Ladies. Has it ever occurred to you that fairy tales aren’t easy on the feet?
Kelly Link, Travels With The Snow Queen
It’s springtime here in New York, and I’ve come to a certain realization in my newfound and primarily theoretical adulthood: I have been trained, pavlovian-dog-like, to want to watch a Miyazaki movie every time it rains.
Which brings me to a topic I’ve been meaning to write you a letter about; the conspiracy theories of Miyazaki’s movies that have been floating around the Internets for some time now.
It turns out that these staples of my childhood, specifically My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away, were quite a bit a darker than I ever realized— that is, if everything you read on the Internet is to be believed. The basic theories go like this: My Neighbor Totoro, the heart-warming story of two girls moving into a spirit-infested house in the countryside is actually about the very nonfictional Sayama Incident, a horrible tragedy that began with the rape and murder of one girl, and went downhill from there. You can read about the theory as it pertains to My Neighbor Totoro here. And then we have Spirited Away, the bildungsroman tale of a girl who, through no fault of her own, finds herself employed in a fairy world bathhouse, in a desperate attempt to save her suddenly porcine parents from being eaten. This ostensibly innocent story is, it turns out, actually the dark perverted story of prostitution and the corruption of children. For the basic outline, look no farther than here.
(WARNING: This article so, so fucking obnoxious that any of the actual content within is almost irrelevant because everything pales in comparison to how much you’re going to want to smash your face into the keyboard)
We’re hereafter going to refer to this fan theory as “the Prostitution Theory”, but when I talk about the Prostitution Theory I will not necessarily be referring to the aforementioned article in particular, but rather to the general core of ideas and themes that said article is a part of.
I brought up the two of these together because I usually see them mentioned together, but I want to primarily talk about Spirited Away for the rest of this letter. Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli has denied that Totoro was ever meant to be about the Sayama Incident, and if they’re lying, well, they have the right to do that, and I will say no more on the matter. Besides, I’m a great deal more invested in Spirited Away.
At my best guess, I’ve seen Spirited Away at least forty times. It came out in America in 2002, and I saw it right away, and then proceeded to watch it about 3-4 times a year thereafter. (Actually, that seems low to me. But, since I wasn’t keeping count, that’s the number we’re going with). I love this movie. This movie is the best movie that’s ever been made, and everyone who says otherwise can suck it. Oh, it’s weird? It’s for children? You don’t get it? The voices are annoying? Chihiro’s English voice actress also plays Samara in The Ring? Don’t care. This is the best movie, and nothing can mar it. Done.
Now that I’ve proclaimed myself far and wide as the biggest fan of this movie, allow me to go on to say… I agree with the Prostitution Theory.
Not, admittedly, in the way that it’s presented in Obnoxious Article here. A few quick rebuttals…
1. The “Noh Face was trying to buy Chihiro’s virginity” thing. He’s not trying to buy sex; he’s trying to be her friend, since, as the vaguely conscious might notice while watching this subtle piece of filmmaking, the entire movie is about friendship (and being good to the environment, but mostly friendship). He’s doing so in the language of the bathhouse, which is basically offering tokens (and gold) in exchange for affection (and services) because that’s what he’s picked up through observational learning in the bathhouse, and that’s what he learned in the bathhouse because the language of a bathhouse is, essentially, the language of a brothel. Which is related to what Obnoxious Face is saying, but is significantly different.
2. The River Spirit scene. First, gross, secondly, no, this scene is not about sex, it’s about environmentalism, and it’s so completely about environmentalism that it doesn’t really leave room for much of anything else. Because if there’s one thing to be said about Mr. Miyazaki and his writing choices, it’s that he will make literally anything and everything about environmentalism (and anti-war themes) if given so much as half a chance. Related: Miyazaki is the best, preach brother. Also, this scene, while disgusting and weird, is also the best.
3. The Japanese Language clues. Okay, I don’t know enough Japanese to dispute anything that’s stated in this article. (This essay is ostensibly in a letter format, a letter written to my friend, who is even now squinting at the computer screen and saying, “Wait a minute, isn’t part of your family Japanese…? Didn’t people speak Japanese around you when you were a small child?” YES THEY DID SHUT UP) I know that throughout the movie, we repeatedly see the Hiragana characters Yu and Me, and I know that Me means eye (… right?), and that’s all I’ve got.
But I do have this other area of mild-to-moderate expertise, in an area which people frequently make facetious and language-based arguments (The Old Testament), and enough experience in arguing about it to say that whenever someone makes an argument based on this word meaning that or that phrase being the same phrase used in some other suggestive place, you should at the very least be skeptical. Significance and meaning can be nebulous at best when discussing the heritage of words in your own language, and it can be almost impossible to make a decent judgement for a language you don’t speak.
Consider, if you were reading a foreign language review of an English- language movie, in which one of the characters was known as Madame Surname, and this review claimed that her name was an indication that she was in the business of high-class prostitution, because ladies of such a profession are often referred to as Madames in English. As an English speaker, you would be saying, “Well, yes, but…” and you wouldn’t necessarily be convinced by this supposed evidence. But someone unfamiliar with the language in question wouldn’t know enough to not be convinced.
