Review: Stage Adaptation of Spirited Away Brings a Fan Favorite to Life with Innovative Effects and Puppetry

This article was written by Sarah Luyengi.

It was 2002 and I was about 10 years-old when I asked my older brother if he could rent this new movie called Spirited Away that I saw listed in the TV Guide. I was a simple kid and liked how the cover looked (because, yes, I admit that I do judge books by their covers). I remember watching it for the first time, being blown away by the animation but ultimately confused and a little alarmed by the overall story and symbolism. Over time, I grew to love it and learned about other films by the great Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki and his production company, Studio Ghibli.  

Spirited Away is hands down a Studio Ghibli classic. The film, hailed as Miyazaki’s magnum opus, has won several awards, including the 2002 Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. So, it’s no surprise that it has finally been adapted for the stage. Written and directed by Tony Award winner John Caird, a British playwright, stage director, and honorary associate director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, the production debuted last year in Japan. Another Studio Ghibli favorite, My Neighbor Totoro, was also brought to the stage last year. While neither of these productions has gone international yet, fans have been given the chance to see a filmed version of the play at this year's Studio Ghibli Film Festival

The film version opens with Chihiro, a somewhat sulky, preteen girl, but with good reason: she's moving to a new neighborhood and starting at a new school, all of which is absolutely devastating at that age. I moved a few times when I was her age, and I basically went through a period of mourning. As the family drives to their new house, her dad is interested in taking a shortcut which, after speeding and endangering their lives, leads them to a dark and mysterious tunnel. 

Curious, the parents decide to explore where the tunnel goes, but Chihiro is hesitant and clearly uncomfortable with the idea. Her parents are pretty dismissive at this, with her mother telling her to just wait in the car. This scene has always been wild to me, but then again I'm American and am used to hearing child abduction stories. Nervous, Chihiro eventually joins her parents as they enter the tunnel, and what follows is an adventure into the spirit world that’s full of fantasy and self-discovery.

In the stage production, Kanna Hashimoto, a former member of a Japanese pop group and actor known for I Wish and Kiss Me at the Stroke of Midnight, plays the 10-year-old Chihiro. She captures the innocence and naivete of the character while also depicting her personal growth throughout the story. Mone Kamishiraishi also plays Chihiro, which is shown in the last two viewings of the play. Kamishiraishi is known for her voice acting work in Wolf Children and Weathering You. Other cast members include Maria Abe, Kaito Arai, Yuya Igarashi, Yoko Ose and more. The staging is impressive, transforming into an abandoned amusement park in one scene into the spirit bathhouse in the next. The iconic film soundtrack, composed by Joe Hisaishi, is also used throughout the play, with some pieces played differently depending on the scene. Surprisingly, the stage version is somewhat of a musical with some characters given solos to sing, using the soundtrack, about their backstory. It gives the play a bit of a Disney touch. 

However, the stage play follows the movie almost to a fault, which can cause some unintentional comedy at how some scenes don’t, ahem, translate well to the stage. Early in the film, Chihiro accidentally trips and runs down a flight of stairs but on stage, the actor awkwardly runs in place, wildly flinging her arms in the air and almost looking as if she’s going through a medical emergency. There are impressive puppets for the various, fantastical characters in the story, like Yubaba, the witch, who runs the bathhouse for the spirits, and her transformation into a larger version of herself, with almost oversized, puzzle-like pieces for her face. But then there are some less impressive puppets that are portrayed with what looks like dolls bought from the Studio Ghibli merch store. 

No detail of the film is left out; from Chihiro bumping her head after meeting Kamajii to her animal friends mimicking her, the stage play doesn’t miss a beat, which is not necessarily a good thing—there’s a reason why not every page of the Harry Potter novels made it into the films. Different media versions of a story must be presented in different ways depending on the platform. While the stage production is impressive, it plays like one of those movies that you have to read the book first in order to get it. If you haven’t seen the film version of Spirited Away, you may be a little lost with the stage play. 

As a Studio Ghibli fan, I’d recommend seeing the stage production, which I believe will be even better if you have the opportunity to see it live in a theater. Studio Ghibli Fest continues through November 2023, featuring Ponyo in May for the film's 15-year anniversary (yikes, has it really been that many years?). June will feature Kiki’s Delivery Service. Check your local theaters for the next film coming your way!

Picture of the author
Sarah Luyengi

Sarah Luyengi has a background in creative writing. She has been featured in Go Solo and her work has also appeared in Borderless Magazine, Southside Review and Common Ground Review.