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Review - Spirited Away

Updated: May 10

London Coliseum

Playing until 24th August 2024



Photo credit: Johan Persson

Review

After debuting in Tokyo in 2022, the stage adaptation of Spirited Away hits the London West End for the first time. When a family of three moves to the countryside, they chance upon what appears to be a deserted theme park and the parents start to wolf down the food without knowing the consequences. As a punishment, they were transformed into pigs, and their daughter, Chihiro (Kanna Hashimoto), with the help of Haku (Kotaro Daigo), who seems to have known Chihiro since she was small, must find a way to break the curse.

 

The story is heavily influenced by Japanese folklore and the many gods and spirits in Shintoism. During the course of Chihiro’s journey, she meets many of these deities in the bathhouse owned by a witch, Yubaba (Mari Natsuki), a place for these gods to go to relax. In a bold move, this version of Spirited Away is delivered in Japanese and captioned in English given elements of the story would inevitably be lost in translation, at least to a degree. For example, 千尋 (pronounced Chihiro) had part of her name stolen by Yubaba, leaving her with 千 (pronounced Sen). Unlike many languages, the pronunciation of certain characters differ dependent on what other character it is paired with. This is not something that is easily translated or for audience in many parts of the world to get without an explanation. The play on the language is further utilised with Yubaba and her twin sister, Zeniba. The characters for “Yu” (钱) and “Zen”(汤), which mean money and soup, respectively, mean public bath when combined together, which is exactly where the story takes place. In addition, many of the gods and spirits that appear in the story, many would not have a direct English translation. Personally, I believe this is the right move for this story, allowing it to retain the rich and distinctive culture.

 

Just like My Neighbour Totoro, another Studio Ghibli adaptation and one that received critical acclaim in the West End, it is easy to spot that every little scene, dialogue and characterisation, down to the voice of the characters, have been reproduced for the stage. For fans of the movie, and those who grew up watching Studio Ghibli (this is basically my Disney), this sense of nostalgia is a major attraction. While I acknowledge that those who are not familiar with the Studio Ghibli productions can still find this an enjoyable experience, Spirited Away is far more complex than Totoro, with the added complexity and nuances of the Japanese culture and language, it could be a little confusing for newcomers.

 

While a faithful adaptation could be considered a plus, there are also significant challenges associated with this approach. For starters, there needs to be some very creative ways to portray aspects that are much easier to achieve through animation. Sachiko Nakahara’s costumes to depict the gods/spirits and Toby Olié’s puppetry to showcase Yubaba and Haku’s transformations are particular highlights, adding oddities of these strange spirits, majestic of a dragon and the magical nature of the world in which Chihiro landed in. However, there are also more questionable inclusions that were not altered for the stage production. For example, it is very difficult to create the vastness and depth of water on stage. This is one of the things that keep Chihiro from leaving in the movie, but given that this is an daptation, it is also plausible to come up with other ways to achieve the same goal. Similarly, Chihiro starts to turn transparent and lose the ability to interact with physical objects until she ate food from the spirit world. This was achieved using a thin veil placed over Hashimoto. Although this provided the necessary effects, one could argue whether this and many other parts of this stage adaptation are entirely needed and what they add to the overall narrative.

 

Each and every one of the actors in this production have the voice and mannerism of the movie characters down to a t. Some of them effectively indistinguishable from the original voice actors. Aogaeru (Green frog, Obatanooniisan) in particular, completey captures the essence of Tatsuya Gashuin, who voiced Aogaeru in the movie.

 

Retaining every aspect of the movie, down to the specific speech pattern, also makes it more difficult for the play to establish its unique identity. While those who have not seen the movie would not make such connections, the challenge for those that have, myself included, is that it becomes impossible to separate the movie from the play and see the stage production as a standalone piece. While innovative methods have been introduced for the stage, the ultimate goal appears to be the recreation of the movie effects rather than using new ways to tell the story.

 

John Caird’s adaptation of Spirited Away makes fantastic use of costumes, puppetry and choreography, combining them with the legendary Joe Hisaishi’s original score from the movie to create a bizarre and magical world conceptualised by Hayao Mayazaki. It is an exceptionally faithful adaptation, wowing the audiences with its grandeur and reigniting the nostalgia of long-term fans.

 

Creatives

Based on Spirited Away, written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki

Adapted and Directed by John Caird

Co-adapted by Maoko Imai

Original score by Joe Hisaishi

Set Design by Jon Bausor

Puppetry Design and Direction by Toby Olié

Choreograph and staging by Shigehiro Ide

Costume Design by Sachiko Nakahara

Produced by Haruka Ogi

Co-Produced by Iain Gillie

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