“Spirited Away: Live on Stage” wills Miyazaki’s modern animated classic into reality…


Nearly seven years ago in late 2016, one of the first columns I did for this site was on losing “my Miyazaki virginity” by agreeing to see my wife’s favorite movie, “Spirited Away,” which was returning to theaters for its 15-year anniversary.  While anime is not necessarily my favorite genre, I saw something truly unique and fascinating in that film, which sprang from the mind of its gifted writer/director, Hayao Miyazaki; a veteran animator, manga artist and filmmaker.  Since that (very) crude, early column, I’ve seen several of Miyazaki’s films, including “Princess Mononoke” and “Howl’s Moving Castle.”  All of those films were amazing achievements in animation, but they didn’t quite possess the pure, unfiltered genius of “Spirited Away,” which I’ve seen several times since then.  

My first introduction to Hayao Miyazaki’s modern masterpiece “Spirited Away” came in December 2016, at a 15-year anniversary screening, and I finally understood why my art teacher wife said this was her favorite movie.

“Spirited Away” is a darker “Wizard of Oz,” as seen through the lens of Japanese Shinto mythology, filled with cleverly-integrated messages on consumerism, as well as the desecration of our ecology.  For this column, I’m not doing another review of “Spirited Away” so much as a recommendation for a new experience based on that modern classic film; “Spirited Away: Live on Stage,” which was produced for Tokyo’s Historic Imperial Theatre in March of 2022 and was broadcast live in select US theaters as a Fathom Event.  The play was adapted by veteran director John Caird (“Les Misérables”) and Marko Imai from Miyazaki’s original screenplay, and the result is an extremely faithful production that essentially wills animation into the realm of the tactile

While there are a couple of songs added for the play, this is not a musical. This stage show is the movie, in every sense; brought to theatrical life through a clever mix of modern and time-honored stage techniques, including turntable stages, LED backdrops, as well as traditional rod-puppets and dragon-dancing (Kinryu-no-Mai).  

The Play’s the Thing

The story of “Spirited Away” remains exactly the same. A preteen Japanese girl named Chihiro is moving to a new town with her parents when they detour through an abandoned theme park where the girl is separated from her parents (who are transformed into pigs) and ‘spirited away’ by ghosts into a supernatural realm.  Once there, Chihiro (renamed Sen) is forced to work in a bizarre bathhouse-resort for supernatural beings overseen by a cruel, greedy sorceress named Yubaba.  While there, Chihiro falls in love with a handsome river-spirit—and sometimes dragon—named Haku. Befriending other unlikely allies, including a lonely ghost named No-Face, Chihiro eventually makes her way back to her restored parents, and all memory of her experience dissipates…save for a hair ribbon given to her by Yubaba’s kindly twin sister.  All of that survives in the stage versions (filmed twice with two casts), which faithfully recreates characters, costumes, props and creatures from the animated film for the stage… no easy feat.

Chihiro (Kanna Hashimoto) and her parents’ drive at the beginning of the film is recreated using a combination of a large front-projection LED screen and the actors’ pantomiming being inside of a car; one of many combinations of high and low-tech stage techniques.
As Chihiro (Kanna Hashimoto) descends into the city of ghosts, she is surrounded by the titular spirits. The translucent ghosts of the film are rendered with the actors wearing see-through fabrics under dim blue lighting.
Yubaba’s wrath is transitioned through a large head supported by puppeteers who operate very similar to dragon dancers–a technique used for Haku’s metamorphosis into a dragon as well.
Top: A still from Miyazaki’s film, where Chihiro-Sen meets Kamaji (Tomorô Taguchi) in his boiler room.
Bottom: The scene’s extremely faithful recreation in the play with Kamaji’s multiple appendages operated by puppeteers dressed in the same drab, beige clothing as the story’s bathhouse workers. Hard to tell from only the back of the actress’s head, but I believe this still is from the Mone Kamishiraishi– version.
Top & Bottom: Chihiro-Sen (Kanna Hashimoto) is comforted with an offer of food by her ‘dragon boyfriend’ Haku (Hiroki Miura)in a scene from the 2001 film and the stage recreation. The play is a love letter to Miyazaki’s modern classic that is less an adaptation of the movie, and more of a 1:1 willing of it into another medium.
Yubaba (Mari Netsuki) admonishes her unfaithful servant Haku (Hiroki Miura), who is actually a Shinto-inspired river god. These two cast members were in the version I saw, and I was truly impressed by the performances.
Chihiro-Sen befriends the lonely spirit No-Face, who communicates through a series of creepy moans, as it observes and reflects the behavior of others at the resort–particularly their greed.
Chihiro-Sen cleans a particularly nasty ‘stink demon’ who turns out to be a polluted river spirit (one of Miyazaki’s many ecological messages subtly woven into his works). The bathtub effects are recreated for the stage using sound effects, billowing fog for steam, and clear plastic tarpaulins for overflowing water.
Many of the story’s impossibly inhuman characters, such as Aogaeru (an ill-tempered frog employee of Yubaba’s otherworldly bathhouse) are realized as puppets, with their puppeteers supplying both the physical and verbal performances.
Chihiro and the dragonized Haku go for a wondrous flight realized entirely through graceful dragon dancers; Chihiro’s allies Bo (in his obese-rat form) and Yu-Bird are both fully realized as puppets, with the puppeteers dressed in the same keikogis and other apparel worn by the resort workers–sufficiently nondescript to avoid undue attention, but without being fully invisible, either.
Top & Bottom: A still from the film shows the iconic scene of Chihiro (Mone Kamishiraishi in this version) riding the train back to her world with lonely No-Face, Bo and Yu-Bird/Haedori as her companions for the first leg of the journey. Once again, the other spirits on the train are actors in sheer dark fabrics dimly lit to appear as diaphanous as humanly (or inhumanly) possible.
Chihiro meets Yubaba’s twin Zeniba, who is quite different from her other half. My wife saw both versions of the play and thought that the makeup on this Yubaba/Zeniba (played by Mari Netsuki in this version) was slightly more detailed than the other version.