In conclusion, I’m categorizing this evidence as not dismissed, precisely, but not accepted either.
So, what does this leave us with, regarding the Spirited Away Prostitution Theory? Little in the way of details, but still a generalized theme.
The Tumblr Debates
I have literally never seen anyone on Tumblr who professed anything but love for this movie, which I take to mean that Spirited Away is unanimously and universally loved, or at least that everyone who dislikes it is keeping very, very quiet about it due to sheer terror. In regards to the Prostitution Theory, I’ve seen two basic camps of reactions: one camp that is essentially credulous, and the other camp that is in-credulous, or, in the words of Tumblr User Vivvav…
To Vivvav: I don’t agree with your ultimate conclusion, but I feel you, bro (or sis. No judgements here. I don’t know how you live. We cool). You can read the rest of Vivvav’s post here, but I thought that the screenshot above nicely encapsulated the emotional reaction. 
Allow me to take a step back:
In the late nineties to early oughts, a handful of movies came out each of which made a big impression on the pop culture zeitgeist; Fight Club (1999), Sixth Sense (1999), and A Beautiful Mind (2001) (among others). Now, Fight Club didn’t create the unreliable narrator, and M. Night Shyamalan didn’t invent the idea of a character who was dead before the story began. Furthermore, none of these movies put the twist in the ending; all twists happen in the end of the second act at the latest, so that the third act can be spent dealing with the consequences of said twist. But. They came out at a time when the Internet was starting to become widely used, and as we all know, the Internet exists to bring fans together and propel the pixels of fan theories into millions of eyeballs. These days, you can hardly wander onto the WMG page of TVTropes.org without stumbling onto one or all of the following:
- The deuteragonist who instigates the events of the story [eg, Tyler Durden] is a product of the protagonist’s schizophrenic imagination [eg, Hobbes was all in Calvin’s head]
- The entire story is a dying dream of the protagonist [eg, all of the seven Harry Potter books take place in ten-year-old Harry’s head as he starves to death in that cupboard under the stairs]
- Some character or another is a Time Lord [If I had a Tardis, I would go back in time and stop Doctor Who from being made]
Eventually, we started applying this everything is a schizophrenic dying dream about the protagonist’s childhood sexual abuse logic (this is what Doctor Who is about, right) to the occasionally nonsensical, highly imaginative world of Children’s Fiction. And yes: these kinds of theories are usually astonishingly annoying, usually presented in the most obnoxious way possible, and somehow, you always get the impression that the person telling you this shocking! revelation! could not give less of a fuck about the actual movie, book, or TV show that they’re talking about, but expects the fans to shit their pants. And, Obnoxious Face’s article is certainly no exception.
So, I absolutely understand where an antagonistic reaction to the Prostitution Theory is coming from.
Let’s Talk About Fairy Tales
Mr. Miyazaki is in the business of telling fairy tales. This isn’t a controversial statement, right? I don’t have to defend it extensively? The tropes are there: the witches, good and bad, the dragons, the girls cursed or enslaved by witches, the princesses, the spirits and transformations and even the happily ever after. Some are fairy tales of Miyazaki’s own creation; some are retellings of well known stories such as The Little Mermaid; one movie in particular is his version (and homage, I would argue) of a story meant to abstract and play on the traditional tropes of the fairy tale genre.
Bearing in mind that Miyazaki’s movies are fairy tales and have always been fairy tales, this starts to feel like a rather familiar discussion. Because fairy tales are dark, and fairy tales have always been dark. The light at the end (re: marriage, royalty, offspring and happy ever after) doesn’t undo the tunnel of the journey.
I don’t just mean those tales that Disney refuses to touch, like Bluebeard the fairy tale serial killer or The Girl With Silver Hands which is frequently interpreted as a coded tale of incestuous childhood sexual abuse. I don’t mean the old versions of the stories, before Disney got to them or the Brothers Grimm revised them for childhood consumption. I mean including Disney, including the versions you heard as a child, fairy tales have always been dark; abusive homes, unpaid slave labor, attempted and actual murder, death, dismemberment, and the occasional attempted act of cannibalism. In books and movies, it’s presented in a way that is palatable for children, but that doesn’t stop the core subject matter from being, to put it the most intellectual way I can, dark as all hell, son.
But that’s different, right? The very literal childhood physical abuse of Cinderella, the attempted murder of Snow White, the near cannibalization of Hansel, is all different than the possibility of Chihiro may be living in what kind of looks like a brothel. Because, in our culture, we feel very differently about sex than we do about violence.
My Interpretation of the Prostitution Theory of Spirited Away
I don’t think that the story of Spirited Away is the desperately delusional dream of a girl sold into prostitution by her parents’ foolishness; I think the movie actually goes a fair bit out of its way to avert the It was all just a dream interpretation. 
