Live on Stage Director Talks Adapting the Iconic Anime Movie
ComingSoon Editor-in-Chief Tyler Treese spoke with Spirited Away: Live on Stage director John Caird about turning the influential Studio Ghibli anime movie into a theatrical play. Spirited Away: Live on Stage will play in theaters on April 23, 25, 27, and May 2.
“Hayao Miyazaki’s Academy Award-winning animated feature film comes to life in this first-ever stage adaptation, full of dazzling sets, captivating musical numbers, and wondrous puppets of beloved characters,” reads the event’s synopsis. “Adapted and directed by Tony Award-winner John Caird (Les Misérables), two unique casts and performances were filmed during the show’s acclaimed 2022 run at Tokyo’s historic Imperial Theatre, featuring Kanna Hashimoto and Mone Kamishiraishi as Chihiro.
“While traveling to their new home, Chihiro and her family stumble into a world of fantastic spirits ruled over by the sorceress Yubaba. When her parents are turned into pigs and she is put to work in a magical bathhouse, Chihiro must use her wits to survive in this strange new place, find a way to free her parents, and return to the normal world.”
Tyler Treese: Spirited Away is one of the most acclaimed and beloved anime movies. Tell me about your history with the film. When did you first see it and when did you first get this idea that it could be turned into a stage play?
John Caird: Well, I’ve loved the Miyazaki films all my adult life. I’ve seen them as they’ve come out, largely because I have three half-Japanese children and my wife, Maoko [Imai] was a passionate lover of the Ghibli output. So our children watched them from a very young age. Of course, as with all things that children watch, you sit there watching things with them. I just fell more and more in love with Miyazaki’s vision of the world. I think it’s just so profound and beautiful and real … and important, actually. I felt when Spirited Away came out that it was one of the best films I’d ever seen. Not even differentiating it from animated films and live-action films, but it was just one of the best films of the last 50 years.
So when I was looking for projects for the Imperial Theater in Tokyo, which is a very big, 2000-seat theater, I just suddenly thought, “What about Spirited Away? There must be a way of creating the bathhouse in a theater that would be exciting and theatrical.” And so I went to my producers at Toho in Tokyo and said, “Why don’t we have a have a go?” And they said, “Oh, no, they’ll never agree to that. They don’t let anybody do theater versions of their films.” But I said, “Well, come on, let’s give it a go. We can only ask.” And my producer, Haruka Ogi, just knocked on the door and it opened for her. So we got very lucky.
That’s incredible. What were the biggest challenges of adapting such a gorgeous movie to a stage play? I was really impressed by how much you captured the feel and the vibe of the movie, despite it being a totally different medium.
When I met Miyazaki at Ghibli Studios, I had a lovely, delightful meeting with Hayao and Toshio Suzuki. I made my little pitch, which was just two or three minutes of just talking about how I imagined how exciting I thought it could be in a theater. And Miyazaki just smiled and said, “Okay, go for it.” I said, “What, really?” And then he said, “How the hell are you going to do it?” [Laugh]. That’s the moment I thought, “Oh my God, I’ve got to do it now.” I wasn’t really expecting him to say yes! [Laugh].
So there isn’t a short answer to your question about how do you solve all the problems? I mean, basically, I suppose the short answer would be “you choose a brilliant team of designers and puppeteers and choreographers and you get a brilliant cast.” That’s the short answer, because I couldn’t possibly vision all that stuff on my own. I needed an amazing team of collaborators around me.
You used the double cast for this stage play, and I love that there are filmed versions of each cast. I thought it was great because you can see the way the actors take on roles a little differently, which I thought was so rewarding as a viewer. So what are the advantages and challenges that come with using a double cast?
Well, it’s a system that I originated, actually, in Japan when I first did Les Misérables, because some actors, especially if they’re playing a massive role, they can’t handle 10 shows a week or nine shows a week. It’s just too big. So you need a double cast to be able to give some rest to the actors In Japan, they do more performances per week than we do in America or in the U.K. — it’s part of the whole work culture. Everybody works too hard. It’s one of the sort of national evils, if you like, but you just wouldn’t be able to push a single cast to do all those performances and stay healthy. So you really need a double cast.
You’ve been doing such great work in Japan for decades now. You spoke a little bit about the theater scene there, how they do more shows. What has really stood out about that specific region and their theater scene compared to England and elsewhere that you’ve worked?
Well, it’s very, very different in many ways for all sorts of reasons. The ancient Japanese theater traditions sort of seep into all the modern theater practices as well. There are wonderful theater companies — a kabuki theater company where only men perform, the Takarazuka theater company where only women perform. The two women playing Lin in Spirited Away are both from the Takarazuka company and those two women only performed with other women until three or four years ago. So you get these strange hybrid forms of theater all coming together.
But the other really interesting thing is there’s a very strong connection between ancient forms of theater in Japan and religion. The Shinto religion has connections in its iconography, in its practice … the words are spoken with kabuki, even with sumo wrestling, was a connection. All these ancient forms are all joined up together. I don’t begin to completely understand it all, but I’m fascinated by it the way it’s deeply written into all the social structures, these theater practices. And we tried to bring some of that consciousness to Spirited Away.
I love Les Misérables. How do you view its legacy since that London production is still going and it’s such a historic landmark for theater there?
Well, Les Mis was a great privilege and very exciting to work on in the first place. None of us who were working on it had any idea that it would be that successful. We thought it was going to have an eight-week run at the Royal Shakespeare Company, and that would be it. It was one of those ones that got away, you know? It just became itself. In spite of almost universally negative reviews, the audience just said, “No, this is our show. This is the one that we love.”
Right from the very beginning, standing ovations and just that instant connection between performer and audience that made any other critical judgment completely irrelevant. It’s been wonderful to see how it’s conquered the theatrical world. It’s been a matter of great pride to me.
That’s amazing. I think all the fans of Spirited Away are going to be really impressed by the stage play.
All the fans should also be aware that one of the Yubabas, Mari Natsuki, was the voice of Yubaba in the movie — she’s the real thing.