Seldom do films manage to transport us back to our childhood while simultaneously eluding us as to their true significance. Fewer animated films are able to accomplish this. Spirited Away is one such rarity. Even now, I often find myself constantly speculating the hidden meanings behind particular characters and scenes. Warning: spoilers ahead!
The film centers around a young girl named Chihiro, who wanders into the spirit realm, is separated from her parents and is forced to work in the bath house there to ensure her survival. The film revolves around her journey as she navigates her way into adulthood, taking responsibility for herself and her parents. The role that toxic workplace cultures play in a global capitalist economy is one of the film’s central and most evident themes. The movie was released in 2001, at the onset of the 21st century, when capitalism was increasingly spreading over the globe. Following the 1973 oil crisis, the Japan began to shift its focus to developing high-tech businesses instead of depending entirely on the oil industry. At present, Japan encourages a strict work ethnic, in order to compete with western economies. ‘Spirited Away’ is replete with scenes depicting labour and work in a negative light. This concept is also linked to Japan’s notorious sex work industry.
Though sex work and prostitution are outlawed in Japan, many businesses have managed to thrive thanks to the numerous legal loopholes that allow other sexual acts and adult entertainment. The film features a bath house, a remnant of ancient Japanese culture and possibly a symbol for it’s flourishing adult entertainment industry. The majority of the bath-house staff are female, and they tend to spirits and other animals that are essentially male. Although there are male employees, they primarily handle the transactions and administrative work, leaving the women in charge of engaging directly with clients and attending to their needs. Chihiro, who is ten years old, is made to work in a similar capacity as the other female employees, but she receives unfair treatment in the process. She and Linn have been instructed to clean the largest and dirtiest bath tub in the establishment. When “Stinky Sigil” shows up, Chihiro is expected to take care of the customer on her own. Furthermore, Yubaba, the owner of the enterprise, gives her a new name, Sen, when she first arrives. By renaming her, Yubaba is able to treat Chihiro like a slave and claim her as her own. The bath-house is a symbol of pink salons, hostess clubs and soaplands found in modern day Japan, where most employees are either deceived into working or trafficked from other Asian countries.
‘No face’ is one of the most iconic characters in the film. While the other bath house employees shower him with attention and love in return for his riches, his approach fails with Chihiro. ‘No face’ is aghast and turns violent when Chihiro does not give him the same favourable treatment that other older, female workers give him. He realizes that money and favours cannot buy her, her love or her services. His actions can be construed as bordering on paedophilia, considering that Chihiro is underage and is constantly being stalked around the bath-house. These scenes can be also be linked to child pornography, found widely in Japanese anime and manga. Even though child pornography and prostitution are prohibited by law, adult entertainment service providers and pimps frequently target young girls, demanding sexual favours in exchange for copious amounts of money.
Finally, while this theory may be plausible, it is ultimately a mere interpretation and may not reflect the aims of the film creators. It is no secret that Miyazaki intended the film for a 10-year-old female audience, in order to provide them with a heroine that they can look up to. Fundamentally, ‘Spirited Away’ is possibly the darkest movie produced by Studio Ghibli, not just because it possibly centres around prostitution and child trafficking, but because it captures the chaotic and terrifying period between childhood and adulthood.
Rtr. Acsah Kulasingham
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