Studio Ghibli: ‘Spirited Away: Live On Stage’

Screenshot of (from left) Satoshi Hashimoto and Kanna Hashimoto in ‘Spirited Away: Live on Stage’. Copyright goes to GKIDS and Studio Ghibli.

Hi! It’s Annie!

This event happened last week, but if you weren’t aware, the three hour stage production of ‘Spirited Away: Live On Stage’ was shown at select theaters as part of ‘Fathom Events’. This is a stage show from Japan that professionally adapted ‘Spirited Away’ into a full fledged theatrical phenomenon. Seriously, it was gorgeous and the attention to detail was unmatched. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such an amazing on stage adaptation and that’s saying something considering I studied theatre in college. Japan double casts at least the main roles in most of their shows and this one wasn’t any different. I actually really love that this is something that they do because double casting in the US is often only done with parts played by children. (Though one of the reasons they do it is because there are more shows per week in Japan.) We’re starting to see more double casting for emotionally demanding roles, but overall double casting is just more humane to the actors. Almost every role that you play is emotionally demanding in some regard and usually also very physically demanding. This production in particular involved a lot of climbing and running across the stage, especially for the actresses playing Chihiro, so it was nice to know that they got a little bit of a break. Some theaters who participated in showing this event played it for the entire week, but most theaters only had two days. So they actually showed one cast on one day and the other on the next. For reference, I saw the first cast which was Kanna Hashimoto as Chihiro and Hiroki Miura as Haku. There will be some SPOILERS ahead for this, just in case you do find a way to stream this after the event is over or you plan to buy it!

The Adaptation:

If you’re worried that the play might vary too much from the original story, don’t be. There’s really nothing to be worried about there. There is no plot point left out and the set itself is insanely alike to the settings from the movie. The show is equipped with a massive rotating set that depicts the village, the stall where Chihiro’s parents become pigs, the bridge, the bathhouse, and even the bedroom where Chihiro and Lin stay within the bathhouse. It’s extremely ambitious to take on all of these places, but they somehow depict each place perfectly and really make the audience feel like they’re looking at a completely different set. The rotating set is taken away to reveal sets behind it for places like the train and Zeniba’s house. The set was gorgeous and looked straight out of the movie as well as including direct imagery from the movie. Almost all of the symbols on the bridge or within the bathhouse were kept. This production also made use of puppets that were all so good. The giant Haku dragon was a highlight of the entire production for me and I wanted my very own Boh mouse puppet, it was easily one the of the most adorable puppets I’ve ever seen. And the tiny soot sprite puppets also easily stole my heart. Calling back to the fact that this had an insane amount of details, Chihiro also takes off her socks only once in the boiler room but uses her shoes twice, just like the movie. An extremely small detail that just showed me the extent of research that every person involved put in. The live production had the same comforting and mystical feel that the movie gives me every time I watch it. Not only was it beautifully made for the stage, but they were careful to make it evoke the same emotions and feelings as the original work. This is the best you can get as far as adaptations go.

The Actors:

I thought everyone was amazing and also involved with the cast is Mari Natsuki who was actually the original voice actress for Yubaba! Everyone played their roles amazingly, but I really want to talk about the two leads. Kanna Hashimoto was a very believable Chihiro. Obviously, she is an adult playing a child but that never really comes across in the show at all. There was never a moment where I questioned whether or not she was playing Chihiro as too young or it felt like her own age slipped into the character. She was a believable little girl and a very believable Chihiro. There’s a moment in the movie when Haku gives Chihiro onigiri and as Chihiro eats it she begins to full on sob. This is a moment in the movie that never fails to get me to tear up. I full on cried with her during the live production because she really made you feel the moment as an audience member. But as amazing as the entire cast is, my favorite member of the cast was Hiroki Miura as Haku. I know, I know, I’m incredibly biased. I haven’t talked much about Ghibli before, but I really love it! And while ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ is my sister’s favorite movie, ‘Spirited Away’ is mine. Haku has been my favorite Ghibli character since I was introduced to the content, so going into this I was a little wary about Haku and how he was going to be as a character. Haku is a character type that I consider to be my kryptonite, which is the comfort character. The type of character who comes into a scene and you feel just as relieved as the main character to see them because it feels like everything’s going to be ok. This isn’t just a part of the character backstory or a detail of the character, this is a vibe that emanates from the character. It’s an energy you just sort of have to have that’s completely nonverbal. As an actor, emanating a nonverbal energy has to be one of the most difficult things to do. And yet, Hiroki Miura made me cry several times because he had that comforting energy in excess. He had this unwavering strength while playing Haku that also accompanied this extreme gentleness when dealing with Chihiro. Haku was a force any time he stepped on stage and I loved every moment of it. Hiroki Miura is also first and foremost trained as a dancer, so the graceful dragon transformation dancing he did was mesmerizingly beautiful. Especially when it began actually entwining with the fluidity of the puppet. I already loved the character of Haku but seeing Hiroki Miura’s take on Haku impossibly made me like the character even more than I already did. I can’t explain how emotional I got at seeing one of my comfort characters being brought to life in this way. It’s genuinely something I’ve thought about every day since I saw it!

