Spirited Away is undoubtedly one of — if not the most — well-known film from director Hayao Miyazaki. The Academy Award-winning fantasy-adventure of a young girl having to navigate the spirit world she’s trapped in is a story that has captivated and inspired audiences all over the world.
Last year, a stage version of the film held performances at the Imperial Theatre in Tokyo, adapted and directed by Tony Award winner John Caird. Shortly thereafter, photos immediately surfaced online of different moments from the show, where the costuming, puppetry, and props looked as if they were plucked right off the movie screen. I’m sure I speak for many when I say that this was something I wanted to see if ever the opportunity arose.
And it arrived sooner than expected, when GKids announced Spirited Away: Live on Stage as part of the lineup for this year’s Ghibli Fest, with four opportunities to catch recordings of the two different casts who brought this story to life onstage. Two of the showings have Kanna Hashimoto playing the protagonist, Chihiro, whereas the other two have Mone Kamishiraishi in the role.
I saw the recording of Hashimoto as Chihiro, and there are not enough words to praise what an incredible performance it is. Spirited Away is not at all an easy feat to adapt into a medium outside of animation, what with its incredible world building, magic system, and larger than life characters Chihiro is surrounded by. As already touched on, the costuming was incredibly recreated from the film. The set design was a task that was tackled beautifully and functionally for the overall story. Some of the more magical elements like Haku’s dragon form and Yubaba losing her cool were done in a way that were so effective for how this story was being presented.
Of course, there’s no play without its performers, and everyone — from Mari Natsuki in the dual role of Yubaba and Zeniba, to Kotaro Sugawara as Haku — brought their best foot forward. Hashimoto’s performance of Chihiro is worth noting in how expressive she is, even in moments where she’s not saying anything. To take a character from being in an apathetic state to self-assured over the course of a nearly three-hour run time is noteworthy in how well she executed it.
There was a lot of puppetry used in the production, to bring to life characters like the soot sprites and Bo after turning into a mouse. There were even actors who handled the multiple limbs of Kamaji. There were actors who performed these various roles, as well as other parts like bushes outside the bathhouse. There were also instances where these actors would hold up Chihiro like when she was falling or flying in the air with Haku.
It’s this use of the ensemble cast that kind of took the magic out of the experience for me personally. While it’s noteworthy to see the actors in everything they do, it was hard to sink into it when at times, it felt like there were too many actors onstage. Instances like Chihiro and Haku flying could have been more effectively executed had it been wire work instead of actors holding them up. The soot sprites, despite only appearing in a few scenes, probably would have been more enjoyable to watch had the actors performing the puppetry for them were under the stage.
Then there’s also the fact that the stage production painstakingly recreated just about every single scene from the film, which is both impressive yet also strangely unsatisfying. When adapting a story from one medium to another, it’s not just a matter of telling it in a different format, but also in finding ways to broaden upon what was already there.
It didn’t feel like there were that many liberties taken with this iteration of Spirited Away — that is except for the music and dance moments. Joe Hisaishi’s original score can be heard throughout the production, and in a few instances, that even included adding lyrics to the songs and having some of the minor characters sing them. With characters like No Face (Koharu Sugawara), who don’t have a lot of lines, a moment where he’s seen dancing just as well communicates to the audience the lonely, lost soul that he is. Spirited Away is not a musical, but it’s moments like these where director Caird really utilized the stage to its fullest extent. It’s moments like these where this take on Spirited Away really shone through as its own unique interpretation.
Spirited Away: Live on Stage is great for international audiences to check out this incredible take on Miyazaki’s 2001 film. It’s an overall spectacular interpretation of this timeless tale that so many people know and love — so much to where you’ll be giving Kamaji high fives on all six of his hands.
Remaining showings of Spirited Away: Live on Stage will be on April 25, 27, and May 2.