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Spirited Away’s stage director says Hayao Miyazaki is a sweetheart — and a songwriter

Behind the scenes on Spirited Away: Live on Stage, from the animation to the hardest puppet to get right

Chihiro (Mone Kamishiraishi) cringes as she confronts the witch Yubaba (in the form of a gigantic head assembled from several different independent parts, operated simultaneously by several puppet performers visible behind the head) in Spirited Away: Live on Stage Photo: GKIDS
Tasha Robinson leads Polygon’s movie coverage. She’s covered film, TV, books, and more for 20 years, including at The A.V. Club, The Dissolve, and The Verge.

When Toho Stage released the first photos of the puppets and performers from its live theater adaptation of Hayao Miyazaki’s beloved anime movie Spirited Away, it created a perfect recipe for FOMO. The images were rich, startling, and even funny. Miyazaki’s story about a young girl named Chihiro, trapped in the spirit world and forced to work at a bathhouse for the gods, never seemed like a project that could work outside of animation, but the photos were compelling. At the same time, it was clear that most of the worldwide fandom surrounding Miyazaki and Japanese production house Studio Ghibli would never have a chance to see the stage play themselves.

Spirited Away: Live on Stage pays off the promise of those initial images. Two versions of the stage show were filmed, with two different sets of performers, including in the lead roles as Chihiro and as Yubaba, the witch who runs the spirit bathhouse. Both versions are a chance for international audiences to see how renowned stage director John Caird transformed Miyazaki’s work into a live stage show, mixing traditional Japanese stage techniques with Western ones, and adding musical numbers written by Miyazaki himself. Polygon sat down with Caird (who also directed both film versions) to talk about the adaptation process, how he got Miyazaki’s approval, and where he had to work hardest to get such a vividly visual movie to work in live action.

[Ed. note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.]

The witch Yubaba, in a blue dress and exaggerated pouf of grey hair, sits at a desk and lights a cigarette with a flame protruding from her finger in Spirited Away: Live on Stage Photo: GKIDS

Polygon: Some of the earliest reports on this play said you met with Hayao Miyazaki and got his full approval for this stage adaptation. How did you convince him?

John Caird: When I met him and his producer, Toshio Suzuki, I thought I would have a very hard job persuading them. Largely, I suppose, because I myself didn’t really know how to do what I was describing. It seemed like an impossible task.

I think the thing I said to them, which I illustrated with a few quick drawings, was how I thought the secret would be to bring the bathhouse on stage, because the great thing about Sen to Chihiro is that most of the action happens all in one place. [Ed. note: The movie’s Japanese title is Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi.] That’s unusual for Miyazaki’s movies — most of them range around over mountains and through clouds, up in the air and underground. But this one has a basic theatrical setting — the bathhouse itself. So I described how I thought, if I could get my designers to create a bathhouse on stage, then that would be the answer. And I described roughly how I could do it. And that was almost enough for them.

I also talked to them about the wonderful characters he had written, and how great it would be to have those characters played by living actors. And he agreed almost right away. It didn’t take long. And then he said, “OK, you can do it — but how are you going to do it?” And I thought, “Oh Lord, I’ve got to do it now.”

Miyazaki has a reputation as a notorious curmudgeon—

Oh no, he’s not. He’s not a curmudgeon. He may have a curmudgeonly reputation because of the way he relates to members of your profession. Because I think he’s probably not that comfortable with explaining himself, and explaining his process. Everything with Hayao’s work comes from drawing pictures, and that’s a wordless occupation. You don’t need words to describe how you’re creating images, it’s all in the images.

So I imagine he might get a little bit weary of being asked to find an intellectual backing-up for what he’s doing, or to find a way of describing his process. I can well imagine that might be difficult for him. Whereas if he’s just talking to another artist, like me or like anybody else in our profession — we’re just talking about the work, and how you do the work in a technical way. He’s much more comfortable with that, I think. He was certainly absolutely charming with me.

Did he have any input into your approach?

No, not at all. I think he knew that the film obviously spoke for itself. I think the assumption was that I would be respectful with the material — which of course, I had no choice but to be respectful. It’s one of the best movies ever made.

This is a movie packed with transformations. How did you approach those effects?

The very first thing I knew is that I had to surround myself with an amazing design team. I’d just worked with Jon Bausor, the great British designer, on A Knights’ Tale, a musical I did in Tokyo. And I had a wonderful time working with him on that. So I knew John would be the right person to find an imaginative way of doing the bathhouse.

And I knew we would need the help of a lot of brilliant puppets, because there are just so many characters in the show that are nonhuman, and need to be presented in a vivid, dynamic way. So Jon and I knew we had to corral the talents of Toby Olié, the great puppetmaster who was responsible for War Horse. He’s just the best in the business. And as soon as we got him on board, a lot of the answers started to present themselves, in the form of Toby’s drawings, or Jon’s drawings, and the collaborations between them.

Chihiro crouches and looks at the puppets of coal-carrying soot sprites moving across the stage in Spirited Away: Live on Stage Photo: Courtesy of Toby Olie/Toho Stage

You come out of your own tradition of stage theater and adaptation, but this one brings in elements of Noh theater, and bunraku as well. Were you focused on bringing Japanese elements into the stagecraft?

