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24 May 2024

The sensory delights of Spirited Away

The London Coliseum’s stage version of the Studio Ghibli film is a feat of both engineering and aesthetics.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

The beloved animated films of Hayao Miyazaki depict an immersive environment that is both strange and familiar, an expansive but finely drawn world that hovers between fantasy and realism. Writing in the New York Review of Books, the critic Lucy Jakub noted that the “twinned pleasures” of his Studio Ghibli movies are “the imaginative visual leaps and analogies that animation makes possible and the carefully observed details from life that, like precise prose, stir recognition”. And the development of this “Ghibli style”, she writes “was a matter of engineering as much as aesthetics”.

The recent stage adaptations of two Miyazaki films are a feat of both engineering and aesthetics. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s My Neighbour Totoro broke box-office records for the Barbican when it ran from 2022 to 2024, and it will return in the West End next year. Now Spirited Away, a Japanese-language production adapted and directed by the British director John Caird, comes to the London Coliseum, with English subtitles projected to the side of the stage, after a sell-out tour of Japan.

As with the hand-drawn animation of the original films, these shows faithfully replicate the “Ghibli style” on stage through painstaking analogue production methods – elaborate puppetry, intricate set design, surreal costumes, stylised physical movement – over the easy trickery of cutting-edge digital technologies. The result is the sense that a cartoon has come to life. In My Neighbour Totoro, this feeling was achieved with an absurdly large, exceptionally charismatic, must-be-seen-to-be-believed Totoro puppet: my colleague Tom Gatti called it “one of the purest moments of stage magic I have seen”. In Spirited Away, this sense of wonder is diffused throughout a three-hour-long production densely packed with spectacle.

It follows ten-year-old Chihiro (Kanna Hashimoto), who begins the play sulking in the back of her parents’ car, hugging her knees and staring out of the window, as they move house. After getting lost, the family stumble across a tunnel that leads to an abandoned amusement park, and when Chihiro’s parents begin feasting greedily on the eerily fresh dishes they find left unattended in an empty restaurant, ghostly figures begin to appear. In an unsettling sequence, both parents are transfigured into pigs, their heads replaced with fleshy, grotesque masks. The complex set by designer Jon Bausor rotates to reveal a warren-like bathhouse where “eight million gods” come to wash and unwind after their long hours of divine labour. An underclass of non-human workers, exploited by the witch Yubaba (Mari Natsuki), cater to their every need. A sympathetic boy named Haku (Kotaro Daigo) helps Chihiro to find work in the bathhouse, so she might save her parents.

Those gods and spirits – who appear oversized, vividly textured and pleasingly dynamic, thanks to the ingenious puppets by Toby Olié and costumes by Sachiko Nakahara – provide much of the joy and theatre of the production. There’s the slinky, shuddering No-Face (Hikaru Yamano), whose slim body, draped in black silks, seems to disappear into transparency just as in the film. The spider-like Kamaji (Tomorowo Taguchi) and his many long arms are operated by several puppeteers, but they fade into the background, unnoticed, as Kamaji scuttles and rifles through draws. There is a nameless “white radish god”, like a huge pale walrus with drooping breasts, wearing nothing but a red hat and fundoshi – silent and expressionless, yet unmistakably full of personality, a quiet ally to Chihiro in a farcical elevator sequence. Two triangular duck-like “chick gods” waddle around in thick layers of fabric scraps that could have been designed by Rei Kawakubo. The disgusting “rotting god” is conjured in squelchy, stinky glory – despite yourself, you wish you could reach out and poke it. There’s a giant, squidgy baby and a man with three bright green heads; a small frog puppet gets more laughs than most human actors.

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Hashimoto deftly takes us through Chihiro’s slow and subtle transition from childhood to adolescence, and grounds the wackiness of her surroundings; the symbolism and powerfully suggestive qualities of the film are preserved. But though they are completely separate productions, it’s hard not to judge Spirited Away against My Neighbour Totoro. Spirited Away is the more complex, dense show, but Totoro had a greater depth of feeling. In comparison, Spirited Away’s story is simply lost amid all this sensory delight. But with such delights to get lost in, it’s hard to mind too much.

[See also: How Swan Lake became a cultural phenomenon]

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This article appears in the 05 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Left Power List 2024