‘Spirited Away’ on stage takes audience on mystical journey

Courtesy of Toho Co., Ltd.
Chihiro (Kanna Hashimoto), center, tries to help injured Haku, right. Haku has become a dragon, the puppet of which is operated by actors.

Being creative without tarnishing the original work of art is the biggest challenge artists face when they take an animated movie and transform it into a live-action film or stage production.

When the work in question is a mega-hit directed by Hayao Miyazaki, the challenge is all the more intense.

In April, a theatrical production of “Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi” (“Spirited Away”) was staged at Umeda Arts Theater in Osaka. Much like the musical adaptation of Disney’s animated film “The Lion King,” which features animal puppets operated by actors, the stage version of “Spirited Away” aptly leaves the anime’s spectacle to the viewer’s imagination.

The production incorporates various methods from traditional Japanese performing arts, such as bunraku puppetry, and several kabuki techniques such as a revolving stage, stage lifts and the sashigane pole with a butterfly attached to the tip, which mimics the insect’s way of flying when it’s waved around.

Courtesy of Toho Co., Ltd.
This scene with Chihiro in a bathtub effectively uses a revolving stage in a similar way to “Les Miserables,” also codirected by John Caird.

If you heard that the production was adapted and directed by John Caird, you would throw any of your remaining doubts away and say, “Aha, I see,” for he has directed numerous globally successful theater productions, including “Les Miserables.”

The role of the 10-year-old female protagonist, Chihiro, is played by Kanna Hashimoto and Mone Kamishiraishi on alternate dates. In the story, Chihiro wanders into another world where she meets many bizarre characters, such as Yubaba, the witch who presides over the Aburaya bathhouse where gods come to take a dip and rest. Other characters include the super stinky Okusare-sama and Kaonashi (No Face), who hides his face behind a white mask.

The set designed by Jon Bausor makes effective use of the revolving stage to show Yubaba’s chamber, Chihiro’s room, the bathhouse and its furnace. Chihiro always seems to be running over the stage, across a bridge or up a flight of stairs.

Courtesy of Toho Co., Ltd.
Chihiro (Mone Kamishiraishi), left, stands next to Oshira-sama (Radish Spirit). The production stays true to characters from the animated film as it brings them to life on stage.

Come to think of it, one of the themes of the original animated film was visualizing an invisible world. The stage version is filled with theatrical magic to stir the audience’s imagination.

Accolades and commemoration

Courtesy of Toho Co., Ltd.
Mari Natsuki, who provided the voice of Yubaba in the animated film “Spirited Away,” plays the character on stage.

The animated film “Spirited Away” (2001) won many international film awards, including the Oscar for best animated feature film and the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival.

The theatrical adaptation is produced to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the foundation of Toho, a major film and theater production company. Mari Natsuki, who voiced Yubaba and her twin sister Zeniba in the animated film, made headlines when she was cast to play both characters on stage. Haku, who becomes friends with Chihiro, is played by Kotaro Daigo and Hiroki Miura alternately. Tomorowo Taguchi and Satoshi Hashimoto share the role of Kamajii, while Koharu Sugawara and Tomohiko Tsujimoto share the role of Kaonashi.

The production is playing at Hakataza Theater in Fukuoka until Saturday. It will play at the Sapporo Cultural Arts Theater in Sapporo from June 6 to 12 and Misonoza theater in Nagoya from June 22 to July 4.