Summary and Analysis of Spirited Away

Categories: Film

I saw this movie once when I was a child. I didn’t really understand what was going on, but it stayed fresh in my mind for years. What exactly was that movie? What on Earth was going on? I eventually found it again years later when people were discussing the depths that the movie achieved. A studio Ghibli movie marathon followed shortly after rediscovering it. Despite Disney’s customary fan base, it’s as if the movie is not really intended for a younger audience at all.

The movie contains very serious themes. The movie contains many themes but coming of age is the largest.

This film is also a great example of intercultural communication as “it retains a concern to engage with a past and an identity that are particularly Japanese” (Swale). This film was produced by Studio Ghibli before anime got all weird and uncomfortable to watch. It was dubbed by Disney with painstaking attention to detail. I downloaded it to watch on my train ride home.

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Unfortunately I failed to realized it wasn’t the english version. I watched it anyway, having nothing else to do. It was like watching it as a child again, barely having any clue what was going on. It was surprisingly enjoyable. I had to watch it again in english to give a proper, in depth, summary.

The movie starts off with a family on their way to their new home. They seem to have made a wrong turn however, and are sent barreling down a path that quickly degrades.

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They come to a blockade in the road and move in to investigate the old building that’s blocking their path. It’s all sorts of eerie and there’s old statues all over the place. Chihiro urges her parents to turn back. They don’t listen and trek on through the building’s tunnel. Chihiro is scared and leans on her mother so much that she almost trips her. Her parents find food set out and dig right in. Chihiro goes to explore a little and is met by Haku who warns her of impending doom. She rushes back but her parents have become pigs and she’s now trapped in the spirit realm!

Chihiro is panicking as the whole world around her is coming alive and she’s fading. Instead of doing anything she cries. Haku comes to the rescue and gives her some spirit food and rushes her into the boiler room to get her a job so the witch, Yubaba, that runs the bathhouse can’t change Chihiro into a pig as well. She has to walk down some stairs and can hardly handle it. The boiler man had no jobs and it seems Chihiro has to take it up with the head woman herself. Chihiro lands the job. The witch took her name to control her and renamed her as Sen. On Sen’s first day of work she left a door open for what was seemingly a customer. A great big stink spirit lumbered into the bathhouse, the entire establishment shut down it was so awful. Sen stuck it out and it turns out that it was merely a corrupted river spirit that was extremely wealthy.

Sen pulled a huge pile of trash from the spirit. Amidst the trash was gold and the river spirit, in its departure, gave Sen a magic dumpling. She handled what no one else was mature enough for, and was awarded accordingly. The spirit she left the door open for, No-Face, has revealed itself to be a monster and is greedily eating up workers, luring them in with gold. Sen is doing her own thing now and notices a dragon getting attacked by paper. She recognizes him as Haku and lets him in the bathhouse to escape the paper cuts. One of them sticks to Sen as Haku makes his way to the top floor, where Yubaba lives, and Sen follows. The paper turned out to be a minion of Yubaba's twin sister Zeniba.

Zeniba proceeds to cause some magical trouble around Yubaba’s house, like turning Yubaba’s enormous baby, Boh, into a mouse, as revenge for the golden seal Yubaba forced Haku to steal. Haku was dying from a curse on the seal. Sen tried feeding him a part of the river spirit’s dumpling. He coughed up the seal and a little black slug. Sen squishes it. Haku is still unconscious and Sen decides she has to return the seal to Zeniba to save him. Kamaji produces some highly sought after tickets for the spirit train that’s he’s saved for years. It was surely quite painful because they’re the only way for him to escape from the eternal servitude to Yubaba. As Sen is leaving she confronts No-Face who has grown, ironically, to monstrous proportions from eating workers. She feeds him the remaining dumpling and it appears to poison him. Enraged, he chases Sen out of the bath house regurgitating everything and everyone he’s eaten along the way. By the time Sen made it to the train station he’s back to his calm, transparent, and small self. Sen boards the train with Boh and No-Face.

It turns out Sen already broke the curse through her love for Haku, he woke up and bargained with Yubaba for Sen to leave with her parents, if she returns Boh (who’s now a mouse and riding on Sen’s shoulder). She insisted she needed to test Sen one last time. They eventually make it to Zeniba’s home. Sen’s friends weave while Sen and Zeniba talk. They made her a hairband. Haku arrives to take Sen back. No-Face stays behind as Zeniba’s spinster, he’s finally found somewhere he fits in without having to consume other people to have characteristics. On the flight back Sen recalls a time she fell into a the Kohaku River and it seemed as if the water saved her. The reason Haku has seemed so familiar is that he was that river’s spirit. They both have their names now so Yubaba can’t control them any longer. Yubaba’s last test is for Sen to tell which of the pigs are her parents. Sen answers none of them and she’s right! Her parents woke up on the human side and remember nothing. Sen returns with nothing but her headband and her newfound maturity to remind her of her time in the spirit realm when she returns to the human world.

