Let’s start from the beginning. Chihiro is an ordinary girl who has to leave because her parents are moving. It opens with her sad and lying in the back of a car while her parents are trying to tell her that this move will be good in the long run. I have been in this situation, and it is never easy on the child, and then the film takes a supernatural turn.
The parents find themselves in some kind of abandoned amusement park, and they also discover some food already prepared with no cooks in sight. Then they start eating, but Chihiro does not participate. In all honesty, the parents really act like idiots in these first few scenes, and the set up is almost like a horror movie. You know how the main characters decide to “get away from it all” and spend some time in some abandoned Cabin in the Woods
Chihiro then discovers that her parents have become pigs. Then the sun sets and a river appears that blocks her way out of the amusement park. Suddenly, the place has now become a bathhouse for spirits, and then Chihiro is stuck in the middle of it.
I will have to say that this film does an incredible job of making you feel a little girl’s fear. She meets a man named Haku who tells her that Chihiro must get a job, but the only one who can give her a job is Yubaba, a grandmother figure with a very big head. Yubaba gives Chihiro a job, but she takes away her name, now calling her Sen.
From here, it is about how Chihiro works at this spiritual bathhouse, and how she adapts to the surroundings. There are times when she is in fear like a little girl, and then times when she finds a lot of strength. I suppose the best way to describe it is something like Alice and Wonderland, but with a coming-of-age theme.
I will have to admit that I’m not certain what it is that I am supposed to learn from this film. Is it that we can rise to the occasion if we make responsible choices? That is kind of what happens as Chihiro/Sen does a lot of things in order to get her parents back as well as help her newfound friends.
I don’t want to reveal the ending to this film, but a friend of mine told me something about this film’s subtext. If you watch Spirited Away, you will notice that there are spirits at the bathhouse, but there also many human girls. Besides Chihiro, it is not explained where the girls come from. It is possible that the bathhouse for the spirits is also a brothel. This is never said, but there is evidence of that in the film.
Sounds creepy, yes? Really great kids’ film, right? Kids will not get that it could be a brothel, because I’ve watched it three times and never got that. This does change my interpretation of the film, because it means that Chihiro was being trained to be a prostitute. Worse yet, there is a character named No-Face who approaches Chihiro and wants her to serve him, offering her much gold. Yeah, I don’t like the implication of this at all.
Still, is the film about not getting sucked into a world of vice? It could be interpreted that way, but Miyazaki films are very open to interpretation.