“Sen to Chihiro to Kamikakushi” was not made simply to provide entertainment for an audience of all ages. Hayao Miyazaki not only uses “Spirited Away” as a reminder of cultural history and generational conflicts, but also tackles the issue of sex trafficking in Japan. During the Edo period, many communal baths secretly served as brothels and proved to be popular among men because of the females who worked as both bath attendants and prostitutes.
In the film, Chihiro, the young female protagonist, is essentially whisked away to an unfamiliar world. She comes across a large bath house run by an old witch named Yubaba, whose name translates into “old woman of the hot springs.” In order to survive and save her indulgent parents, Chihiro signs a contract with Yubaba, but in doing so, she loses her true identity by having her name replaced with Sen. Moreover, if the bath house is a metaphor for a brothel, then the pampered spirits and gods could symbolize the men who attended these public baths for pleasure and relaxation. They are spoiled by the females who, in the Japanese version, are referred to as yuna, which literally means “hot water woman” and are the extension of prostitutes.
This can be related to the idea of a child being kidnapped and forced into the human trafficking industry. The given pseudonym acts as something similar to that of a generic stripper name, such as “Candy” or “Bunny,” and becomes the start of a simple process of forgetting one’s own identity as exhibited by both Chihiro and Haku. As her overall character matures, Chihiro is forced to retain her identity by remaining true to herself for what she is. She endures obstacles in the bath house and learns to appreciate the meaning of “less is more” through words. She fends for herself by carefully choosing what she wants to say or she gives Yubaba an opportunity to permanently keep her in the brothel. Under the witch’s pressure, Chihiro is asked to identify those who have helped her along the way. Yet she does not stray from the matter at hand and rather than answering the question, she focuses on securing a job for herself at the bath house. Thus, she saves Kamaji, Lin, and Haku from severe punishment. Haku also serves as a prime example of what can happen when one forgets his or herself; he became a slave to the old witch and moreover, a forgotten memory. Through the use of a curious yet respectful child protagonist, Miyazaki draws attention to many details in the film, but he also criticizes the children’s early exposure to the sex industry.
Miyazaki then confronts the issue of greed and excess in Japan through the depiction of a demure, cloaked ghost, No-Face. He takes a special interest in the child because she allows him to enter the bath house and is the first one to completely acknowledge him. Later, it becomes clear that he longs for Chihiro’s love and affection to satisfy his loneliness and exemplifies this through his offers of gold and high-quality bath clips to her. When Chihiro chooses not to accept these extravagant gifts, No-Face becomes self-polluted by the overconsumption of food, which can also be seen as Miyazaki’s depiction of corrupt industrial culture and consumerism. The massive platters of food represent the food or offerings for the gods and simultaneously represent the overindulgence of Japan’s modern society. While the general attendants of the bath house go out of their way to please No-Face’s endless insatiability, the irony kicks in because they are also fueled by their own desire and greed for wealth (the fake gold).
In “Spirited Away,”Miyazaki ultimately uses Chihiro as the paradigm who breaks free from the temptations of modern society. Thus, he subtly condemns the growing human trafficking industry in Japan through the significance of retaining one’s name and identity and stresses the value of returning to a more traditional reality.