A whiny 10-year-old girl named Chihiro resents being uprooted by her parents and moved to the suburbs. But before the trio can reach their new home, an unscheduled side trip lands them in a mystical oriental ghost town. Dad sniffs out a sumptuous buffet, and he and Mom chow down. Chihiro’s appetite isn’t as strong as her curiosity, so she explores the vacant town and returns to discover that her parents have turned into giant, slobbering pigs. As darkness falls, the town comes alive with spirits. Dark, formless blobs. Floating masks. Cloaked apparitions. They arrive in droves. It turns out this peculiar place is a resort where Japanese spirits recharge their metaphysical batteries by lounging in hot tubs and dining on fine food—including pigs who were once wayward human beings.
Thrust into a nightmare full of its own rules and bizarre personalities, Chihiro is befriended by Haku, a boy who works in the main bathhouse controlled by the evil sorceress Yubaba. Haku tells Chihiro to locate the six-armed man who runs the boiler room (Kamaji), and insist that he give her a job. He assigns her to Lin, a sarcastic young woman impatient with Chihiro’s immaturity. Since humans are unwelcome intruders in this world, Chihiro must submit to slave labor to stay alive and have any chance of saving her parents. What follows is a darkly imaginative anime fantasy straight out of an Eastern mystic’s haiku hallucinations.
positive elements: The film wags an accusing finger at greed and gluttony. Hard work and inner decency serve Chihiro well as she navigates strange new surroundings. She takes pity on a living soot ball crushed beneath the weight of the coal he’s carrying. She bravely faces fear and uncertainty in an attempt to save Haku’s life. The gruff Kamaji and Lin both soften toward Chihiro. Lin apologizes for calling her names. Kamaji covers her with a blanket. Love and inner strength are conquering forces. The value of a good name (the strongly Asian virtue of family honor) is expressed via Yubaba’s technique for controlling her servants: She steals their true names and renames them. At the end, Zeniba, Yubaba’s kinder twin sister, says, "’Chihiro,’ what a pretty name. You take good care of it." Stealing is clearly wrong. Scenes esteem sacrifice, loyalty, forgiveness, duty and mercy. Intended as a tale empowering children to face change, the film wants to minimize their anxiety over experiencing new things by showing how Chihiro conquered bigger obstacles.
spiritual content: Miyazaki’s affection for magic and animism is integral to the story. "In my grandparents’ time, it was believed that gods and spirits existed everywhere—in trees, rivers, insects, wells, anything," he explains, "[In the film] I suppose the gods of Japan go to a hot springs bath and resort to rest their bodies for a couple of days just as we do." Flawed theology is the film’s biggest drawback. Witchcraft is performed by both good and evil characters. Humans become swine. Haku casts spells, levitates things and morphs back and forth between his human form and a flying sea dragon (we learn in the end that he is the Kohaku River spirit). To expel numbness from Chihiro’s legs, Haku passes his hand over her and says, "In the name of the wind and water within thee, unbind her!" Kamaji explains how he cast a spell that brought an army of soot balls to life so they could tote coal for the furnace ("If they don’t work, the spell wears off and they turn back into soot"). Chihiro squashes a "bad-luck slug" between her toes, saying "Evil be gone!" She is aided by a magic hair band.
nudity and sexual content: No sexual images. An enormous baby is shown naked from behind.
violent content: Several characters threaten Chihiro. A seven-foot tall toddler grabs her by the arm and says he’ll break it. Yubaba gets right up in the girl’s face, breathing fire (she looks like a diabolical Phyllis Diller). A flock of paper cut-outs attack a flying dragon, leaving him near death and bleeding profusely from the mouth. Haku slices Zeniba in two (not killed, she regenerates). A creature named No Face goes on a rampage and devours several employees of the bathhouse (he spits them out later, unharmed). Animated action also includes Chihiro being tossed about by spells, stumbling down a tall flight of stairs, smacking into a wall, and plummeting down a smokestack.
crude or profane language: No profanity, but a song honoring a benevolent spirit goes, "Welcome the rich man/He’s hard for you to miss/His butt keeps getting bigger/So there’s plenty there to kiss." Lin and Yubaba are both verbally abusive to Chihiro. On their first meeting, Yubaba calls her a "stupid, lazy, spoiled crybaby" and "a stinking useless weakling." Lin calls Chihiro "idiot" and "dope" (she later apologizes).
drug and alcohol content: A frog puffs a cigarette. Yubaba uses magic to light her cigarette, drags deeply on it and ceremoniously exhales plumes of smoke.
other negative elements: A few spiritual beings are grotesque. An extended scene involves a disgusting, gloppy, slime-oozing river god called the Stink Spirit, who has been injured by pollution. No Face wanders through the spa, retching and vomiting buckets of goo. Moments of intense fear or sadness (Chihiro in tears, Haku near death, parents as hogs, etc.) will upset sensitive young viewers.
conclusion: Japan’s offbeat answer to Alice in Wonderland is an eerie anime acid trip. Writer/director/animator Hayao Miyazaki uses an otherworldly, freeform story as a palette for sophisticated visuals that earned Spirited Away (the country’s highest-grossing film ever) numerous awards, including an Oscar for Best Animated Feature. But while it’s artfully done, parts of this imaginative work are too dark and hostile for grade-schoolers, and may feel oppressive even to some older viewers. Imagine a Grimm fairy tale expanded to more than two hours and riddled with Eastern religion. In the end, Spirited Away is equal parts visual masterpiece, nightmare-inducing fable and slickly packaged animism.