Spirited Away, the stage spectacular: ‘Every 20 minutes there’s something that would be another play’s finale’

The dragon stirs to life as Toby Olié plucks it up by its tail. He spirals it through the air and, quick as ripping off a plaster, tears the creature in two. “Even when he was curled up on the floor,” the puppet designer says, undoing another of the dragon’s joints, “he took up too much space.” Olié sticks the body back together, a little shorter but more malleable now, and the tail wriggles back into being.

Best known for his work on War Horse, Olié is holding a miniature prototype for Haku, a boy who transforms into an enormous serpentine dragon. Haku is one of the leading characters in Hayao Miyazaki’s exquisite animation Spirited Away, which has been adapted into a major stage production. For the last four years, the creative team have been conjuring, tweaking and perfecting Miyazaki’s world of gods and monsters in three dimensions. The full-sized dragon, for whom Olié took inspiration from fan art as well as close studies of the film, is now more than four metres long, with 4,000 hairs inserted individually down his spine, ears that pin back when he’s scared, and a body powerful enough to carry a child on his back as he flies.

Last year, the Tokyo stage run of Spirited Away sold out in just four minutes. Now, the Japanese-language production is bringing its spell-makers and shapeshifters to London. (By chance, the show emerged at a similar time to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s staging of My Neighbour Totoro, Miyazaki’s 1988 animation, which returns to London’s Barbican later this year.) Performed in Japanese with English translation, its cast and their cohort of puppets are accompanied by a live orchestra who play Brad Haak’s adaptation of Joe Hisaishi’s original score. Working at an extravagant scale, the stage production is one of grand spectacle, minute detail and enormous heart. “Every 20 minutes there is something that, in any other play,” Olié says proudly, “would be the finale.”

Olié was brought on board by director John Caird, who has long been a fan of Miyazaki’s wild and beautiful animations. “My wife first introduced our children and me to the films and I was entranced,” Caird says. “I think Spirited Away is a work of genius.” The director of Les Misérables alongside Trevor Nunn, Caird has spent many years creating large-scale opera and theatre in Japan, with his wife and Spirited Away’s co-adapter, Maoko Imai, also serving as assistant to the director. “I would not have been able to do it without her,” he says simply. “She completes my sentences.”

‘Immediately after Miyazaki said yes he added : But how will you do it?’ … (Clockwise from top left) puppetry designer and director Toby Olié, director and adapter John Caird, and Mari Natsuki who plays Yubaba and Zeniba. Photograph: Manuel Vázquez/The Guardian

Caird was brought up to believe in the grand importance of children’s stories. He is insistent that Miyazaki’s masterpiece should be seen on a par with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Peter Pan. “Like them,” he explains, “it’s an imaginary world that completely encapsulates its own rules of imagination. It’s so great a children’s story that it becomes equally enjoyable for adults.”

Start describing Spirited Away to someone who has never seen it and you’ll quickly fall down a rabbit hole of munching stink monsters and radish spirits, of environmental ruination and humans who turn into pigs, not forgetting the playful susuwatari, or soot sprites, the helpful little creatures who carry coal on their backs. But at heart, Spirited Away is a story of change. It follows a girl, Chihiro, whose parents move with her to a new home, and who finds herself entangled in the events of a Japanese bathhouse frequented by gods.

This is a collision of two great Japanese traditions. “Miyazaki told me that watching documentaries about Japan’s Shinto gods made him want to invent his own version of their off-duty lives,” Caird smiles. The importance of bathing in Japanese culture was recently demonstrated when the touring production hit upon an issue, as the cast realised the apartments they were being put up in here in the UK had no baths, only showers.

Back to the drawing board … Sketches and a model for Haku. Photograph: Helen Murray

Unlike most Studio Ghibli films, the setting of Spirited Away is largely domestic, no matter how fantastical the guests and goings on. “The way I sold the idea to Miyazaki was to describe how I was imagining a huge bathhouse on stage,” says Caird, who had to seek approval from the director and his team to stage the show. It was Jon Bausor, the designer responsible for The Grinning Man and the opening of the 2012 Paralympic Games, who dreamed up the idea of the bathhouse being a Noh stage, inspired by the architecture of the centuries-old classical Japanese performance style. Fully realised, a central wooden structure sits on a constantly shifting revolve, so that the stage never looks the same from one scene to the next. Colossal feats of imagination like this were basic requirements for staging such an expansive story. “Immediately after he’d said yes,” Caird says of Miyazaki, “he added rather mischievously, ‘But how … how on earth will you do it?’”

