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Artículo Is Spirited Away a metaphor for child prostitution? Culture

Culture

Is Spirited Away a metaphor for child prostitution?

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Antonio J. Rodríguez

17 Enero 2017 15:35

Miyazaki has never denied a theory which is based on ample evidence

Among the various successes to come out of Studio Ghibli is one that stands out: Spirited Away. The 2001 film has penetrated pop culture in the same way as Star Wars or Mickey Mouse. Children and adults from all over the world have enjoyed the fantastical adventure of Hayao Miyazaki, and his merchandising has been a sales success on a global level.

However, his apparently innocent journey hides a dark and dramatic message. Because, more than being a complex metaphor about the environment and innocence, there also seems to be an allegory about child prostitution.

Just as is highlighted in the book Hayao Miyazaki e Isao Takahata: vida y obra de los cerebros de Studio Ghibli by Juan Manuel Corral (Dolmen Editorial), many theories have emerged from the internet regarding a message about child exploitation in the film. Miyazaki himself has been asked on more than one occasion if the theory is true, and he's never denied it.

'Japanese society is clearly marked by sex. In fact, I think that the sex industry is the best thing to represent the reality of today’s Japanese society', said Miyazaki in an interview.

But, how is this reflected in the film?

The first similarity can be found in the plot. Corral explains this in his book:

'In Spirited away, the protagonist is a ten-year-old girl who has entered a world from which she can't escape, unless she finds a job that allows her to develop as a person […] Chihiro doesn't have any other option than to follow the advice of an enigmatic boy called Haku, who assures her that if she wants to get her parents back, she will have to find work in a bathhouse owned by an old woman called Yubaba'.

The plot reflects the fact that maturity can only be cultivated by oneself and achieved with hard work.  However, there are various coincidences that suggest that it could be hiding something more.

Chihiro finds herself alone after being 'abandoned' by her parents, who were turned into pigs after a large food binge. This event is a clear reference to the idea that a parent's  irresponsibility could lead to their child making the wrong decisions and, in the worst scenario, being deceived by other adults.

At the end of the film, Chihiro returns to her parents as if nothing had happened; proof that her innocence, once snatched away, is restored.

That she carries out her work in the bath houses doesn't help to rebut the theory. Although in Japan working in such places is a tradition which has nothing to do with sex, during the Edo period (1603-1868), bath houses also functioned as brothels.

Rich men attended such places in order to meet women and exchange sexual favours with them. The women were called 'yuna' and they were known as 'women tasked with washing the backs and combing the hair of these men'. Obviously, they did much more than this.

But the most interesting figure can be found in the character of Yubaba. Her own name is used to refer to the 'madame' of the spa, who controlled the yunas and taught them the profession.

In the film it's supposed that Yubaba is tasked with organising the 'spa of the gods'. But here, once again, we find a clue. All of the visitors at the bathhouses are men, with the exception of a few who, due to belonging to an amorphous species, seem to lack a defined gender. What's more, we can observe a clear comparison between Chihiro and the harlots of the Middle Ages.

According to Corral, 'they stripped the courtesans of their names in order to trap them in their situation. In Miyazaki's script, Chihiro loses hers and cannot escape from Yubaba's influence until she finds it. The girl is renamed as Sen […]. In Japanese, Sen means “thousand” but was also used in other periods in order to define prostitutes of a lower class'.

We can find further clear evidence in Kaonashi (No-face). The spirit which accompanies the girl throughout the journey offers her money in the form of tokens which are used for the spa. Many have claimed that the spirit is trying to buy her virginity in this act, and that Chihiro would feel forced into working as a prostitute.

Even so, the most logical interpretation is one put forward on the website Onion and Artichoke. Kaonashi isn't trying to buy her virginity, he wants to be her friend. In this way, he resorts to the methods he's seen in the spa in order to do so. That is, offering tokens in exchange for affection.

The most absurd theories manage to relate the scene in the River Spirit's bath to a young prostitute's traumatic experience with a sleazy client.

They also compare the little susuwatari with pubic lice.

But both seem to be exaggerations conceived in order to give more force to the myth and, of course, the idea that the river spirit can be seen as a critic of the dangers of contamination above all else.

One explanation for the obsession that Miyasazi has with the dangers of child exploitation appears in the book Starting Pint. As Corral explains, the director 'was witness to a documentary which condemned child labour in Peru and its images impacted him to such an extent that he decided never to forget them'.

Miyazaki shared his idea with collaborator Toshio Suzuki, who explained that he had heard a similar story of a child that made her living in a club. Suzuki described the conversation:

'Many of the girls who work in cabarets are young and shy youths who have ended up there, and the same occurs with the men who frequent these places. They say that these rooms are the places where one begins to learn how to communicate.'

In the same way that minors are exploited in cabarets, Chihiro loses her innocence as she passes through the spa. She matures as she observes the dangers that can be found out in the world and only manages to recover when she goes back to being a child, when she finally manages to return to the naivety of her previous life.

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