‘Every 20 minutes there is something that would be the finale of another piece’

The dragon comes to life as Toby Olié plucks it by the tail. He spins it into a spiral through the air and, as quickly as ripping off a band-aid, tears the creature in two. “Even when he was curled up on the ground,” the puppet designer says, loosening another of the dragon’s joints, “it took up too much space.” Olié sticks the body back together, a little shorter but now more flexible, and the tail wiggles back to life.

Best known for his work on War Horse, Olié holds a miniature prototype for Haku, a boy who transforms into a huge snake dragon. Haku is one of the main characters in Hayao Miyazaki’s excellent animation Spirited Away, which has been adapted into a major stage production. Over the past four years, the creative team has been imagining, adapting and perfecting Miyazaki’s world of gods and monsters in three dimensions. The full-size dragon, for which Olié was inspired by both fan art and close studies of the film, is now more than four meters long, with 4,000 hairs individually strung along its spine, ears that pin back when scared is, and a body powerful enough to carry a child on its back while it flies.

Spirited Away is an imaginary world that completely encompasses its own rules of imagination

John Caird

Last year, Spirited Away’s Tokyo stage run sold out in just four minutes. Now the Japanese-language production is bringing its spellmakers and shapeshifters to London. (Coincidentally, the show debuted at the same time as the Royal Shakespeare Company’s staging of My Neighbor Totoro, Miyazaki’s 1988 animated film, which returns to London’s Barbican later this year.) Performed in Japanese with English translation, the cast and their cohort puppets are accompanied by a live orchestra playing Brad Haak’s arrangement of Joe Hisaishi’s original score. Executed on an extravagant scale, the stage production is one of grand spectacle, meticulous detail and enormous heart. “Every twenty minutes there is something that, in any other piece,” Olié says proudly, “would be the finale.”

Olié was brought on board by director John Caird, who has been a fan of Miyazaki’s wild and beautiful animations for years. “My wife introduced our children and me to the films for the first time and I was entranced,” says Caird. “I think Spirited Away is a work of genius.” Caird, the director of Les Misérables alongside Trevor Nunn, has spent many years creating large-scale opera and theater in Japan, with his wife and Spirited Away’s co-adapter, Maoko Imai, also serving as the director’s assistant. “I couldn’t have done it without her,” he says simply. “She finishes my sentences.”

Caird grew up with the great importance of children’s stories. He insists that Miyazaki’s masterpiece should be seen on par with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Peter Pan. “Like them,” he explains, “it is an imaginary world that completely encompasses its own rules of imagination. It’s such a great children’s story that it’s just as fun for adults.”

Start describing Spirited Away to someone who’s never seen it and you’ll quickly fall down a rabbit hole of chewing stink monsters and radish ghosts, of environmental destruction and people turning into pigs, not to mention the playful susuwatari, or soot sprites, the helpful little creatures that carry coals on their backs. But at its core, Spirited Away is a story of change. It follows a girl, Chihiro, whose parents move with her to a new home, and who becomes entangled in the events of a Japanese bathhouse frequented by gods.

The way I sold the idea to Miyazaki was by describing how I imagined a huge bathhouse on stage

John Caird

This is a clash of two great Japanese traditions. “Miyazaki told me that watching documentaries about Japan’s Shinto gods made him want to imagine his own version of their off-duty lives,” laughs Caird. The importance of bathing in Japanese culture was recently demonstrated when the touring production hit a snag, when the cast realized that the apartments they were housed in here in Britain had no baths, only showers.

Unlike most Studio Ghibli films, Spirited Away’s setting is largely domestic, no matter how fantastic the guests and goings-on. “The way I sold the idea to Miyazaki was by describing how I imagined a huge bathhouse on stage,” says Caird, who had to seek approval from the director and his team to stage the show. It was Jon Bausor, the designer responsible for The Grinning Man and the opening of the 2012 Paralympic Games, who came up with the idea for the bathhouse to be a Noh stage, inspired by the architecture of the centuries-old classical Japanese playing style. Fully realized, a central wooden structure sits on a constantly shifting turn, so the stage never looks the same from one scene to the next. This kind of colossal imagination was a basic requirement for staging such an elaborate story. “Immediately after he said yes,” Caird says of Miyazaki, “he added, rather mischievously, ‘But how… how the hell are you going to do that?'”

“As simple as possible,” Olié answers. He pulls out a sketchbook and flips to a page where limbs and faces peer out in elegant watercolor. Some ghosts are realized exactly as he first drew them, while others took longer to find the right shape; the largest version of Kaonashi, or No-Face, the lonely ghost Chihiro befriended, was initially an inflatable body that became too unruly on stage. He flips forward a few pages, where several shadowy bodies writhe beneath the large moon face. “Often the solutions we found were more elegant,” says Olié, explaining how the idea of ​​Kaonashi as a gobbling flash mob gradually took shape, with each dancer absorbed by the creature becoming a new part of its body.