The play was originally shown theatrically in March of 2022 for Fathom Events, which livestreams operas, concerts and plays for movie theaters, such as the current Taylor Swift “Eras Tour” concert film, which has become a monstrous hit for Fathom Events.  As mentioned above, “Spirited Away: Live on Stage” was recorded twice, with two separate casts; one led by actress Hanna Hashimoto as Chihiro, and another with Mone Kamishiraishi in the role, with other actors alternating in key roles as well, such as the actors playing Haku and Yubaba.  Both versions are overseen by director/co-adapter John Caird.  For full disclosure, I’ve only seen the Hanna Hashimoto-led version, which my wife personally preferred of the two (she purchased and watched both versions).

Accomplishing the Impossible

As someone who’s somewhat familiar with the film, I have to add that the play is made primarily for the faithful. Fans of the film will no doubt marvel at the cleverness with which the movie’s animated flights of fancy (some of them literal) were recreated for the stage. Graceful dragon dancers were used to create Haku’s own dragon-state, while rod-puppeteers bring uniquely animated creations to life, such as the frog-creature Aogaeru—supplying both physical performance and vocalizations. The actors and puppeteers of the play are incredibly talented.  We also see rod puppeteers (drably dressed as bathhouse employees) animate the spider-like limbs of Kamaji. 

Take a bow!
A photo featuring cast members from both versions, under director John Caird; the two Yubabas/Zenibas (Mari Netsuki/Romi Park), the two Chihiros-Sens (Kanna Hashimoto/ Mone Kamishiraishi), and the rod puppeteer/performer of the frog-creature Aogaeru (sadly, I couldn’t find his name, but he gives a great performance).

On the downside, those unfamiliar with the animated film might not understand, for example, why a single green-faced actor in a loincloth is carrying two other green heads on his hands (the three floating, bouncing heads of the Kashiri).  Some familiarity with the movie, even secondhand, might help translate some of the movie/play’s bizarre, surreal imagery.  As someone who dabbled in community theater back in my braver youth, I had genuine doubts that a theatrical experience like this was possible. I’m pleased to say that crow can taste delicious.

For fans of Miyazaki’s original film, “Spirited Away: Live on Stage” is an experience not to be missed; capturing all of the film’s dreamlike imagery while simultaneously (and faithfully) willing it into concrete reality.  

Where to Watch

Both cast’s versions of “Spirited Away: Live on Stage” can be purchased/rented as a digital download from Amazon (the Kanna Hashimoto-led version features Chihiro-Sen in her red bathhouse uniform surrounded by flowers, while the Mone Kamishiraishi-led version features Chihiro in her own clothes against a blue sky). The play is also available for purchase/rental on AppleTV. Oh, and fear not, fans of physical media (like myself); the play is also coming to BluRay on November 14th. The original 2001 animated feature film is also available on DVD/BluRay, as well as digital rental/purchases from Amazon and iTunes.

Images: AmazonPrime, Toho, Studio Ghibli, Author

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