This movie is probably my favorite Studio Ghibli movie, as well as being one of my favorite movies in general. What many people like about it is the character development, not only of the main character Chihiro, but of other characters who are affected by her as well. This movie captures the "warm and fuzzy" quality of a good Studio Ghibli movie, while also having meaningful conflict and interesting drama. Meaning, it's a kids movie for grown-ups, or a grown-up movie for kids. Or something.
Chihiro is a little girl who is outright bummed that her parents are making her move to a new place. She was sad about leaving her old life behind, and unable to see the sunny side of moving. Her dad decides to take an unusual path to the new house, enjoying the forest scenery, and the family stumbles upon some kind of weird ruin that looks sort of like an abandoned amusement park or something. The couple investigates with interest, but Chihiro is reluctant and scared of everything and stays back.
Now, mommy and daddy start to "pig out" at a buffet because they think they can easily pay for the food they find sitting out, so no one should mind them just grabbing their fill without asking. But someone does mind, and they actually get turned into pigs. Turns out, this little town they're in is no abandoned theme park, it's a resort for Shinto spirits to I guess have a little vacation from spirit-ing?
Anyway, understandably freaked out about the whole parents turning into pigs thing, she receives some handy exposition from Haku, a boy who knows all the ins and outs of the place. She is told to go to Yubaba, the witch who runs the spirits' bathhouse. She is instructed to ask Yubaba for work and not back down, no matter how much Yubaba tries to get her to leave. See, Yubaba is bound by a magical oath (to someone, it's never fully explained) to not refuse a job to anyone who asks. So Chihiro becomes "Sen", and has to work and live in the bathhouse in order to save her parents.
Which basically means Chihiro has to learn to become a lot more mature than she was acting in the beginning of the film. She has to learn how to do the difficult job of helping various spirits get their bathe on, all while trying to figure out in her spare time how to save her parents. When she eventually does, she has accomplished much not just for herself, but in terms of having a positive effect on others.
Water and cleansing is a common motif in Spirited Away. I would argue that Chihiro and Haku both undergo spiritual cleansing transformations, and that is their keys to both remembering their true names and gaining the clarity they need to become free. Water shows up a lot as a symbol of cleansing and spiritual renewal; in an early scene in the bathhouse, an especially mucky customer is helped by Chihiro and her mentor Lin to become clean, transforming from an ugly sludge monster into an elegant and majestic creature. When Chihiro helps this customer, it's also the beginning of her own personal transformation; immersion in water is the moment she goes from a meek, mopey, afraid girl to becoming more confident in herself and more caring about helping others. In the beginning, she has to evade notice by holding her breath as she crosses a bridge. Later, to find a way to help Haku, she has to take a ride in a train that crosses the ocean. Finally, water shows up when it's revealed that Haku is a river spirit, and that the two share a connection because she once fell into the river he represents. This very much is tied into the Shinto beliefs entrenched in Japanese culture having to do with a focus on spiritual purity. As this article on Shinto, the oldest Japanese religion, says, "The Japanese tend to see the world in terms of clean and dirty rather than good and evil.". Understanding this is key to understanding the film.
One blogger brought up an interesting theory, that the whole thing was just a metaphor for prostitution. There are some interesting points there. The customers are "filthy" and need to be satisfied. Her parents get into a jam because of having a greedy appetite, and she has to work to help them, the way real girls are sold into the sex trade to pay off their parents' debt or greedy appetites. She has to change her name. The way the system works seems kind of... prostitute-y? at the bathhouse, and it's all about pleasing the richest clients, doing whatever they want. Naw mean?
It also makes sense if you take into consideration the odd phenomenon of "soap lands", a kind of prostitution in Japan that fiendishly weasels around the legal definitions of sex and prostitution in order to stay in business. It involves... getting sudzy. Basically, you're not paying for sex, you're paying for an "assisted bath". Wink Wink. (Read about it here.)
Now, there are some problems with this theory. Studio Ghibli is always wholesome and family-friendly. Hayao Miyazaki probably intended for this to portray broader themes about growing up in general, not about prostitutes or child trafficking specifically.
Greed is a major theme in this film, and it is shown as being capable of being overcome through selflessness, which is a very Buddhist concept. Basically, various characters get put into their own kinds of personal torments caused by their own greed; Chihiro's parents, a spirit who shows up about halfway through called No-face, and Yubaba herself. In this film, people learn real lessons about overcoming greed, in no small way. Chihiro's parents become pigs, No-face goes insane and has to be talked down, and Yubaba comes close to losing her baby because she's not paying attention to him. All of these are, I'm sure, emotionally devastating experiences, but they change these characters for the better. The bathhouse workers are also driven by greed; fake gold distributed by No-face work them all into a frenzy over serving his every needs, even as he devours them. This is showing that devotion to that almighty Yen can kill a person. Which very much seems like a lesson Japan could stand to learn.
Like other Studio Ghibli/ Hayao Miyazaki movies, Spirited Away also deals with the theme of environmental protection. The studio lends its name to the term "Ghibli hills" for its tendency to portray nature in a picturesque way. In the film, Chihiro's family get on this adventure by trekking through beautiful wilderness, and the theme of river pollution in particular is explored through the character of Haku.
Taken together with the film's condemnation of greed, I think this movie is about nostalgic longing for Japan's roots. It's about a time when Japan wasn't ruled by greed, but by spiritual purity. It's about setting right modern-day wrongs like water pollution, and also about how the act of writing these wrongs is a spiritual exercise that can help people discover their true selves, not the false identities, the masks they put on for the sake of serving greed.
Well, obviously I wouldn't be writing the above practical master's thesis on this thing if I didn't like the movie. It's beautifully done. Many movies have the problem of dragging in the middle third, but not this one; this movie will grab your attention and hold it from beginning to end. If you haven't yet, I strongly recommend seeing Spirited Away.