The motivation to write the story is derived from child like wonder. The bathhouse was born from Miyazaki’s own childhood home. Miyazaki says “For me, a bath house is a mysterious place. There was a small door next to the bathtub. I wondered what was behind that door. So, I thought up a story”(Nausicaa). Life is a journey over the course of which, one experiences many tumultuous changes and transitions. Because this is so widespread it’s only natural for fictional characters to experience the same thing. Because all humans experience this transition, it establishes coming of age as a universal literary theme. Through any number of interviews and writings Miyazaki has made clear “his primary agenda in Spirited Away was to show the maturation of a contemporary young girl in the face of an array of frightening and fantastic encounters” (Napier).

In the beginning of the movie Chihiro “Chihiro is going through an identity crisis. She’s been taken away from her friend at the age just before puberty, pushed into a new setting, and expected to cope” she displays her immaturity by hugging up on her mother, crying, and having difficulty with stairs like a toddler (Saporito). Yubaba’s seizure of her name ripped away her whole identity and the loss of “Chihiro's true name symbolically kills the child” (Satoshi). In her new environment of constant stresses of bizarre -and often obscene- quality, it’s no wonder she redeveolped an identity that’s mature. Sen braved insane situations, worked hard, and outsmarted Yubaba after she “grew up”. Spirited Away is similar to another coming of age story, that also plays along with the trope “‘The Book of the Two Worlds’ which is the interrelation of the fantastic yet non-fictional realm of spirits and fairies with the material and bourgeois commonplace.

In Spirited Away, Miyazaki adopts this trope and combines it with elements from the work of another Hoffmann reader, Lewis Carroll”(Knox) . Both Spirited Away and Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland uncover a world that defies explanation and has regular disturbances in logic. Issues concerning Alice’s size, identity, and her social exchanges with both Wonderland and its denizens spur and characterize Alice’s development towards becoming a young woman. When Chihiro ate the spirit food she stopped fading. Alice’s food causes her “opening out like” and is parallel with a child’s seemingly spontaneous growth spurts, which occur frequently during pre-adolescent years (Carroll 11) .

Yubaba’s own child is another representation of fluctuation. His entire life he’s been pampered to an extreme. Yubaba showered him in all the attention, gifts, and general spoiling he could want. He had never even left his nursery before. It’s a bit of a joke that he’s literally a big baby. Zeniba changed him to a tiny mouse to match his maturity. By the end of the film he’s aged right along with Sen. He transformed into his full size, which is now appropriate, and stands up against his mother (a big deal for a 400 pound baby) to help Sen.

In fact, att the end of the movie everything worked out a little too well. Hayao Miyazaki has stated his view that “utopia exists only in one’s childhood life,” and the happy conclusion of Spirited Away indeed lends itself to a type of utopian ending (Fujimoto). In the last scenes of the movie, Chihiro walks out of the tunnel the same way she came into the spirit world. “She is reunited with her parents and once again becomes a daughter” (Liu). She holds her mom’s hand just as closely as she did at the beginning of the movie. This time around it’s not from fear and immaturity. It’s simply because she missed her parents. They drive away from the spirit world as a family.

All-in-all I discussed Chihiro’s coming of age story. She was tossed into the spirit world at a particularly volatile period in her life. She returned to the human world as a more mature and confident person. No doubt she was in a much better place mentally to deal with her new life. The last second of the movie had her father said “a new home, a new school, it can be a bit scary”, Chihiro simply replied “I think I can handle it” (Buena Vista).

Works Cited

  1. Buena Vista Home Entertainment, Tohokushinsha Film and Mitsubishi present a Tokuma Shoten, Studio Ghibli, Nippon Television Network and Dentsu ; producer, Toshio Suzuki ; written & directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Spirited Away. [United States] : Burbank, CA :Walt Disney Home Entertainment ; Buena vista Home Entertainment, 2003. Print.
  2. Carroll, Lewis, 1832-1898. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Peterborough, Ont. :Broadview Press, 2000. Print.
  3. Fujimoto, Taro. “Animator Hayao Miyazaki Worries about Children’s Future.” Japan Today. GPlus Media Inc., 25 Nov. 2008. Web. 10 June 2017.
  4. Knox, Julian. “Hoffmann, Goethe, and Miyazaki’s ‘Spirited Away.’” Wordsworth Circle, vol. 42, no. 3, Summer 2011, pp. 198–200.
  5. Liu, Katherine. “The Path to Womanhood: Female Coming-of-Age Narratives through the Animated Lens.”, Medium, 15 Nov. 2017,
  6. Miyazaki on Spirited Away, Nausicaa.Net,
  7. Napier, Susan J. 'Matter Out of Place: Carnival, Containment and Cultural Recovery in Miyazaki's Spirited Away.' Journal of Japanese Studies 32.2: 287–310. Project MUSE. 11 February 2009
  8. Saporito, Jeff. ScreenPrism. “ScreenPrism.” Why Is 'The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari' Considered the Definitive German Expressionist Film,
  9. Satoshi, Ando. 'Regaining Continuity with the Past: Spirited Away and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.' Bookbird 46.1: 23–29. Project MUSE
  10. Swale, Alistair. “Miyazaki Hayao and the Aesthetics of Imagination: Nostalgia and Memory in Spirited Away.” Asian Studies Review, vol. 39, no. 3, Sept. 2015, pp. 413–429
Updated: Nov 01, 2022
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Summary and Analysis of Spirited Away. (2021, Dec 15). Retrieved from

Summary and Analysis of Spirited Away essay
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