I feel happy and privileged. Shows never take place on this scale and length. Everything in the show is done by manpower

Mari Natsuki

The film Spirited Away, released in Japan in 2001 and in Britain in 2003, was only recently usurped as the highest-grossing Japanese film of all time. The film won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature and is widely considered one of the best animated films ever made. But when Mari Natsuki first joined the film as a voice actor, she had no idea of ​​the remarkable legacy it would have. “I was sitting across from Miyazaki and he looked at my face,” Natsuki says, peering intensely forward, “and he drew Yubaba. That’s how my relationship with Studio Ghibli began.” Natsuki’s character Yubaba is the owner of the bathhouse, with her arduous duties for Chihiro providing much of the story’s central drama. The actor initially saw Yubaba as cruel, but when she spoke to Miyazaki, her interpretation changed. “He told me that Yubaba looks like Toshio Suzuki,” Studio Ghibli’s dedicated producer. “They just work really hard.” The lack of a pure villain is a defining characteristic of Ghibli animation. “No one is irredeemable,” Caird says.

Twenty years after voicing Yubaba and her twin sister Zeniba, Natsuki returned to play the same roles on stage. To physically become Yubaba, she uses a Japanese hairdo, a habutai, to keep her hair locked under her wig, and then layered on bright blue eyeshadow, a fake nose, and wrinkles. “Same as kabuki theater,” Natsuki explains, referring to the heavily stylized Japanese art form. “It doesn’t have to be pretty. It must be impressive.”

The Colosseum seats almost 2,400 people and is London’s largest theatre; in Japan they performed for an even larger audience. “It takes overwhelming energy,” Natsuki says, before grinning widely. “But it is a pleasure.” Each lead role has multiple performers, a tradition Caird started in Japan with Les Misérables after a dispute between two actors eager to play the same role. The practice is now common, encouraging more fans to see the various A-list casts and giving the actors more flexibility for their busy schedules.

Even if something is only on stage for a short time, the audience lets you know what it thinks, feels and wants

Toby Oil

The initial rehearsal process for Spirited Away was, says Caird, “a nightmare.” It coincided with a Covid peak, meaning the UK and US sides of the production team were stuck across borders. Olié sent the puppets through a screen and the cast, crew and their translators muddled through until they could finally be together in person. The show may be helmed by a handful of British theater makers, but the team knows how crucial having Japanese storytellers is to its authenticity. “We import so many shows to Japan,” Caird sighs. “Very little comes the other way, and that’s a shame.” This is a chance to show off the brilliant Japanese cast and crew, he says. Natsuki adds how proud she is to do a Japanese-language show in London. “I feel really happy and privileged. It never happens on this scale and on this length.”

Just like in the bathhouse, Natsuki enjoys how “everything in the show is done by manpower.” All the scenery and puppetry is provided by the show’s ensemble, who wear khaki to match the wood-colored decor; Inspired by the Japanese tradition of kabuki stagehands, they have been given the sweet nickname ‘khaki-bukis’. Caird always knew he didn’t want to hide the stage mechanics. “It’s not magical to see the strings of something that’s flying,” he says. “You have to constantly open your hands to the audience and say, ‘You see how we’re doing this, but you can still believe in it.’”

Related: ‘This time I really mean it!’: Have Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli created their latest masterpiece?

Olié points to a carved wooden figure slumped on a shelf in his studio, a Bunraku-inspired doll. This requirement for total faith in every moving part in Spirited Away stems in part from his love of Bunraku, the 17th-century art form in which one puppet body is operated by three people, with complete concentration. “You train for twenty years on the doll’s feet,” Olié explains, “and when you’re good enough, you move on to the head.”

The precision and clarity are very appealing to him, although his team worked on Spirited Away earlier than the Bunraku timeline would allow; along with assistant puppetry director Sarah Wright and puppet supervisor Daisy Beattie, the team created more than 60 impossible creatures for the show. They worked hard to integrate detail and accuracy into everyone’s story and design. “Even if something is only on stage for a short time, let it have an impact,” Olié emphasizes. “Let the audience know what it thinks, feels and wants.”

As if in response, there’s a rustle behind him, and a prototype soot sprite, with its wiry body and large eyes, tumbles out of a corner, seemingly of its own accord. Olié just shrugs and laughs. If you live in Miyazaki’s world long enough, some elements of its magic will inevitably spill out around the edges.

• Spirited Away is at the London Coliseum Unpleasant August 24.

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