Life & Culture

Spirited Away review: Japanese imagination lands on a West End stage

Puppets and costumes combine with top-drawer stagecraft to conjure the most outlandish sequences


Eventful short-cut: Kanna Hashimoto and Mari Natsuki

Spirited Away

London Coliseum | ★★★★✩

Following the RSC’s superb adaptation of Studio Ghibli’s My Neighbour Totoro, which arrives in the West End next year, comes this Japanese adaptation of film director Hayao Miyazaki’s best known and Oscar-winning animated feature of 2001.

Every show must stand on its own terms, but it would almost be an act of wilful neglect not to watch the originals before seeing these gorgeous adaptations.

This one, directed by Les Miserable’s very own John Caird, was first seen in Japan in 2022 and because it is performed in the language of the story’s creators (surtitles are projected above and on each side of the stage) is a rare example of the Japanese imagination landing on a West End stage.

To set the scene for those who have yet to see the film, the story (adapted here by Caird and Maoko Imai) concerns Chihiro (played by Kanna Hashimoto on the performance I saw), the young daughter of parents who are moving to a new house in the mountains. After the dad decides to take a shortcut they find themselves at the entrance to a hidden city populated by fantastical gods, although Chihiro’s dad thinks its an abandoned theme park.

The parents encounter a restaurant of delicious food, which they cannot resist, and ignoring their daughter’s pleas to return to the car the adults gorge themselves on the least kosher-looking meal it is possible to imagine until they literally turn into pigs.

It was this transition which for years put my daughter off watching the movie. But the point of seeing the film ahead of the show is in wondering how on earth Miyazaki’s visions can be translated to the stage.

The methods used here are as traditional kabuki. Puppets and costumes combine with top-drawer stagecraft to conjure the most outlandish sequences, such as when the head of Yubaba (Romi Park), the old witch-like woman who runs this other-wordly world, fills her room when she becomes angry. This is done with head parts arriving from all angles, carried by near-invisible stagehands, until they combine like the reverse of an explosion into a giant version of Yubaba’s face.

Among the most successful transformations is Yubaba’s pet-like companion Kashira, which is made up of three green bouncing heads. They are mesmerisingly played by Yuya Igarashi, a fundoshi – or loincloth – artist whose painted green head forms one element of Kashira while the other two are supported at the end of Igarashi’s arms. He must have Olympian levels of fitness to make these three bouncing noggins travel across the Coliseum’s huge stage.

My favourite, however, is the spirit NoFace, a mournful and almost mute column of darkness topped by a white mask with an inscrutable expression. Played by the dancer Hikaru Yamano this sinister and oddly vulnerable entity glides across the city and up steps with inhuman balance that speaks of Yamano’s exquisite talent as a dancer.

Where the evening falters is that at three hours it is significantly longer than the film that inspired it. But don’t let that put you off. It adds to the sense of a production that has made no compromises in creating some of the most astounding sights you will see on a stage.

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive