Spirited Away

Adapted by John Caird and Maoko Imai from the film by Hayao Miyazaki
Toho Co Ltd co-production with PW Productions Ltd
London Coliseum

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Spirited Away Credit: Johan Persson
Kanna Hashimoto as Chihiro Credit: Johan Persson
Hikaru Yamano as No-Face (Kaonashi), Kanna Hashimoto as Chihiro and Mari Natsuki as Zeniba Credit: Johan Persson

Hayao Miyazaki’s 2001 animated fantasy film Spirited Away won an Oscar and gained great popularity. I’ve never seen it, but I am guessing that this stage adaptation, from the start John Caird’s idea, stays pretty true to the original. However, it works because of its essential theatricality. It is the production as seen in Japan with well displayed English surtitles.

It is the story of ten-year-old Chihiro (Kanna Hashimoto at the press performance bringing a refreshing innocence). She is with her parents on the way to their new house when her father stops the car for a break and discovers a tunnel that leads to what seems to be a deserted theme park. There is no one around, but a food stall is still piled with tempting fresh food. It looks delicious. Mum and dad tuck into it. But this isn’t a theme park; they have accidentally entered another world existing beside the human one. While Chihiro goes on exploring, her parents literally become the greedy pigs they are acting like.

When Chihiro reaches a huge bathhouse, he meets Haku (Kotaro Daigo), a boy who warns her to leave before sunset. But it is too late. She can’t get back and her parents are pigs—can she rescue them? Haku tells her to eat or she will disappear, and to ask the bathhouse boiler man Kamaji (Tomorrow Taguchi) for a job because if you don’t have a job, Yubaba, the witch who runs the bathhouse, will turn you into another pig for the slaughterhouse. Kamaji is spider-like with multiple limbs that can reach across the stage, Yubaba (Romi Park), in her Victorian western dress, exploits her workers like a capitalist employer.

It is a story that draws on the spirits of Japanese folklore and criticises greed, consumerism and environmental pollution as it presents a succession of grotesque creatures, some of the million local deities the bathhouse is set to serve, including the filth god who is enormous but, after thorough bathing by Chihiro, leaves as an elderly but sleek freshwater river god.

Kaonashi, or No-Face, is a strange creature whom Chihiro seems to mentor in the ethics she is herself learning. Actor Hikaru Yamamo seems able to make him almost melt into the ground.

One of the ways in which Yubaba exerts power is by taking her victim’s name away. She removes all except the first kanji character of Chihiro’s name to give her a new one pronounced Sen. Haku has no idea what his real name is, though Chihiro discovers it.

If this sounds complicated, it is, and the presentation is full of unexplained elements drawn from Shinto ceremony and Japanese folklore but in performance it is never confusing, the images are so varied, the action so engaging, the skill of the puppeteers and the complex mechanics of the scenery, so often in movement, captivating. The scenery is sometimes quite literally dancing, and the performers deliver with perfect precision.

As Chihiro faces each new challenge, this is a production that carries you with it. “Keep your heart calm,” Haku tells her as she crosses a bridge trying not to breathe lest the inhabitants scent a human, but you are too occupied by what is actually happening on stage to notice how much of a moral tale this is. It is full of delight.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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