In terms of what is literally going on in Spirited Away: the Bath House is where “spirits come to replenish themselves” (Yubaba). Besides the actual main event of the bath, which is fairly clear, we also see that the spirits come here to gamble (please see: the scene where Chihiro goes by elevator to the Yubaba HQ, and stops at other floors along the way), and to feast (please see: easily half the movie). All of the patrons that we see either seem to be male or of unknown gender. The administrative staff are generally male; and the hands-on staff, be they cleaning or tending to these bathing clientele, are all female.
Furthermore, they seem to have two uniforms; the pink maid get-up, as seen here:
And the loose kimono outfit, seen here:
Actually, that loose kimono get-up seems kind of familiar from another Miyazaki movie…
So: while Barthes tells me the author is dead, and everyone is free to interpret their own entertainment how so ever they wish… it does not at all seem like a stretch to me to say that maybe, perhaps, the Bath House is an establishment that offers sex in addition to bathing, massage, feasting, and gambling. That does seem to be where the evidence points. What I still can’t understand is why this is something people think is going to result is a freak out amongst fans. So this is a world in which people have sex for money— just like the real world, incidentally. So what? If you don’t like it, don’t watch it that way. This isn’t an interpretation that the movie is shoving down your throat, but it’s not exactly a stretch, either.
What I don’t buy is that this means that Chihiro is a baby prostitute in training (let alone actually a prostitute). Chihiro is a ten-year-old maid, and not a very good one at that. Even “high class establishments” (Yubaba’s words) such as the Bath House need maids— actually, especially high class establishments.
But let’s move for a moment away from the literal and into the metaphorical, and allow me to posit that a story can be about something without being literally about that subject. So, The Girl With Silver Hands is about childhood sexual abuse, but literally about a girl who’s been sold by her dismemberment-happy father to the devil. Hansel and Gretel is about parental abandonment but literally about two children defeating a cannibalistically inclined witch. The Frog Prince is about a young lady overcoming her fear of the male genitalia, but literally about a princess who makes some distasteful promises to an enchanted frog.
The premise of Spirited Away, wherein due to the foolishness of her parents, a young girl must seek unpleasant employment in a strange, hostile, and decidedly exploitative world, and then proceeds to ameliorate the situation as best she can through friendship, determination, and the goodness of her own heart, is a story that does easily lend itself to a narrative about prostitution. This can be a story about a girl entering the world of prostitution— or, a sexualized, greedy materialistic world, or the underworld, or however you want to put it— without literally being a story about a young prostitute.
Fairy tales have always been about abused girls, girls who have been failed by family and society, girls who had to make their own way with whatever few traits God and good sense bequeathed to them, be that cleverness, a good heart, beauty, or all of the above. Spirited Away is no different. What upsets me about this debate is there seems to be this idea that we can’t have fairy tales about prostitutes. Abused girls, abandoned girls, even murdered girls get to be the protagonists of fairy tales, but the girl who has come into even the slightest contact with the world of prostitution has been tarred with that brush, and she can no longer be the heroine of the story. Or perhaps she can — but not this fairy tale, right? Because this one’s yours, and it won’t do to have it touching something so unwholesome, something so dirty.
The Most Important Part of this Letter (or Blog Entry, if you like)
This movie may be about prostitution, so to speak, but a movie can be about many things, and Spirited Away is much more about several other themes than prostitution. This is a movie about friendship. It’s a movie about staying strong in the face of adversity. It’s about the importance of kindness to strangers. It’s about an exploration of Miyazaki’s take on Japanese folklore and mythology. It’s about the tragedy of the desecration of nature and the environment. It’s about a materialistic, corrupting modern world, the influence of which can still be ameliorated by a good-hearted little girl. Much of the greatness of this movie is the complexity and depth of meaning, and the aspect of prostitution is only a small part of that, mostly relating to other, more important themes…
But we’re going to talk about it a great deal more than anything else, because apparently the idea of sex as related to Children’s Fiction scares us that badly.
Coming up some time in the future: all of the other things about Spirited Away that I still want to talk about, most of which will hopefully have nothing at all to do with prostitution.
Until next time,
 Except, of course, for obtaining Chekhov’s magical object, which is to say, the medicine that will later be needed to stop Haku from bleeding all over the boiler room. There’s a great theme of reciprocity and good deeds being rewarded in this movie (For example, Haku helps Chihiro with no expectation of reward, and she eventually returns his name to him), and this could be seen as human helping nature (specifically, by de-polluting the river), and nature responding by giving said life (or, if you like, the Chekhov’s magical object needed to save a life). See also: Totoro, Mononoke, etc. Miyazaki is delightfully unsubtle in his environmentalist agenda.
… while leaving out the part where Tumblr user Vivvav calls people such as myself who propagate the Prostitution Theory motherfuckers. 
 Far and away, the weirdest part of this argument is the implication that Miyazaki wouldn’t make a movie about prostitution, because Miyazaki is too wholesome to make a movie that contains the slightest whiff of prostitution. Like, you guys…
He’s already done that.
 Evidence: the glittering hair tie at the end, and the fact that it appears to have been a couple years given the state of the car upon the family’s return to the real world.