It only took the opening notes of Joe Hisaishi’s score in the new Spirited Away stage adaptation for the tears to start coming to my eyes. For millennials, Hayao Miyazaki’s classic 2001 film was a turning point in our development, marking the transition for many from the innocence of childhood to the cynicism of young adulthood. Recently, Spirited Away was adapted for the stage, and watching the pro-shot, it was like reliving the film again for the first time—I was transported (like the young heroine Chihiro) from the harsh real world to the fantastical world of a Japanese bathhouse.
For the show’s director, John Caird, the film was also pivotal for his children. “I have three half-Japanese children, and they grew up watching it,” he told me. “And I watched it with them. And I just think it's one of the great films of the last 30 years.”
So when the opportunity came to create a show for the 2,000-seat Imperial Theatre in Tokyo, Japan, Caird’s mind immediately went to Spirited Away. The stage adaptation of Spirited Away premiered in 2022 at the Imperial Theatre, before touring throughout Japan. It is now being screened in the U.S. in cinemas April 27 and May 2, as part of the Studio Ghibli Fest. More information about the screenings can be found here.
Caird adapted Spirited Away with Maoko Imai, and he says the main reason the film works as a stage show is because it’s set in one big location: a Japanese bath house for the spirits. And when he asked Miyazaki for permission, the animation master was enthusiastic. “He just suddenly said, ‘OK, go for it.’ And within a minute of saying that, he said, ‘How the hell are you going to do it?’” Caird chuckles, before pausing and adding, “In Japanese, obviously, but that was the thrust of it.”
Broadway fans know Caird for his work as the co-director of Les Misérables on stage, and the epic, 8.5-hour The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. So he knows something about putting mammoth works on stage. And Spirited Away is that: It features 32 performers, 50 puppets (designed by Toby Olié, who was the associate puppeteer for War Horse), and a live orchestra (the show is completely underscored). All to evoke, with stunning photo-accuracy, the world of the film.
For Miyazaki fans who cannot make it to a screening, you are in luck because we asked Caird to break down the different effects of the show. And for those wishing to see it live on stage, we may have to wait a while longer. Caird would “love” for the show to come to the U.S. or to the U.K. “We all want that to be a future for the show. But we're still talking about exactly what that future is,” he says enigmatically. Considering the success of the stage adaptation of My Neighbor Totoro on the West End, it is very likely that Spirited Away isn’t too far away.
Until that happens, the design deep dive below will have to do (spoilers alert, obviously).
In Spirited Away, a young girl named Chihiro and her parents accidentally stumble into the Spirit World, to a Japanese bathhouse that caters to spirits. The parents are turned into pigs, while Chihiro has to work in the bathhouse and figure out a way to free them all. For the stage show, Jon Bausor designed a multi-level set containing three levels. There was a two-level main set that's the bathhouse proper—which rotated so that whenever there was a new bathhouse scene, the set just needed to turn to show a new setting with new furnishings. Then there was also a bridge that was suspended from the top of the stage, which represented the outdoor scenes where Chihiro had to scale some frightening heights.
And Japanese viewers will also notice that the bathhouse looks like a Noh theatre. “By putting a Noh stage on a modern Western stage, it is already taking us back into traditional Japanese theatre and traditional Japanese art,” enthuses Caird. “Jon creates a dynamic set that can be looked at from many different angles.”
Not to mention that the bathhouse set only occupies a portion of the expansive Imperial stage, so the rest of the space is left open for bigger scenes (such as the scene where No Face starts eating everyone). Says Caird: “It's completely brilliant because it allows you to create lots and lots and lots of different angles, different perspectives, and different little corners to do scenes. You can get a very claustrophobic space, and you get a great big open space.”
The first big indication that Spirited Away the play has the ability to evoke the wonders of the original film comes when Chihiro first enters the bathhouse and she meets Kamaji, a man who works the boilers that heat up the water. Except he’s not a regular man, he has eight long limbs. On stage, he is operated by a team of puppeteers, one person on each limb. It could look manufactured; instead, it looks familiar in an all-so comforting way, like seeing an old friend again after many years. Toby Olié designed the puppets and worked with Caird to direct each puppeteer.
For Kamaji, each puppeteer on each arm is given a different direction for what to do with their arm (one may push Chihiro aside while another may pour a cup of tea). But the important part was making sure the puppeteers could operate as one unit, as well. Caird wanted professional dancers to operate the puppetry, so that they could double as puppeteers and as dancers for various dance portions in the show. Explains Caird: “Every time we rehearsed those scenes, we would video what we were doing. And then all of the dancers would cluster around and watch the video, and see how better they could do it in terms of the shape they were making and the movements they were making.”
No Face/ Kaonashi
In Spirited Away, the scene where the No Face spirit (also called Kaonashi) starts eating the people who work at the bathhouse and grows to a massive size has terrified legions of children for decades. The team on the stage play debated on how to create a being that starts off small and then grows bigger. They even thought about creating a blow-up puppet, but Caird says, “They took too long to set up, and they were too static. As soon as you turn Kaonashi into a piece of scenery, he stops having his sense of threat, and it stops being fun doing it.”
So Caird turned to his team of dancers/puppeteers. No Face starts off as one dancer slowly slinking (and moon-walking) his way across the stage. Then as he grows bigger, more dancers are added until the character becomes a team of 12 puppeteers, with limbs moving in all directions (and one puppeteer operating No Face’s gigantic mouth).
“If Kaonashi actually starts as a single person, then the best way to grow him is just to add dancers and add more and more and more until he's absolutely enormous,” says Caird, who also added that a big part of the creative process was giving the puppet “to the dancers and letting them experiment, and the choreographer, as well.”
Haku’s Dragon Form
In the penultimate scene in the film, Chihiro flies on the back of the dragon, which also happens to be her friend (and guide to the spirit world) Haku. The assumption for a stage version would be rigging that would allow the actor playing Chihiro to actually fly onstage. But Caird nixed that idea right off the bat. “Flying on stage is always difficult. It's always technically difficult, you can always see the wire, it takes you out of yourself,” he says.
So in the show, Haku’s dragon form is a puppet operated on large sticks by six puppeteers (if you’ve ever seen a dragon in a Lunar New Year parade, it’s the same concept). When Chihiro is on Haku’s back in the show, she’s actually being lifted by a puppeteer, or as Caird phrases it, “You're flying with the help of your colleagues. And in a sense Chihiro, and even Haku, they become puppets in those moments. Because you're so used to seeing the puppet as working puppets, you think, ‘Oh, well, why can't Chihiro also be a puppet? But can we actually use it as a verb? We should puppet Chihiro here, we puppet her on the stage.'”
When asked if it ever got tiring for the puppeteers to do so much heavy lifting, Caird laughed. “Oh, they love it!”
For Spirited Away, similar to many stage shows, the point isn’t to conceal the stage craft. It’s to show it off, while still transporting the audience. “It's the magic of this,” says Caird with pride. “With all my shows, I try to put in 10 or 12 moments when people say, ‘How did they do that?’ Or even better, they can see how you've done it. And it's still amazing. That's the great thing about puppets: I can see what they're doing, but it still looks like the dragon’s flying. That's the joy of it.”