Over the years, Hiyao Miyazaki’s Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi (Spirited Away, 2001) has garnered a reputation for being the Thinking Person’s Fairy Tale: smart, cultured, and lacking any sign of that pesky Disney castle and musical numbers about wanting just the right guy to marry you. The tale of young Chihiro and her quest to save her transformed parents by working in a bathhouse for spirits boasts wonderful values: before our eyes, a whiny, scared child gains independence, fortitude and communal acceptance in a culture alien from her own. Plus, there’s the traditional Miyazaki slams against pollution and wastefulness, not to mention adorable spirits, harrowing chases and gorgeous artwork. Uplifting stuff, non? Like most fairy tales, this wonderful, affirmative piece houses a darker side – one of prostitution and child slavery mixed with lost identity and exploitation.
Before we start looking at the thematic dark side of this film, let’s first take a step back and consider the basics of prostitution in Japan. Prostitution has a pretty loose yet specific definition in Japan: it’s the payment of money for sexual intercourse. Before we go into the many channels of sexual activity, Japan gets narrow about what it considers sexual intercourse: penis-in-vagina penetration. This is a limited but important piece of information to remember, because other sex acts, such as oral sex, anal sex and mammary sex, do not fall under the definition of prostitution; therefore, those acts are fair game for payment. The fūzoku, or sex industry (which is not to be confused with prostitution), has gotten creative since prostitution was banned in 1958, particularly by relying upon the marriage of entertainment with non-vaginal sexual activity to attract customers. Namely, the mizu shōbai (literally, “water trade”) popped up, earning itself the nickname “soapland.” You guessed it – this was a sento(bathhouse that charges for entry) that offered a good bath and companionship for its male customers by women. Effectively, soaplands skirted around the legal definition of prostitution by providing a service that was sexual, entertaining, for sale, and within the limits of legal activity. After all, a woman giving a man a bath and a handjob isn’t a prostitute – this woman is a worker engaging a service within the letter of the law.
Enter Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi, which is literally set in an otherworldly bathhouse dominated by male spirits and female bathers. Chihiro’s parents get lost on their journey to their new home and fall upon some food set out at a curious abandoned shop. After consuming the food, they’re turned into pigs, prompting Chihiro to beg the head of the bathhouse, Yubaba, to give her a job. Chihiro hopes to find a way to break the spell on her parents, and enlists the help of those she meets along the way: fellow worker Lin, henchman Haku, boiler operator Kamaji, and enigmatic spirit No Face, who keeps offering her gifts of bath tokens and gold.
The sheer background of the film is a reflection of its roots in the sex trade. The bathhouse is marked as a hot water house on the building, and Yubaba’s very name – which translates to “hot water woman” – was a common name for the madam of a bathhouse, which operates only at night. The patrons of this bathhouse are predominantly male (really, go back and look – do you see any female spirits there? No – female workers and male foremen, but the customers are all male.). Chihiro goes to work for the bathhouse in order to repay the wrongdoing of her parents, echoing the daughters sold into prostitution throughout different cultures in order to pay off financial obligations. Furthermore, Chihiro is made to sign away her name to obtain a job, an action that a yuna (one who gives baths or massages) undergoes when joining fūzoku.
In fact, the composition of the kanji that comprise the name “Chihiro” takes a turn for the icky once the name is broken down. The name “Chihiro” translates roughly to “one thousand fathoms,” which is a measurement of the depth of water. When Yubaba plucks Chihiro’s name from the page, she leaves behind only part of the name: the kanji for her new name, Sen, which translates to “one thousand.” Yubaba takes away the depth in relationship to water, but leaves the monetary value. The interpretation of this could mean that Chihiro has a debt of one thousand to repay before her contract is up, or it could mean that Yubaba seeks to absorb her identity by stealing away the depth of her personality. One thing is clear: the name is traditionally associated with good fortune and plenty, meaning that the essence of the name itself is something desired for gain.
This aspect of her name makes far more sense once placed into a setting with our key mystery player, No Face. No Face begins his place in the story by requiring someone to let him into the bathhouse. When Chihiro does this, he then pulls out all the stops to try to curry favor with the child. He begins by giving her bath tokens when the foreman would not help her, which helps her solve the problem of the so-called Stink Spirit. However, as time goes on, No Face begins to consume employees of the bathhouse, finding a voice to request the object of his affection, and, eventually, chasing her and following her on the train to see Zeniba.
The character is a portrait in the dangers of obsession and how it relates to sex. No Face represents a type of Japanese spirit known as a noppera-bō, which isn’t accurately represented in this film. Noppera-bō typically assume the forms of a badger or fox, and are relatively harmless – they are out for a good scare of their victim, not death or possession. They achieve this end by sometimes taking the form of someone you know, then exposing their lack of a face (hence the name). Where No Face plays into the notion of a spirit brothel is his need to consume rather than strictly scare, which draws a parallel to sex. To gain a voice and extremities, No Face must absorb someone else with those traits – he has to eat that person. This unwilling devouring of the victim is akin to a type of rape: an all-consuming invasion of the victim for the sole gratification of the perpetrator. No Face has to violate his way to the object of his affection: a sex worker at a bathhouse, who he hopes to commission through professional and then physical means.