Spirited Away review, London Coliseum: Studio Ghibli adaptation is three hours of relentless spectacle

Hayao Miyazaki’s inimitable animation is brought to the stage in a crowd-pleasing, visually ambitious reimagining

Louis Chilton
Thursday 09 May 2024 00:01 BST
Spirited Away official trailer

Spirited Away simply shouldn’t work. At a time when hackneyed screen-to-stage cash-ins have become a ravaging blight on London’s theatre scene, along comes this: a doggedly faithful adaptation of one of the greatest and most adored animated films of all time. Hayao Miyazaki’s Oscar-winning 2001 fantasy is inimitable – a medium-defining and wholly idiosyncratic achievement only possible in the boundaryless canvas of animation. And yet, here it is on stage, reconfigured ambitiously into flesh and puppetry.

London Coliseum plays host to the first international production of a stage show that has run in Japan since 2022, devised by the production company Toho and adapted by John Caird. Following in the slipstream of My Neighbour Totoro, another consummate Studio Ghibli theatre adaptation brought to the British stage, Spirited Away is performed entirely in Japanese (with English subtitles), and features the majority of the roundly superb original cast.

Mone Kamishiraishi as Chihiro in ‘Spirited Away’ (Johan Persson)

The play follows a 10-year-old girl called Chihiro (Mone Kamishiraishi on press night, one of four actors passing around the role). As Chihiro drives with her parents to a new home, they chance upon an abandoned theme park. Before you can say, “don’t eat the cursed buffet”, her parents have been transformed into pigs and Chihiro is trapped in the land of the spirits, forced to seek work at a lavish otherworldly bathhouse – a sort of luxury spa for the gods.

Spirited Away is three hours of constant, unpredictable spectacle. There are so many scenes here, so many locations and characters, all imbued with a tremendous visual flair and kineticism. The stage itself is chameleonic – mostly working around a two-tiered, hut-like edifice that swivels to imagine the bathhouse’s various rooms.

The paranormal characters, too, are a delight. There’s nefarious witch and bathhouse owner Yubaba (Mari Natsuki), whose face segments and balloons to the size of a double bed when she’s angry. There’s the quirky, six-armed boiler room operator Kamaji (Tomorowo Taguchi), who lords over a workshop of tiny, soot-like puppets. There’s Haku (Kotaro Daigo), a benevolent spirit forced to work as Yubaba’s enforcer, who transforms into a flying blue and white dragon. (The giant puppet is one of the show’s most reliable visual flourishes.) And there’s No-Face (Hikaru Yamano), a creepy imp-like ghoul who starts feeding on the bathhouse employees until a whole mass of black-clad actors is needed just to fill out his ungainly outline.

Watching Spirited Away, I found it hard to imagine what someone unfamiliar with the source material would make of it. Miyazaki’s film is uniquely, mercurially strange, the plot dense and meandering. In lesser hands it would buckle under the sheer weight of its eccentricity. Unmoored here from the visual detail of animation, the peculiar story seems an even harder sell. But it connects – not just on a sensory level, but on an emotional one too, swept along by a wonderful lead performance and a tremendous musical arrangement (adapted by Brad Haak from Joe Hisaishi’s original, masterful film score and performed here with a live orchestra). It’s hard to overstate just how good Kamishiraishi is as Chihiro, evoking the character of a pre-teen girl entirely through movement and physicality. When she weeps, it is painful; when she triumphs, it is electrifying.

Yubaba (Mari Natsuki) and Chihiro (Mone Kamishiraishi) in ‘Spirited Away’ (Johan Persson)

Spirited Away – still fresh and affecting, 23 years on –was never crying out for a stage adaptation. In hewing so closely to the original text, this production does little to augment the ideas of Miyazaki’s film in any sort of cerebral or thematic way. But it does inject the story with fresh life, with the kind of charged intimacy that you only get in live performance. If we must have an adaptation, it’s impossible to imagine a better one than this.

‘Spirited Away’ is at London Coliseum until 24 August

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