Miyazaki’s 2001 hand animated fantasy masterwork Spirited Away is a film that only gets better with age. The dark fairy tale is the story of a young girl, who is trapped in servitude under a powerful sorceress at a bathhouse for gods; while she attempts to save her parents who are turned into pigs. The film operates as not only a gorgeously rendered warning about the generational rift, but does so while reaffirming Miyazaki’s message of fanatical environmentalism (very much not a bad thing), through its themes and story. The film is filled with these amazing otherworldly creatures and beings that have gone on to become mainstays in the cultural zeitgeist, you may have never seen Spirited Away, but you’d probably recognize No-face or the film’s protagonist in a heartbeat.
In 2021, two decades after the film was released a live action stage adaptation was announced by Les Misérables director and honorary Associate Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company John Caird, with full blessing of Hayao Miyazaki. Given how understandably cautious the director is with his properties, it speaks volumes of the amount of trust that was placed in John’s vision for the adaptation. This production was financed by the Japanese studio Toho in coordination with the anniversary of the Toho Stage’s 90th year of productions and ran in 2022. The particular version on this set, was filmed during its acclaimed run at Tokyo’s historic Imperial Theatre and was originally screened during Fathom Events’ yearly Ghibli Fest, where I was blown away by how well they managed to translate the otherworldly story to the stage.
This production of Spirited Away finally hits home just in time for the holidays on Blu-ray thanks to G-Kids who present the three hour production on two separate Blu-ray discs one each featuring a different actress as the protagonist Chihiro. In Japanese theater, it’s common to have reciprocal double casting, which essentially means two actors sharing a role, and alternating performances. This helps to not only encourage repeat attendance, but also allows more shows per day. When this was screened in theaters, opposite actors were screened on opposite days to honor this practice. Kanna Hashimoto and Mone Kamishiraishi lead this cast that also features Mari Natsuki, who voiced the sorceress Yubaba in the original motion picture, reprising her role accompanied by voice actor Romi Park as her alternate.
While the performances are truly stellar, what makes this production something really special and dare I say magical is how they’ve managed to translate the film’s visuals to the stage. Through the use of projection, puppets and slight of hand that sense of cinematic wonder is translated effortlessly onstage. The stage itself rotates and changes configuration so as not to lose any momentum as the scenes play out just as you’d expect. This is accompanied by a live orchestra who imbue every moment with Joe Hisaishi’s epic score. It’s something that even on a smaller screen, it still has that weight and delivers that awe-inspiring experience that I remember seeing on the big screen. It’s the kind of production that gets everything right and fills you with a legitimate sense of child-like wonder watching the story play out.
Revisiting it for this review, only reaffirmed my initial love for the adaptation. But this time I was able to enjoy the smaller details and the actors’ reactions, which you rarely get to enjoy in productions like this without splurging on the good seats. The performances here were as rich as the production and I was also able to really enjoy some of the stagecraft that brought some of these larger than life characters to life. When you first watch something like this as a fan, you’re purely in a reactionary state, and being able to revisit it on Blu-ray allows you to really appreciate the production itself and its nuances more in depth. If you haven’t seen this, I can’t recommend it enough. Because of how it interprets these creatures and story, the film accomplishes the inconceivable, it reinfuses that original story with this sense of wonder and magic that you experienced the first time you watched Spirited Away, and you get to feel that all over again.