Yes. But what fascinates me is the strong relationship between the old Japanese theater traditions and Shinto, the religion, the philosophy. They’re all connected. One of the ideas I wanted to incorporate from the very beginning — if you look at the kanji, the Chinese characters of Chihiro’s name, in the title Sen to Chihiro, “Sen” and “Chi” are the same. We reversed one of them, and they form a Shinto gate, which the characters drive through. I noticed that about those kanji right away, and I thought, We’ve got to incorporate that somehow in the initial drive into the world, because it’s going through that Shinto gate that changes everything, because it’s only in the world of Shinto that you can meet the 8 million gods.

I was so excited by that thought that I went back to Suzuki at Ghibli and asked him to do the calligraphy of the name. And he did it for us, because he’s a brilliant calligrapher. And then he also agreed that Ghibli would create the opening animation for the gateway into the show, which is fantastic.

What went into designing the bathhouse, in terms of making a space that could be so many different individual sets?

The brilliant idea Jon Bausor had is that he’s taken essentially a Noh theater stage and put it in the middle of a Western stage. That structure in the middle, and the walkway that comes from it and the platform at the end of the walkway, is in essence a Noh theater. Which was a wonderful way of bringing deep-seated Japanese culture into the proceedings. Because there is such a strong connection between traditional Japanese theater and — even sumo wrestling is connected with kabuki, with Shinto. The costumes are the same. The hanamichi, the walkway they use in kabuki theater, is actually derived from sumo wrestling. So we used that to make the bridge between the outside world and the bathhouse. It’s a way of incorporating aspects of Japanese culture into the set, so you always know you’re in Japan, in an authentic Japanese world.

The stage version is mostly a very loyal, faithful adaptation, apart from grace notes like that gate and the songs. Was there any guiding principle about where you added new elements?

Not really. There are three songs: The entrance of the gods at the beginning, the arrival of Kamaji, and before the interval. And they’re all there for a very good reason: They’re drawn from lyrics Miyazaki wrote for Joe Hisaishi, as a way of explaining how he wanted the music of the film to be. They were published in an image album. The song of the gods allowed us to have a parade of the gods coming into the bathhouse, which you don’t have in the movie, but we need in the theater — you need to have that sense of delight at seeing all these different gods arrive. In an animated movie, you can so easily get close-ups of all of them, but in the theater, you need time for an audience to really appreciate the beauty of the costumes, and the different characters that are turning up, and to sense that the world is fully populated.

Kamaji’s song is a work song that was not particularly written for him, just for somebody working at the bathhouse. And I thought it allowed us to see him working with his eight arms, and to appreciate what an amazing construction that is, before we suddenly have to move on with the story. The interval song — there isn’t an interval in the movie, obviously, but I had to create one for the theater piece. After the craziness of the river-god sequence, I just wanted to find a nice quiet moment of reflection, with the women looking out over the sea and quietly taking us into the intermission, so we arrived somewhere — we’d arrived at Chihiro having been fully assimilated into her new world.

What was the hardest puppet to put together, in terms of what it needed to do?

The sludgy river god was very difficult — getting a safe costume for a single dancer to wear that was big enough, and gooey-looking enough. That was a big challenge because he’s got to walk through the bathhouse, then climb up and get into the bath. That was tricky. But the one that caused us the most difficulty was finding out how to make Kaonashi [No-Face] bigger and bigger and bigger. We started with inflatables, but they were so unwieldy to work with.

And I dreamt up in rehearsal the idea of just adding more and more dancers, so Kaonashi becomes bigger and bigger, just by having more and more people attached. And that was more fun for the audience, and more fun for the performers, and it didn’t rely on anything technical. It could just rely on the skill of the performance.

Chihiro (Mone Kamishiraishi, in pink bathhouse robes, with a single white shikigami stuck to her back) faces down Kaonashi (also known as No-Face, played by a group of performers under a semi-transparent black tarp) as other employees of the spirit bathhouse look on in Spirited Away: Live on Stage Photo: GKIDS

How was directing the film cut of the show different?

We recorded it with a lot of cameras, so we just had an enormous amount of material — I think we had 14 cameras altogether. So we had an enormous amount to choose from in the edit, and then we had to go through it very, very slowly, just making sure that everything we wanted the audience to be looking at was what they were looking at. But of course the live show’s more fun for an audience, because they get to choose for themselves what they’re looking at.

The casting for this edition of the play is so remarkable — every time you get a close-up of the main cast, they look remarkably like Miyazaki’s movie. How did you approach casting?

I didn’t really think of copying the animation. It’s much more the spirit of the actors that you have to get right. With Lin, it’s that feeling of a beautiful girl who’s a bit skinny and wispy, and fun and full of life and jolliness. Facially, they’re nothing like the animated character, but they’ve got that same spirit, and when they’re speaking the lines, they’ve got the rhythm of the language. And with Yubaba, one of the Yubabas is Mari Natsuki, the voice of the original in the original film. So we got all that spirit and language resonance for free.

Spirited Away: Live on Stage will play in theaters at special screenings on April 23 and 25 (with Kanna Hashimoto as Chihiro) and on April 27 and May 2 (with Mone Kamishiraishi as Chihiro). For participating theaters, check the movie’s website. The film will also be available for digital streaming on July 18, 2023.

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