“As simply as possible,” answers Olié. He pulls out a sketchbook and flips to a page where limbs and faces peer out in elegant watercolour. Some of the spirits have been realised exactly as he first drew them, while others took longer to find the right form; the largest version of Kaonashi, or No-Face, the lonely ghoul befriended by Chihiro, was initially an inflatable body that became too unruly onstage. He flips forward a few pages, where multiple shadowy bodies writhe under the big mooning face. “Often the solutions we found were more elegant,” Olié says, explaining how the idea of Kaonashi as a gobbling flashmob gradually solidified, each dancer ingested by the creature becoming a new part of its body.

The film of Spirited Away, released in Japan in 2001 and the UK in 2003, was only recently usurped as the highest-grossing Japanese film of all time. It won the Oscar for best animated feature and is widely regarded as one of the best animated movies ever made. But when Mari Natsuki was first brought on to the film as a voice actor, she had no idea of the remarkable legacy it would have. “I was sitting opposite Miyazaki and he looked at my face,” Natsuki says, peering forward intensely, “and he drew Yubaba. That’s how my relationship started with Studio Ghibli.” Natsuki’s character Yubaba is the proprietor of the bathhouse, with her tough tasks for Chihiro forming much of the story’s central drama. The actor initially saw Yubaba as cruel, but speaking to Miyazaki shifted her interpretation. “He said to me that Yubaba is like Toshio Suzuki,” Studio Ghibli’s dedicated producer. “They’re just really hard-working.” The lack of a pure villain is a defining feature of Ghibli animations. “Nobody is irredeemable,” says Caird.

Away we go … Olié, and puppet makers Daisy Beattie and Beez Barry test out Aogaeru. Photograph: Helen Murray

Two decades on from voicing Yubaba and her twin sister Zeniba, Natsuki returned to play the same parts on stage. To physically become Yubaba, she uses a Japanese hair cap, a habutai, to keep her hair locked in beneath her wig, then layers on bright blue eyeshadow, a fake nose and wrinkles. “The same as kabuki theatre,” Natsuki explains, referencing the heavily stylised Japanese artform. “It doesn’t have to be beautiful. It needs to be impressive.”

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Seating almost 2,400 people, the Coliseum is London’s largest theatre; in Japan, they performed to even larger audiences. “It takes overwhelming energy,” Natsuki says, before grinning widely. “But it is a joy.” Each leading role has multiple performers, a tradition Caird began in Japan with Les Misérables following a dispute between two actors eager to play the same role. The practice is now common, encouraging more fans to see the various A-list casts, and giving the actors more flexibility for their busy schedules.

The initial rehearsal process for Spirited Away was, Caird says, “a nightmare”. It coincided with a Covid spike meaning the British and American sides of the production team were stuck across borders. Olié directed the puppets through a screen and the cast, crew and their translators muddled through until they were finally able to be together in person. The show may be helmed by a handful of British theatre-makers, but the team knows how critical having Japanese storytellers is to its authenticity. “We import so many shows to Japan,” Caird sighs. “Very little comes the other way, which is a shame.” This is an opportunity to show off the brilliant Japanese cast and crew, he says. Natsuki adds how proud she is to be doing a Japanese-language show in London. “I feel really lucky and privileged. It never happens on this scale at this length.”

Just like in the bathhouse, Natsuki enjoys how “everything in the show is done by manpower”. All of the set and puppetry are handled by the show’s ensemble, who wear khaki to fit in with the wood-coloured set; taking inspiration from the Japanese tradition of kabuki stagehands, they have gained the sweet nickname “khaki-bukis”. Caird always knew that he didn’t want to hide any of the stage mechanics. “Seeing the strings for something that’s flying is unmagical,” he says. “You have to be opening your hands to the audience all the time, saying: ‘You can see how we’re doing this, but you can still believe in it.’”

Olié points up to a carved wooden figure slouched on a shelf in his studio, a Bunraku-inspired puppet. This requirement for total belief in each moving part in Spirited Away in part stems from his love of Bunraku, the 17th-century art form where a single puppet body is operated by three people, with full-bodied concentration. “You train on the puppet’s feet for 20 years,” Olié explains, “then if you’re good enough, you move on to the head.”

The precision and clarity appeal deeply to him, although his team have worked rather faster on Spirited Away than the Bunraku timeline might allow; with associate puppetry director Sarah Wright and puppet supervisor Daisy Beattie, the team have created more than 60 impossible creatures for the show. They have worked hard to embed detail and rigour into each one’s story and design. “Even if something’s only on stage for a little time, let it have an impact,” Olié insists. “Let the audience know what it’s thinking, feeling, wants.”

As if in answer, there is a rustle behind him, and a soot sprite prototype, its body wiry and eyes large, tumbles out of a corner, seemingly of its own accord. Olié just shrugs and laughs. Live in Miyazaki’s world for long enough and some elements of its magic are bound to spill out at the edges.

The Guardian