute objects reverts back onto the observer, creating a semblance of aggression or threat. Therefore, as Ngai states, “it is possible for cute objects to be helpless and aggressive at the same time” (823). By looking at the tension between cuteness and threat in Spirited Away through the lens of Ngai’s paradoxical definition, we can see that purity and corruption in consumer culture are represented in the film; this is essential in recognizing Miyazaki’s underlying caution to economies established in greed.
So we can see that Japanese culture presents a relationship in which cuteness can very
well be associated with threat; however, why does Miyazaki utilize this unfamiliar tension in the film? We can find an answer to this question in one the film’s main characters, No-Face: a tall, ghostly spirit who is depicted as alternately cute and threatening throughout the movie. In No-Face’s first interaction with Chihiro, he has a neutrality between threat and cuteness. He has a shadowy, looming figure that appears threatening due to his likeness to a ghost, but on the other hand, he has many of Ngai’s defining features of cuteness: the lack of definition in his face and the awkward grunts that he makes when communicating. This combination leaves No-Face at a balance between threat and cuteness, but this balance shifts starkly depending on the outcomes of his “economic transactions” with other characters. For example, when he offers Chihiro complimentary tokens as a form of payment and she humbly declines them, No-Face becomes disappointed, nervous, and even awkward. At this point, he appears cute, as “ objects are cutest when maimed or hobbled” (823). No-Face is put in an uncomfortable situation where he is essentially “hobbled”, and this suddenly augments his cuteness.
But in No-Face’s interaction with a small frog spirit, No-Face offers free gold to the frog; the greedy frog accepts the money, which transforms No-Face into a sharp-teethed, enormous beast. No-Face becomes incredibly threatening and devours the frog before returning back to normal. In these parallel scenes, humility begets cuteness while greed produces threat and destruction.
We can look even deeper into the meanings of these transactions by considering morality in the “consumers” of these two scenes: Chihiro and the frog. When Chihiro rejects the tokens offered by No-Face, it is apparent that she is not just humble but more accurately pure. In addition, the Italian word for light “chiaro” has sonorous proximity to “Chihiro.” This similitude speaks further towards Chihiro’s purity. She represents those who are pure in consumer culture who often do not have much money but still only want what they need. The greedy frog who takes the money, on the other hand, represents those who are corrupt consumers and can never be satisfied; that corruption is further accentuated when No-Face assimilates the corruption after eating the frog. He becomes a carnivorous beast—quite different from his awkward and cute depiction—attempting to eat all the creatures in the bathhouse. By showing these representations of morality, Miyazaki demonstrates the corruptions of greed in consumer culture and the inevitability of a greedy economy’s ruin. In other words, No-Face’s cuteness is a depiction of the sustainability of that economic policy. When No-Face becomes cuter, the cause (purity) of that increase represents what is necessary to build a sustainable economy. But when his cuteness decreases and transfers into ferocity, the cause (corruption) represents what will build a ruinous economy. Therefore, according to Miyazaki, there is a necessity of purity and humility in consumerism; if everyone can simply take what they need, like Chihiro does when offered money, everyone can be satisfied and the economy will be sustainable.
After looking at Spirited Away through the lens of Ngai’s complex “cuteness”, we can see a profound relationship between cuteness and threat which most viewers do not see. Not only is this symbolism fascinating as it shows us a representation of purity and corruption in consumer culture, but it is also significant, as it demonstrates the lack of stability in an economy rooted in greed.
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