Did you enjoy Spirited Away, this animated story about spirituality created by Hayao Miyazaki in 2001? Well, we did! Especially when we found out a bit more about some of the discrete mysteries the movie enchanted us with. Some sort of Japanese version of “Alice in Wonderland” with a well defined identity.
Far from being just another children fantasy, Spirited Away take stance that life is, after all, a balance of both positive and negative forces, a wheel in perpetual motion, in which Nature becomes the Mother of humanity, an energy which we must embrace without summarize the aspects of it in good or bad. This movie is a visual lesson about Wisdom that follows only after the joyful Game of adolescents and complicated Love of youngsters. A lesson that combines elements with double meaning and charming symbols of Japanese culture.
The storyline: Chihiro is a 10 years old girl who discovers a both fascinating and scary world of Spirits, beyond the facade of reality, when her parents walk into some deserted amusement park. Despite the peculiar energies around there, they fall prey to the illusion of wealth and feast without stopping, greed transforming them into pigs.
The girl, of course, gets scared and starts the search trying to rescue her parents in this supernatural world of spirits and monsters, but thanks to her passion for the unknown, her fear is gradually turning into knowledge, respect and openness. Chihiro meets Haku, who helps her understand life and sense of this new world, with himself as its guide (himself a river spirit). In the world of the supernatural realm, Chihiro obediently learns the rules: she has to work in the bathrooms house run by a witch where laziness is not tolerated, and accepts a new identity, as a humble and submissive Sen, provided that if she forgets her real name, she will never leave the supernatural world.
Here comes the genius: Miyazaki intentionally brings this story to a more profound level through some well chosen elements
The symbol engraved above Bath House
“Oyu” (お湯) It appears above the baths with hot water (hot springs) in the movie (Onsen) and above Japanese shared bathrooms (which had intended to increase emotional intimacy through social intimacy). The term means “hot water” and is therefore logical that appears in the baths of the movie. But it seems that during the Edo period (1603-1867), under the Tokugawa’s dictatorial regime – the last period of a traditional Japan – the public baths (“Yuna baro ‘) were preferred by men because women who washed them offered them to be paid for sex. These prostitutes were known as the “Yuna”, “women of hot baths” (later these women moved into the Red District of prostitution). Basically, public baths were brothels. As I said, the woman who owned the old Bath House was called Yubaba (meaning “old woman of hot baths”). Also, in the Japanese version of the film you’ll notice that women in these bathrooms were called “Yuna”.
In this context, Sen was named Chihiro, a kind of typical nickname for this kind of hidden sex industry. Some fans were interested in these names and references in this apparently innocent and childish movie. And what they learned was a very interesting fact. As any true fan of Ghibli Studios productions, we know that its stories are, as we said, far from being just children stories. Each story hide metaphors, themes and explanations so complex that the films deserve our attention and respect for the creative work of their creators. In Spirited Away, these items related to bathrooms, prostitution and obedience have been deliberately chosen by Miyazaki, who repeatedly reminded in his interviews about growing sex industry in Japan and the exposure of very young children. And surely this is just an example of this awareness!