Words by Dan Schindel
The works of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli need no introduction; they constitute some of the most widely beloved animated films in history. In 2022, two of Miyazaki’s classics reentered the conversation as they were turned into stage plays. Live theater may seem an unlikely medium for such material, given the vivid anime imagery which Ghibli conjured in the original movies. But that didn’t stop the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of My Neighbor Totoro in London from accruing acclaim and winning six Olivier Awards. Likewise, Spirited Away at Tokyo’s Imperial Theatre has drawn huge crowds and will soon tour Japan.
While there’s no word yet on either of these shows going international, audiences in the U.S. will still soon have a chance to see Spirited Away for themselves. As part of distributor GKIDS’s Studio Ghibli Fest, a recorded production of the play will show in select movie theaters around the country for a limited time. It’s a wonderful, possibly singular opportunity for Ghibli fans and theater lovers alike.
Spirited Away follows Chihiro, a 10-year-old girl whose family unexpectedly stumbles from the mundane world into a realm of gods and spirits, all of whom congregate at a gargantuan bathhouse for rest and relaxation. With her parents transformed into pigs, Chihiro takes work at the bathhouse under the imperious eye of its witch proprietor, Yubaba, hoping to find a way to turn them back and leave. She encounters Yubaba’s enigmatic apprentice Haku, the multi-limbed boiler-man Kamaji, the mysterious mute outcast spirit No-Face, and many more wonderfully odd characters.
The play was written and directed by John Caird, a veteran British playwright and stage director who has previously done extensive work in Japan, helming over a dozen shows in the country since first traveling there for a production of Les Misérables in 1987. It was his idea to turn Miyazaki’s iconic film into a play, and under him the combined crew of British and Japanese artists have proved remarkably successful at translating the story from screen to stage.
The play is meticulously faithful to the film. Not only is every costume near-exactly fabricated in reality, but the same plot is followed even down to the smallest moments, like Chihiro bumping her head on a low ceiling as she thanks Kamaji for his help. The myriad creatures—frog-men, a one-limbed hopping lantern, giant radish gods, and more—are brought to life via a combination of creative costuming and puppetry, with the puppeteers often visible on stage manipulating the characters. Tiny soot sprites jump about on the ends of the puppeteer’s rods. Kamaji is portrayed by one actor, while other performers have their own limbs in his other sleeves portraying the work of his many arms. Haku’s transformation into a dragon is rendered with both miniature and large puppets. Yubaba doesn’t have a giant head the way he does in the film, but at certain moments puppeteers assemble such a head for her out of various smaller parts, holding them around the actress’s head and moving them to make her speak. The imaginative stagecraft on display is incredibly fun to watch, whether you’re familiar with the film or not.
To learn how the crew figured out how to make this all work, I spoke to Caird over Zoom about their process. We discussed why one would make Spirited Away into a play in the first place, the influence of traditional Japanese theater, and the secret to making puppets work. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Dan Schindel: How have you adapted to working with collaborators in Japan? Do you speak the language?
John Caird: I don’t speak Japanese, or I don’t speak it anywhere near as well as I should by now. I'm very lucky in that I have my wife, Maoko, as a partner in crime. She interprets as I'm speaking, and half the time she knows what I'm going to say before I say it. I've got that wonderful channel of communication with the artists, and I understand enough Japanese to know what they're saying. And I learn the text of each play very well, so eventually any communication problem just disappears.
DS: You approached Hayao Miyazaki about turning Spirited Away into a stage play. Did this idea originate with you, or were you acting on behalf of a larger group?
JC: It was my idea. I was looking at potential source material for a show that could fill the Imperial Theatre in Tokyo, which has 2,000 seats. Because I love the film so much, I thought there was definitely a way it could be adapted for the theater. But I didn't really expect him to say yes. There'd never been theatrical usage of any of Studio Ghibli’s films at that point [this was also before the Totoro play], so I thought that must be because they don't allow it. But when I talked to them, they were extremely open.
DS: Your script is highly faithful to the film, even in the smallest plot and dialogue details. Were you ever tempted to make any changes to the story or speaking parts?
JC: One of the things that drew me to the story in the first place is that I think Miyazaki’s script is perfectly constructed, the way each scene flows into the next. Once or twice, I thought I’d move a scene around—make an event happen slightly earlier than it does in the movie, say—but the dramaturgy is so tight that in the end I thought I'd be a fool to change it. It's just too good the way it is. And the dialogue is absolutely brilliant; you can tell from the way the actors work with it.
DS: What prior productions that you worked on prepared you for this project?
