Studio Ghibli: The (Not So) Hidden Meaning of Spirited Away

  • Japan is one of the world’s leading countries in the production of animated works. Although Dreamworks and Disney will no doubt come to mind when someone mentions animation, the Japanese company Studio Ghibli is renowned internationally for its feature films and other animated works such as short films and commercials. With their stunning art style and original stories, many of which seem to have hidden meanings, Ghibli has gained a massive following since they were founded in Koganei, Tokyo in 1985. Some titles you may have heard of include Princess Mononoke, My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Howl’s Moving Castle, and probably the most popular Spirited Away.

    Fans of Japanese cinema will undoubtedly know all about Studio Ghibli and the amazing and timeless movies it has produced. Eight of their films rank among the top 15 highest-grossing anime films made in Japan (in terms of the worldwide box office). Among their movies, and arguably the most popular is Spirited Away (2001), which ranks second highest on the list. It is a magical story about a young girl named Chihiro. She gets lost alongside her parents in a forest, where she is separated from them. She then has to work in a bathhouse for the gods to save her parents, who have been turned into pigs!

    It sounds mystical and intriguing, right? Well, did you know that the writer and director, Hayao Miyazaki, might actually have been trying to tell a much darker tale? With the many metaphors and suggestive themes that crop up many times in this magical story, fans have claimed that there is a dark meaning underneath the seemingly harmless tale.

    Child Prostitution in Spirited Away

    Many fans of the work may already know about the darker undertones of this popular movie or may have even come up with their own theories. Some suggest that the story was written to depict the horrors and realities of child prostitution and trafficking in Japan. If you have seen Spirited Away, you will soon realize that this was no accident; the script and the storyline were carefully crafted to be both an enjoyable movie and a harrowing tale about real-world problems.

    Throughout the movie, there are both visual representations as well as storyline moments that hint at the underlying theme. Let’s explore these moments that may suggest a darker sentiment to one of Ghibli’s most well-loved feature films.

    Names’ Meaning

    The story begins when the father of our protagonist, Chihiro, insists on driving a different way. They find themselves in a magical world where Chihiro is separated from her parents. They are then transformed into pigs when they eat food that doesn’t belong to them, despite Chihiro begging them not to eat it. This could be a metaphor for overconsumption, consumerism and taking advantage of things.

    After this, Chihiro is forced to work in the bathhouse and a witch named Yubaba gives her a new name. This is a common practice among prostitutes in Japan, many of whom change their names to a “genjina”, or nickname. The name Chihiro is given is Sen, which, when we use the kanji character version, looks like this: 千. This is actually the character for 1000, possibly showing Chihiro’s worth as a prostitute (1000 yen). Therefore, the bathhouse is rumored to be a metaphor for a brothel in which Chihiro must work to free her parents. Historically, bathhouses in Japan used to have prostitutes working in them and offering their services, until it was banned by the Edo police.

    The Bathhouse Symbolism

    In the film, Chihiro is hired as a “yuna”, literally translated as “bath girl”. In Japanese, this word is used for a woman who works in a bathhouse to bathe and massage clients, but very often this service would include sexual services. So a yuna in the past would often become a bathhouse prostitute. You might also notice that all the gods that visit are “Ogami”, or male gods, further suggesting the sexual side of the metaphor.

    We also see Yubaba, the owner of the bathhouse, dressed in a very western style, and looking far more stylish and glamorous than anyone else at the bathhouse. This may be indicative of the fact that she is taking much more money from the enterprise than she should, a sad and common practice among these kinds of establishments. Another connection might be that, historically, prostitutes in occupied Japan were wearing a lot of fancy and western clothes given to them by American soldiers.

    Chihiro’s Parents

    The whole reason Chihiro ends up working at the bathhouse in the first place is because of her parents’ mistakes. Her mother and father are transformed into pigs after feasting on food that isn’t theirs. This has been theorized to show that a debt is owed.

    Therefore, many believe that Chihiro is pretty much sold to the bathhouse by her parents to repay this debt. This was often the reason why poor parents sold their children into prostitution, and incidentally it is also why the sisters at the beginning of the popular novel turned film Memoirs of a Geisha are sold into prostitution. When they are reunited at the end, it shows that Chihiro has worked off the debt that was previously owed to the witch, also the owner of the bathhouse.

    Although this theory is popular among fans, Studio Ghibli has never released an official statement about whether it is true or simply fans coming up with theories. However, Hayao Miyazaki, the screenwriter and animator of Spirited Away, has all but confirmed it in interviews, when he said that he believed the best way to show Japanese society and the sex industry was through film. He has also very often criticized consumerism and fast growth by all means.

    This is not the only Ghibli studio movie that has been rumoured to have a darker underlying meaning. The other fan favourite movie, My Neighbour Tottoro, has been the topic of many conversations, with many believing it is about the afterlife and death.

    So, it may be that the fans have got it right this time! What do you think of this dark and creepy underlying meaning? Was Miyazaki indeed trying to tell a tale of the sad realities of child prostitution or are the above themes simply coincidences?

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