The Movie Tourist Visits Yubaba’s Bathhouse In ‘Spirited Away’ (2001)
Take a trip to where the spirits all live in this Japanese animation.
The Movie Tourist is a series where we visit unique locations in famous films, to dig a little deeper and uncover the greatest places in movie history. Next up, Spirited Away, the classic Japanese animated fantasy adventure.
The centrepiece of this spirit world resort, the bathhouse owned by witch Yubaba makes for the perfect place to rest and relax when you’ve had enough of the many food stalls which lead to its grand entrance. The bathhouse plays host to many of the spirit worlds’ more colourful residents … just make sure you visit before a stink spirit arrives.
Spirited Away is a standout in the Studio Ghibli back catalogue – let alone for its director Hayao Miyazaki – which is no easy feat, especially when you consider the sheer amount of memorable films the company has produced, earning them the clumsy moniker the “Disney of Japan,” much to the chagrin of Miyazaki who sees himself as being anything but. This film marked their first Oscar win at the 75th Academy awards in 2003 where it became both the first hand drawn animation as well as the first Japanese film to win the award for Best Animated Feature.
Essentially a reworking of Pinocchio, with ten-year-old Chihiro (voiced by Rumi Hiiragi) trying to find her way back into the real world (so essentially to become a real girl) after her parents are turned into pigs (a take on the boys being turned into donkeys). A key portion of the film sees Chihiro taking a job at the Yubaba’s Bathhouse where she is also renamed Sen, something which we will come back to later.
While many bathhouses have claimed to be the inspiration for Yubaba’s Bathhouse, the most visually similar would be Dogo Onsen in Matsuyama, which has the honor of being one of the oldest of Japan’s bathhouses even boasting reserved baths for members of the Japanese royal family. The food vendor lined-streets leading up to the Bathhouse have been cited for their similarity to the Taiwan town of Jiufen, so much so that the city has taken to being referred to as the real-life setting of Spirited Away.
Considering that Yubaba is the closest this town has to a leader or governing body, it makes sense that her bathhouse represents her power visually as the most grandiose and opulent structure in the village. Styled after the Japanese bathhouses of the Edo period (1603 – 1868) the structure towers over the rest of the village providing her with the perfect viewpoint at all times though it’s clear that she designed her bathhouse as a business and not a fortress, more so when she maintains her dominance with the occasional use of her powers than any kind of obvious dominance you’d expect to see from the villain.
Starting in the boiler room, it is single-handedly run by the multiple-armed and spider-like Kamajii, a lovable grouch, who’s also the backbone of the bathhouse, controlling the water and making sure it gets to where it’s needed. He also keeps the boilers running with the aid of the ‘soot sprites’ who we first got to see in My Neighbour Totoro, and here are still as charming as before as their appearance works perfectly, especially when they pull a mini-strike. While it might not seem like the most inviting room, especially with the intimidating furnace, it would seem from the bed that this room serves both purposes for Kamajii, but a closer looks reveals that it looks like the room was built around him, especially when everything from herbs to the many levers and pumps are easily accessible to any of his many spindly arms. It makes sense that he would make the most of the privilege of actually having his own space, especially compared to the cramped quarters of his co-workers.
Next is the ground floor were the kitchens and baths can be found and it’s here we get to meet many of the various spirit types, while Miyazaki uses this location to include one of his trademark cleaning sequences with Sen being tasked to clean the largest and dirtiest tub. Miyazaki’s belief is that by showing a character completing tasks such as this, highlights them as being a “good citizen” and being of strong character. The ground floor is also where we get to see many of the colourful spirits that use the bathhouse, such as the komodo clad Ushinoni or the radish spirit, which could be best described as looking like an elephant in a thong.
Moving up to the second floor or second heaven, here guests can take in the traditional tatami-matted dining rooms, which is probably the area of the Bathhouse that we spend the least amount of time in with Sen only stopping off here briefly on the elevator ride she takes with the Radish Spirit, though we can see through the silhouettes seen through the rice paper walls that these dining rooms are just as popular as the baths themselves.
The top floor of the Bathhouse named Heaven is reserved solely for Yubaba’s office as well as for her giant baby child Boh, who has a room to the side of her office, and we can see how extravagant it is, especially compared to the living quarters of her workers, which are crammed and minimalistic in comparison. Such obvious opulence serves to highlight that despite being this domineering presence Yubaba still has a softer side, which she reserves solely for Boh, a sole weakness that will ultimately come to find played against her. For those who like taking in the smaller details Yubab’s office certainly is a treat, especially for her more witchy trinkets, such as the bookcase she resurrects or perhaps just her talking skull phone.
Miyazaki’s eye for character design really comes into play throughout the sections set at the bathhouse as he truly sells the idea of this fantastical bathhouse, constantly giving us something new to look at or experience. Even minor supporting characters such as the talking frog Aogaeru seem like major components of the bathhouse operation through Miyazaki direction and only further sell the structure as being as real as any live-action counterpart. It’s through this location that we also get the two main set pieces involving both the Stink Spirit and Sen’s mysterious friend No-Face, who soon shows a much darker side to his character. Stink Spirit is inspired by Miyazaki’s environmental work, in particular the cleaning of a river that he pulled bicycle from, it making an appearance here as it’s also pulled out of the Stink Spirit, along with a small mountain of garbage that follows it when Sen and the other workers pull it out of the living mud pile. It actually hides the spirit’s true form. Perhaps because of the scale and drama of these two sequences, it does however leave the scenes away from the bathhouse as lacking something, though thankfully never to a detrimental effect.
For those not enchanted by the whimsy and wonder of Miyazaki’s vision, one can view the bathhouse through the angle of a recent fan theory stemming from the writing above the entrance to the bathhouse, which translates to Yu meaning hot water, something for a bathhouse you’d expect to see. Yet considering the style of the building is from the Edo period, where bathhouses were essentially brothels, the women who worked there were known as Yuna or hot water women. The theory further seems confirmed when you consider that ‘Yubaba‘ is also what the madam would have been called at these establishments. Even Chihiro having her name changed to Sen plays into theory as it was the custom that prostitutes changed their name, as their real identities were signed over to their madam. I will of course allow you to play around with this theory for the rest of the film yourself, but needless to say, when viewed through this lens, things do certainly take on a darker edge.
Fan theories aside Yubaba’s Bathhouse remains one of Miyazaki’s most memorable creations and much like the film itself it makes for the perfect entry point into the Studio Ghibli films, let alone the work of the animation master Hayao Miyazaki.