Wednesday, April 26, 2023

Review: Spirited Away Live On Stage

An image of the Spirited Away Live on Stage theatrical poster, showing both actresses who play Chichiro.

In 2002, I remember excitedly going to a small arthouse theater in Seattle with a close friend to see Hayo Miyazaki’s big new animated film, the first he’d made since coming out of “retirement”. Seeing Spirited Away on a big screen was nothing short of magical, and I came out of the theater with a huge grin plastered on my face that didn’t leave for hours.

20 years later, I find myself seated in a much bigger theater for the theatrical recording of a stage play based on Spirited Away. This is a real treat, as Japanese stage plays (let alone ones based on anime) are rarely ever screened here in the US. As the lights dim, and the recorded version of the play begins on the big screen in front of me, I felt that same grin returning–one that pretty much stayed on my face for two hours. 

Chihiro looking in awe as soot-sprite puppets move coal along the floor.

The Spirited Away stage production is a beautiful and magical piece of performance art that is truly a labor of love. Renowned stage director John Caird, who personally asked Miyazaki himself if he could make a stage play based on his beloved animated film, took on the herculean task of adapting the work for the stage. Combining traditional Japanese performance elements from Kabuki, Noh theater, & Bunraku puppetry, along with more modern theatrical effects, made this play truly a sight to behold. A giant opening animation of the show’s title is projected onto the stage, perfectly integrated into the actor’s world around them. Puppeteers worked together to wield huge and complex puppets, as well as tiny delicate ones. Dancers silently and gracefully glide onto the stage, convincing us they’re everything from flowering trees to hopping lampposts. 

And at the heart of the play is the amazing bath house set. Since the bath house of the gods is where about 80% of the story takes place, it’s obvious they took a lot of time designing it. Using a rotating set and moving set pieces, they not only utilize more of their stage’s space; it also gives the illusion of a much bigger building for the cast to play in. The single room almost effortlessly turns into the boiler room, the cleaner’s sleeping quarters, or Bo’s bedroom thanks to the hard work of the stagehands and cast behind the scenes.

A photo of Mari Natsuki in her Yubaba costume & makeup.

Speaking of the cast, they are all incredible in this production. Every performer was on top of their game in this play, breathing new life into these well-loved characters. Some of the stand-out performances for me? First, we have Mari Natsuki’s returning role as Yubaba. She was the original voice actress for the character in the original animated film, and was a total scene-stealer in this stage version. Which was no easy feat! Not only did she have to wear a full face of stage makeup and prosthetics, but she also had to don a huge wig and hefty looking costume. Moving around in a get-up like that could NOT have been easy, but she made it look and feel completely natural to her and her character. 

A photo of the monstrous No-Face, offering Chihiro gold.

Koharu Sugawara brought a fantastic energy to No-Face, a spirit that doesn’t really “talk” or have a deep personality. It would have been easy to just have an actor wander around aimlessly on stage portraying this lonely ghost of a character, but Sugiwara being a talented dancer & choreographer meant that No-Face traveled along the bath house with jolting, break-dance inspired moves. This at first makes him seem a bit silly, but other times more mysterious and almost frightening. In the famous scenes where No-Face begins to grow, he becomes even more monstrous as other performers and puppeteers “add” onto his body, with more and more actors adding their arms and bodies to his. This made the scene where Chihiro confronts him even more powerful to me, as seeing this ever-growing, body-horror monster felt so much more unsettling when portrayed by actual people (the giant puppet mouth probably helped, too, in that regard.)  

A photo of Haku giving Chihiro onigiri, and Chihiro crying.

And speaking of Chihiro, Kanna Hashimoto’s performance was nothing short of spectacular. She brought a new level of emotional depth to a character that was already incredibly well-developed, which I was not expecting at all. In the scene where Haku gives her some onigiri to help build her strength back up, in the original anime we see Chihiro start to cry huge, glistening tears. But on stage, you have to really SHOW you are crying. Hashimoto cried with her whole body, shaking and sobbing, reaching down deep and giving such an emotional performance that I found myself tearing up for her–something that didn’t happen to me when first watching the original. 

Seeing these characters I already knew and loved and rooted for being portrayed on a stage by real people made the story seem even more magical and more real at the same time. While there was so much that was familiar, there were even a few new things added to the mix that made it fresh and exciting, such as the addition of 3 songs that were written by Miyazaki himself, and the new beautiful arrangements of Joe Hisashi’s classic soundtrack by broadway music veteran Brad Haak. The high school theater kid in me loved every second of this filmed theater performance, on both technical and artistic levels. If you love Spirited Away and want to see it in a completely new way, I urge you to give it a watch if possible. As of this writing, there are two more screenings that will be showing in the US, with a completely different cast of actors! Check out GKids’ website for more information

I hope that, if this theatrical showing is successful, that maybe in the future we could get more showings of stage plays like this. Like I said at the start, being able to see a beloved anime get such a fantastic adaptation like this is a rare and special treat, and it’d be wonderful to see what other stories we could see performed like this one.

If you're new to my work, I run a podcast called The Anime Nostalgia Podcast, which is all about older anime & manga, fandom history, and what fandom was like before the internet age! You can find it here on this very blog, or on pretty much any podcast platform by searching for The Anime Nostalgia Podcast!

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