JC: I've done a lot of shows with big casts and big scenic devices—Les Misérables, obviously, but also things like Peter Pan and Nicholas Nickleby. I knew that to get this right, I would need an amazing team of collaborative designers. I'd just done a big musical in Japan, Knights’ Tale, with Jon Bausor as set designer, so I knew he was great at filling out a huge space with an exciting design. It was also clear from the beginning that I would need a brilliant puppeteer, and Jon and I immediately approached Toby Olié. Starting with War Horse, he’s done so much amazing work with puppets on stage over the years. He was the obvious person to help us create the huge-scale puppets that would be required.
DS: The production design often replicates that of the film quite closely. Was it difficult to make these drawn works look convincing in a real-life space?
JC: I wouldn't say fidelity was the most important thing. One reason I thought the film was suitable for the stage is that it takes place almost entirely in one place, whereas most other Ghibli films hop about. There’s flying in airplanes and inflatables, and you get all sorts of complications attached. But Spirited Away has one major location, as well as a group of characters whom the audience repeatedly sees. So our challenge was recreating the bathhouse on one set that could have enough variety to accommodate many different scenes and angles.
Jon’s approach was wonderful; he basically put a traditional Japanese theater stage in the middle of a conventional Western stage. That’s probably more apparent to a Japanese audience than it will be to outsiders. There’s the big central structure, and then a walkway that connects it to another platform on the outer set with other action can take place, which is similar to a hanamachi [in kabuki]. Depending on the scene, that walkway can represent different things, like the bridge between the real world and the magic world of the bathhouse. And then the stage revolves, letting the one central structure play many different roles.
DS: Logistically, how did you plan out the ways to make use of the different facets of that set, to have each side represent a new space in the bathhouse in each scene?
JC: Jon built a model of the set in London, and him, me, Toby, and Maoko (who worked on all the Japanese detail), we sat together for weeks, for hours at a time, working out how the set would revolve and change, what each look would mean, how to change from one look to the next. It was all carefully planned out in advance. That said, we then changed our mind a lot in rehearsal. Now that we could see the thing moving around, we realized different things would be better from other angles, and so on. We had to be adaptable.
DS: How else did you have to adapt? What other challenges presented themselves as you rehearsed and worked this out?
JC: Most of the major changes were to do with the puppets. For instance, the original plan for No-Face was that he’d be portrayed by one performer in an inflatable costume, and that as he got bigger, the costume would get blown up more and more. We tried that in rehearsal, but it was just too clunky and difficult to manage, too much of a machine. That’s when we got the idea of instead adding dancers to No-Face’s body. [He starts out being represented by one performer, and as he consumes bathhouse inhabitants and grows, additional dancers join under his costuming.] That was far more fun and exciting, and much easier to manage. It took a great deal of practice, making sure that the performers could express themselves.
DS: You usually see the puppeteers operating on the stage. Was this always the plan as well, or did you arrive at that through the process?
JC: That’s a very good question, because indeed, I did start by thinking we had to hide the puppeteers where we could. But the more we rehearsed, the more I felt that wasn’t right. The crowd knows the little soot sprites aren't moving of their own accord. I think the secret to the magic of theater is that you let the audience see how you are achieving what you're doing, but they believe it anyway. They have the delight of seeing how it's done, but they still suspend their disbelief. It works because you’re actually making them much more active participants. I think most audiences find that interesting and challenging.
In kabuki, the puppeteers are always dressed in completely black suits, and they crouch and go around the stage pretending they're invisible, but they're actually the most visible things on stage because the lighting is bright and their black suits stand out. We couldn’t use black to make our puppeteers ‘disappear,’ because we decided that No-Face would be the only black thing on stage. He’s a crucial element that has to draw the eye, soaking up all the light like a black hole, the same way he devours everything around him. So we decided to dress the puppeteers in khaki. Their costumes have striations that make them blend into all the wood of the set, so you don't notice them as much. It’s not that you can't see them, but that they don't catch the light. It encourages audiences to look at the puppets instead. But most of the sleight of hand that makes a viewer believe in a puppet has to do with the way the puppeteer looks at it while they’re operating it. That's the crucial thing. A puppeteer’s focus guides the audience’s focus.
DS: Did anyone at Ghibli have feedback or input on the production? Did they keep a close eye on it while you were working?
JC: They were very hands-off. My contact was mostly [producer and studio co-founder] Toshio Suzuki, who was very supportive all the way through, and he didn't want to be involved. He just said, ‘I trust you to do it right.’ And he came to the first dress rehearsal and absolutely adored it. It made me happy that he was so pleased with it.
DS: Are there any plans for the show to tour internationally? Will people in London or New York be able to see it in person eventually?
JC: I would love that to happen; all directors want to share their work with as broad an audience as possible. There aren’t any plans for it at the moment. But watch this space.
Spirited Away: Live on Stage will play in select theaters April 23, 25, and 27, and May 2.
Published on April 23, 2023