Originally released in 2001, Spirited Away is beloved by fans and critics alike. The award-winning film showed the depth and the brilliance of Hayao Miyazaki’s imagination. Creating a live-action stage show version was challenging, made even more so by a pandemic and a travel ban.
“The main challenge was just the sheer quantity of characters and fantastical elements, and how we were going to translate them to the stage,” puppet designer and director Toby Olié tells Kotaku. “Miyazaki’s imagination is so limitless and so the number of transformations, locations and scale of the spirits was something that we workshopped and developed practically to determine how we were going to achieve them.”
Olié first got interested in puppetry at age six after discovering a book on puppet making at his school’s library. The cover featured a dinosaur puppet made from a cardboard egg box covered in a woolen sleeve, and that evening, he asked his parents for the things he needed to create it. He was hooked. He went on to study puppetry at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, after which Olié designed and directed puppets for a high profile productions in the UK at the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company, and the Royal Ballet, as well as around the world. And when he got an email in early 2020 to work with director John Caird on Spirited Away, he could not hit reply quickly enough.
It’s never easy to recreate 2D animated characters for live-action, especially for the stage. Besides getting the look right, there are also intrinsic difficulties which on film could be handled with cinematic tricks like CG, but of course aren’t available in live-action theater. For example, in Spirited Away, Boh the baby transforms into a small mouse, and Yu-Bird turns into a miniature crow-like creature. On screen, they’re tiny. Olié relished the opportunity to design the characters for a 2,000-person theater. For the production, he not only researched the original animated depictions, but also official merchandise and fan art to better understand how people saw these characters.
The most complicated puppet crafted for the show is Haku’s dragon form. The puppet measures nearly 20 feet, which is a lot longer than the production’s small workshop. “The head of Haku also has more mechanisms than I would normally put in a puppet, but a trigger to give him a snarl and another to pull his ears back felt important for the scenes when he is writhing in pain and lashing around the room like a wild animal,” says Olié, adding that “an alarming amount” of math and trigonometry were required to give the body of the dragon puppet snake-like articulation.
“I was very lucky to have an amazing team of makers on the project, as there is always a lot of problem-solving as you progress with puppets—they’re not something you can design on paper as a blueprint and simply hand over for construction.”
It’s difficult enough to adapt anime, especially from Studio Ghibli, a company with notoriously high standards, but everything was further complicated during the pandemic. To help keep domestic cases low, Japan issued a travel ban, preventing non-citizens and non-foreign residents from entering the country. This meant that a puppetry development workshop in summer 2021 was held in London instead of Tokyo as initially planned. It also meant that, like so many things during the pandemic, work was done over Zoom. Directing puppetry in such a large-scale show over Zoom meant a whole new set of challenges—not to mention early morning starts for the UK team working on Japan time.
“It was more of a shock than a surprise, but not being able to gain entry into Japan for rehearsals due to the Omicron variant prolonging travel restrictions wasn’t something we were expecting,” says Olié.
But despite these challenges, the production team, translators, camera operators, and the creative team and cast in Tokyo, were able to put together the stage show through hard work, patience, and diligence. The result is a live-action adaptation that has garnered some of the highest praise of all.
Studio Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki attended one of the production’s first previews in Tokyo. After the show ended, he turned to the play’s director, John Caird and said one word: “Perfect.” The production, says Olié, couldn’t have asked for more of an endorsement than that.
Stage productions are a team effort, and Olié wanted to make sure the following creators and collaborators were mentioned: John Caird (Adaptor and Director), Maoko Imai (Co-Adaptor), Jon Bausor (Set Designer), Sachiko Nakahara (Costume Designer), Hiroaki Miyauchi (Hair and Make Up Designer), Shigehiro Ide (Choreographer), Jiro Katsushiba (Lighting Designer), and Koichi Yamamoto (Sound Designer). Toby Olié is the theatrical adaptation’s puppetry designer and director.
The Spirited Away theatrical version is currently playing in Tokyo. Performances will be held in Osaka in April, followed by shows in Fukuoka, Sapporo, and Nagoya in the following months. For ticket information in English, check here.