The movie won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film at the 75th Annual Academy Awards ceremony in 2003 and the best animation awards from the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the New York Film Critics Circle. It shared First Prize at the 2002 Berlin Film Festival with Paul Greengrass' Bloody Sunday. The film also made it to dozens of top ten lists by American critics in 2002.
Spirited Away was released in Japan in July 2001, drawing an audience of around 23 million and revenues of 30 billion yen (approx. $250 million), and it became the highest-grossing film in Japanese history (beating Titanic), and it is said that a sixth of the Japanese population (as of 2002) has seen it. The movie was subsequently released in the United States in September 20, 2002 and made slightly over 10 million dollars by September 2003. It was dubbed into English by Disney and was released in North America by its Buena Vista distributing arm. It was released in the US in DVD format on April 15, 2003 where the attention brought by the Oscar win made the title a strong seller.
It is often commented that the film constitutes an allegory on the progression from childhood to maturity, and the risk of losing one's nature in the process. There are perhaps also veiled references to competing political ideologies.
Miyazaki Hayao, the film director of My Neighbor Totoro (1988) and Princess Mononoke (1997) as well, came out of retirement to make this film after meeting the daughter of a friend, on whom the main character is based.
In the movie, we meet Chihiro, a little girl who moves to the country with her parents. They lose their way and come across a tunnel, and out of curiousity, they enter, not knowing that they have come across a resort for the gods, a kind of mythological Japanese spirit world (drawn from the Shinto religious tradition). The small family enters what is apparently an abandoned village street, lined with restaurants, where the father finds a place to eat and digs in. Chihiro hesitates outside, watching her parents eat like pigs - and in fact they do turn into pigs!
When Chihiro's distress at losing her parents is compounded by discovering that she's turning transparent, a mysterious boy or young man named Haku comforts her and gives her something to eat which turns her solid again. He escorts her into the spirit world palace of Yubaaba and admonishes her that the only way she can remain safely is to find work in the large bathhouse where gods come to rest their weary bones.
Chihiro follows Haku's advice, descending a long outdoor staircase to the boiler room where she asks the human-looking,six-armed boilerman, Kamaji, for work. He rebuffs her, until one of the coal-carrying sprites (reminiscent of My Neighbor Totoro's soot spritess) collapses under an extra-heavy lump. Chihiro takes the sprite's place and feeds the boiler. Kamaji warms towards the girl, and assists her to get a job in the bathhouse.
A young woman named Lin helps Chihiro find her way through the labyrinthine palace undetected, diverting a fellow servant by tantalizing him with food while Chihiro squeezes into an elevator behind a gross but benign radish spirit.
Pulled into Yubaaba's penthouse suite, Chihiro discovers a regal but monstrous lady reminiscent of the Ugly Duchess in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, who dotes on an equally monstrous (and unfeasibly large) baby. Chihiro repeatedly and stubbornly asks for a job, and finally Yubaaba consents, on condition that she give up her name (somewhat like the lady octopus monster demanding Ariel's voice in The Little Mermaid). Yubaaba literally takes possession of Chihiro's name, grasping the Chinese characters from the contract in her hand and leaving Chihiro part of one character of her original 2-character name, in isolation prounounced "Sen". Taking the name keeps the owner of the name at the bathouse forever.
While at work Sen lets in a spirit called No-face who in return helps her perform one of her tasks at the bath-house. However he also goes out of control and tempts the staff at the bath-house with fake gold and swallows a few of them. Meanwhile Haku who has taken the shape of a dragon is pursued and attacked by a large group of flying paper objects. He is badly injured but makes his way to Yubaaba's quarters. Sen follows him there with one of the paper objects having attached itself to her back without her knowing it.
She meets Yubaaba's giant baby boy who wants to play with her. She manages to get away from him and finds Haku who is badly injured. The paper object stuck on her back transforms into Zeniba: Yubaaba's twin sister. She was chasing Haku because he had stolen a seal from her. Zeniba transforms the baby into a little rat-like creature because he makes too much noise. Haku cuts Zeniba's paper puppet into two with his tail, causing Zeniba's image to split and then falls down a shaft taking Sen with her. They land safely in Kamaji's room.
Sen manages to treat Haku and make him spit out the seal that he stole from Zeniba. She decides to take it to her and travels there with No-face and the little baby-creature. When Yubaaba finds out that her baby is missing she is furious. Haku manages to make a deal: he will get the baby back and in return Yubaaba must set free Sen and her parents. (The plots of the Japanese-language and English-language versions differ slightly here: in the original, Yubaaba and Haku talk about what's necessary to break the spell on her parents.)
Haku(now a dragon) finds Sen at Zeniba's cottage. The two of them fly back to the bathhouse. On the way Sen remembers that Haku is actually a river spirit and tells him his name. This frees Haku from the control of Yubaaba. At the bathhouse Sen has to perform one last task to free her parents. She has to pick them out from a group of pigs. She correctly answers that none of the pigs are her parents. As a result she and her parents are set free and return to the human world.
Note: In some parts of the movie the main character Chihiro has Climacophobia (fear of falling down stairs).
The movie stars the following actors (listed in English version/Japanese version format):
- Daveigh Chase/Rumi Hiiragi as Chihiro Ogino/Sen, a 10-year-old girl
- Jason Marsden/Miyu Irino as Master Haku, a mysterious 12-year-old boy who befriends Chihiro and works for Yubaaba as a silver dragon
- Suzanne Pleshette/Mari Natsuki as Yubaaba, a monstrous old woman who runs the bath house, and her good witch sister Zeniba
- Michael Chiklis/Takashi Naitô as Chihiro's father, who gets turned into a pig
- Lauren Holly/Yasuko Sawaguchi as Chihiro's mother, who also gets turned into a pig
- John Ratzenberger/Tsunehiko Kamijo as the assistant manager
- Bob Bergen/Tatsuya Gashuin as the Frog, and the voice of No Face/Kaonashi
- Tara Strong/Ryunosuke Kamiki as Boh, Yubaaba's monstrous baby on whom she dotes
- Susan Egan/Yumi Tamai as Lin, a young woman who serves as a bodyguard to Sen
- David Ogden Stiers/Bunta Sugawara as Kamaji, the six-armed boiler room operator.
- Tengu - The origins of the term kamikakushi (spiriting away) in Japanese folklore
- Spirited Away // Nausicaa.net - detailed information at a fan site
- Spirited Away - official Buena Vista site
- IMDB - Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi)
- DMOZ category
- Animated Movies synopsis