Chihiro and her parents are moving to a small Japanese town in the countryside, much to Chihiro's dismay. On the way to their new home, Chihiro's father makes a wrong turn and drives down a lonely one-lane road which dead-ends in front of a tunnel. Her parents decide to stop the car and explore the area. They go through the tunnel and find an abandoned amusement park on the other side, with its own little town. When her parents see a restaurant with great-smelling food but no staff, they decide to eat and pay later. However, Chihiro refuses to eat and decides to explore the theme park a bit more. She meets a boy named Haku who tells her that Chihiro and her parents are in danger, and they must leave immediately She runs to the restaurant and finds that her parents have turned into pigs. In addition, the theme park turns out to be a town inhabited by demons, spirits, and evil gods. At the center of the town is a bathhouse where these creatures go to relax. The owner of the bathhouse is the evil witch Yubaba, who is intent on keeping all trespassers as captive workers, including Chihiro. Chihiro must rely on Haku to save her parents in hopes of returning to their world.
Ten-year-old Chihiro Ogino and her parents are traveling to their new home when her father takes a wrong turn. They unknowingly enter a magical world that Chihiro's father insists on exploring. While Chihiro's parents eat like pigs at an empty restaurant stall, Chihiro finds an exquisite bathhouse. She meets a young boy, Haku, who warns her to return across the river before sunset. However, Chihiro discovers too late that her parents have turned into actual pigs and she is unable to cross the flooded river, becoming trapped in the spirit world.
After finding Chihiro, Haku has her ask for a job from the bathhouse's boiler-man, Kamaji, a spider yōkai commanding the susuwatari. Kamaji and the worker Lin send Chihiro to the witch Yubaba, who runs the bathhouse. Yubaba gives Chihiro a job but renames her Sen. While visiting her parents' pigpen, Sen finds a goodbye card addressed to Chihiro and realizes that she has already forgotten her name. Haku warns her that Yubaba controls people by taking their names and that if she forgets hers like he has forgotten his, she will not be able to leave the spirit world. While working, Sen invites a silent masked creature named No-Face inside, believing him to be a customer. A 'stink spirit' arrives and is Sen's first customer. She discovers he is the spirit of a polluted river. In gratitude for cleaning him, he gives Sen a magic emetic dumpling. Meanwhile No-Face tempts a worker with gold, then swallows him. He demands food and begins tipping extensively. As the workers swarm him hoping to be tipped, he swallows yet another two greedy workers.
Sen discovers paper shikigami attacking a dragon and recognizes the dragon as Haku transformed. When a grievously-injured Haku crashes into Yubaba's penthouse, Sen follows him upstairs. When she reaches Haku, a shikigami that stowed away on her back transforms into Zeniba, Yubaba's twin sister. She transforms Yubaba's baby son Boh into a mouse, creates a decoy baby and turns Yubaba's bird creature into a tiny bird. Zeniba tells Sen that Haku has stolen a magic gold seal from her, and warns Sen that it carries a deadly curse. After Haku dives to the boiler room with Sen and Boh on his back, she feeds him part of the dumpling, causing him to vomit both the seal and a black slug, which Sen crushes with her foot.
With Haku unconscious, Sen resolves to return the seal and apologize for Haku. Before she leaves the bathhouse, Sen confronts No-Face, who is now massive, and feeds him the rest of the dumpling. Vomiting, No-Face chases Sen out of the bathhouse before returning to his normal size. Sen, No-Face, and Boh travel to see Zeniba. Enraged at the damage caused by No-Face, Yubaba blames Sen for inviting him in and orders that her parents be slaughtered. After Haku reveals that Boh is missing, he promises to retrieve Boh in exchange for Yubaba freeing Sen and her parents.
Sen, No-Face, and Boh arrive at Zeniba's house. Zeniba, now the benevolent "Granny," reveals that Sen's love for Haku broke her curse, and that Yubaba had used the black slug to control Haku. Haku appears in his dragon form and flies both Sen and Boh back to the bathhouse. No-Face unexpectedly shows itself as a very good spinner for Zeniba and accepts her proposal to stay as worker. On the way back, Sen recalls a memory from her youth in which she had fallen into the Kohaku River but was washed safely ashore. After correctly guessing that Haku is the spirit of the Kohaku River (and thus revealing his real name), Haku is completely freed from Yubaba's control. When they arrive at the bathhouse, Yubaba tells Sen that in order to break the curse on her parents, she must identify them from among a group of pigs. After Sen correctly states that none of the pigs are her parents, she is given back her real name Chihiro. Haku takes Chihiro to the now dry riverbed and vows to meet her again. Chihiro crosses the river and reunites with her restored parents, who do not remember what happened. They walk back to their car and drive away.
- Radish Spirit
- This is the first film to earn US$200 million in grosses before opening in the U.S.
- First anime film to be nominated for (and win) an Academy Award. It also has the longest runtime of any other film nominated or winning in that category (125 minutes).
- The cleansing of the river spirit is based on a real-life incident in Hayao Miyazaki's life in which he participated in the cleaning of a river, removing, among other things, a bicycle.
- When Haku shows Chihiro how to get to Kamaji the door to the boiler room opens inwards and when she eventually comes there it opens outwards.
- The smudge on Chihiro's face changes shape, switches sides, and disappears at random during the first 40 minutes of the movie.
- When Sen and Lin are asked to clean the "big tub" before they start to clean it the tub appears full with dirty water but a few seconds later Lin and sen are stood in the tub but it is empty.