At the beginning of Spirited Away, Chihiro wants to be anywhere but in the car, driving to her new home in a new town.
Her woes quickly turn to fear when her father drives them down a lonely, desolate two-track lane that leads to what appears to be an abandoned theme park. Everything about the place spells “doom”—from the stoic statue they almost run into, to the dark tunnel and the empty game and food stalls beyond.
They are now in a new world, although Chihiro is the only one to sense it. Stumbling on a stall with piles of freshly cooked food, Chihiro’s parents greedily begin to eat. Chihiro refuses the food offered and instead wanders the abandoned stalls and meets Haku—a mysterious boy who already knows her name. He warns her to escape with her parents, only when finds them again she discovers they have turned into pigs.
Haku encourages her to take a job in the nearby bathhouse, both to survive and to formulate a plan to save her parents. This is no ordinary bathhouse, however. This bathhouse serves the gods, giving them a respite from their weary travels.
Chihiro must convince Yubaba, the owner and resident witch, to give her a job, and with the help of the six-armed master of the boiler room, Kamajii, and a bathhouse servant girl named Lin, she does.
The catch is, however, that Yubaba steals Chihiro’s name and re-names her Sen, which means Yubaba can keep control over Chihiro forever. Later she learns Haku is bound to Yubaba in a similar fashion.
Yubaba sees to it that Chihiro gets the worst jobs and prevents her from seeing her parents. At first Haku helps Chihiro, but the tables turn when she discovers him in his true form (as a dragon), sick and injured after stealing and swallowing the signil of Yubaba’s twin sister, Zeniba.
Chihiro gives him medicine and kills the slug Yubaba fed Haku to keep control over him. Then she travels by train to Zeniba’s to return the signil and apologize, in the hopes of healing him. Although Haku recovers and bargains with Yubaba to let Chihiro return to the outside world with her family, Chihiro ends up not needing his help.
As they fly back to Yubaba’s, Chihiro remembers why they felt they knew each other: he rescued her once when she fell into a river near her house as a child. She tells him his true name, lifting Yubaba’s curse from him.
Chihiro completes one final task in freeing her parents—successfully naming them from a pen full of pigs that all look alike. Except she tells Yubaba they’re not anywhere she can see them—and she’s right.
Created, drawn and directed by the great animator Hayao Miyazaki, Spirited Away is distinctly Japanese. What sets the film apart from other Disney animated films is not just that Chihiro is a young girl, but she’s a young girl with no special abilities who must survive on her wits.
“With Spirited Away I wanted to say to them ‘don’t worry, it will be alright in the end, there will be something for you’,” Miyazaki says, ” not just in cinema, but also in everyday life . . . Every time I wrote or drew something concerning the character of Chihiro and her actions, I asked myself the question whether my friend’s daughter or her friends would be capable of doing it. That was my criteria for every scene in which I gave Chihiro another task or challenge. Because it’s through surmounting these challenges that this little Japanese girl becomes a capable person.”
Spirited Away was a huge hit in Japan (it remains Japan’s highest grossing film) and was also a hit when released in the United States in 2001. The film went on to win an Acadamy Award for Best Animated Feature Film. It is one of Miyazaki’s best-known work.
His studio museum, Studio Ghibli, sells merchandise related to the film. Not only are prints available, but there is a collector’s box set that includes a sculpture of the bathhouse.