Spirited Away: Economy of Magic
The luxury fashion brand Loewe recently released its collaborated works with Ghibli Animation’s masterpiece, Spirited Away. Captivated by the reminiscence, I rewatched this animation. This time, I noticed something interesting about the way the magic operates in Spirited Away. The way magic operates is very similar to the way our fiat-money economy works; the cycle of contract and debt.
Yubaba and Zeniba, the sorceress twins in Spirited Away, have identical appearances (hair, clothe, accessories, etc), but their lifestyles are total opposites. While Yubaba lives a life surrounded by luxurious items in a tall building, Zeniba lives a humble life in the rural countryside. Here’s my fan theory: the differences between the two sisters occurred due to Yubaba’s contract with Zeniba that “She will provide jobs to whoever that wants it.”
One yields magical power through specific steps. First, the sorcerer creates a contract. Second, in return, the sorcerer can use magic as long as the rules under the contract are kept. Yubaba said she swore an oath that she will provide jobs to whoever wanted it, which was the reason why Chihiro could get a job in her hotel. By keeping this somewhat odd clause of the contract, Yubaba can keep or strengthen her magical power.
The seemingly easy oath unfortunately could have forced her to become a greedy business person. To keep her magic strong, she has to make jobs. To make jobs, she has to run a business with a model that operates with a large number of employees, which happens to be the service/hospitality industry. As she runs a business, she gets obsessed with gold to keep the oath, which in return gives her a magical power.
While Yubaba could earn a great magical power and fortune with her oath, there are clues that indicate she deeply desires to liberate herself from it. She sends Haku to her twin sister Zeniba’s house to steal a seal stamp, which shows that the contract was made with or through Zeniba. Another important concept arises here, which is the power of a name. Yubaba hires her employees by writing contracts using their own names. Between Yubaba and Zeniba, the seal that carves their identity was probably the token of the contract. To break the oath, two names have to agree to do so. It explains why Yubaba steals the names from employees, so they lose the power to break the contract. That is also why Yubaba attempts to steal the seal stamp from Zeniba, as the seal performs the power of Zeniba’s name on her behalf.
The system resembles what happened during the Bubble Economy period of Japan during the 1980s. The father of Chihiro mentioned that the amusement park was probably built and got bankrupt during the Bubble Era. During that time, the Japanese economy enjoyed unprecedented affluence. They even had a joke that if you sell Tokyo, you can buy the Unites States. During this time, the business activities performed through numerous contracts and dept supported the nation’s economy. From normal people’s point of view, the contract with the banks seemed to have created money (debt) out of thin air, just like how the magic happens in Spirited Away.
Money and magic, therefore, operate similarly. In a capitalist economy, the government sells the bond which promises the return with a specific interest rate, and the central bank prints money by buying the bond (debt). Money is therefore a debt, and debt is essentially a contract. Before, there was a guarantee that money can be redeemable in gold. Now, it is no longer true, and we call it fiat money. In Spirited Away, it is magical to see the power arises from mere promises and oaths, but that is what we are seeing in the real fiat-money economy, too.
However, when Japan made a Plaza Accord with the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and West Germany in 1985, the deprecation of the US dollar currency caused the bubble to burst in Japan. It left deep scars on the citizens of Japan, as numerous companies went out of business, people lost jobs, and the hope faded. As such, hope and despair both sprout from the contract.
There is a chance that Yubaba knew what can happen. Her business can be flourishing at the moment, but there is a clear limit. In a worst-case scenario, she can go out of business, fails to provide jobs to whoever wants it, and lose all her magical power. Just like when Japan lost its abundance after the bubble burst. This explains why she forced unfair employment contracts on her workers and desperately sought to steal the seal stamp. Unfair contracts that exploit human resources helped her to keep the contract with a minimum cost, keeping her magical power. Then, she wanted to erase the risk of losing her power by nullifying or editing the contract.
As such, money and magic operate in a similar way. They appear out of a thin air.