The Message:

I think that one of the reasons why ‘Spirited Away’ is one of the most popular Studio Ghibli films is because the story is so relatable. At first glance it doesn’t necessarily seem that way. A lot of people have described it as being purely fantasy and have compared the story to ‘Alice in Wonderland’, but I think the story greatly differs from Alice’s adventures and are far more relatable to real life than some people give it credit for. I think, especially as we grow up, many of us can relate to suddenly finding ourselves in a dark place where we feel nothing but fear. The journey that Chihiro goes through is one from a place of intense fear to a place of determination and love. Unlike Alice who just wakes up at the end of her story, Chihiro is able to take her experiences with her in a very real way. She’s grown as a person and has become so much stronger. She’s made real connections on her journey and learned more about unconditional love and compassion. Chihiro won’t forget her journey not because it was strange, but because it was formative and a character building experience for her. And also because she can’t forget the kindnesses that she was shown. I think, whether we know it or not, we all have a Haku when we’re going through times like this. My Haku was a bit more literal in the form of Namjoon of BTS. If it weren’t for me listening to Namjoon’s words of advice and comfort, I would not have gotten as far as I did on my own personal journey. Namjoon was such a comfort to me and the reason why I was able to navigate certain things I had to do to get better. And the dragon comparison really fits him. Dragon eyes and all that. All of this hit me really hard while I was watching the live version because watching it in this form suddenly made the story feel even more personal to me. This is already a comfort movie to me, but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to watch this live version without sobbing. I must have cried at least three times watching this in the movie theater. I think there’s something about something so comforting and with such hopeful messages being plopped into real life right in front of you, and being performed live at that, that makes it feel so much more real. If this story means as much to you as it means to me; you have to find a way to see this! Just be prepared to cry. Maybe bring tissues.

I really hope that more live theatre becomes accessible like this. If you live in the US you probably know that Broadway isn’t doing that well right now and it’s really no surprise. With the expenses involved going up, the prices also get majorly jacked up. Meaning that they’ve priced out most people who can no longer see those productions. When it comes to productions in Japan, I’ve always wanted to see one and haven’t been able to travel to Japan yet as much as I desperately want to. I wasn’t exactly sure what I thought this was going to be like, but it blew my expectations so far out of the water. This is probably my most emotional reaction to a piece of media, including live theatre, that I’ve had in a very long time. I think live productions can evoke those emotions better than a lot of other pieces of media. Because this is real emotions that you’re seeing in real time. This isn’t something that has been edited and cut together, so it really does come off as more emotionally raw. And I think that it’s a shame that there are so many people that still haven’t seen productions of this caliber because they truly can be life changing. I really hope that we see more productions like this so more people can be exposed to live theatre and can experience live theatre from places it’s difficult for them to get to. If this is somehow still in a theatre near you, you have to check it out! I promise you it is a hundred times better than most (all) movies you’re going to find at your local movie theater and it absolutely deserves the watch. It is emotional and gorgeous and I will be crying about it for ages. I want to say another huge shout out to everyone involved in this production! Now I’m going to go cry about it some more.

See you across the pond!

Sincerely, Annie

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