'Spirited Away' review – the sheer scope of this magical Studio Ghibli adaptation is thrilling

Read our review of Spirited Away, directed by John Caird, now in performances at the London Coliseum to 24 August.

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

It’s pretty extraordinary that we have not one but two theatrical adaptations of Studio Ghibli films on offer, given the immense challenges of bringing Hayao Miyazaki’s unique and beguiling animation to the stage. But, following the RSC’s gorgeous My Neighbour Totoro, which returns next year, John Caird brings us this epic Japanese-language production of the Oscar-winning Spirited Away.

It’s a maximalist fantasia, meeting the ambition of the movie with eye-popping spectacle – from Sachiko Nakahara’s towering costumes and Toby Olié’s ingenious puppetry to a Noh-inspired grand bathhouse design by Jon Bausor on a stately revolve that commands the Coliseum stage. The sheer scope is thrilling.

Spirited Away, though, is wilder and far more complex than Totoro. This Alice in Wonderland-esque story involves 10-year-old Chihiro, who stumbles into a supernatural spa which serves the gods on their days off. Her parents have been turned into pigs, so she needs to mature fast to survive.

That involves dealing with the terrifying sorceress Yubaba and the mysterious creature No-Face, as well as visitors like a polluted river spirit (here a magnificent shaggy mound that lists from side to side). She gets help from Yubaba’s apprentice Haku, fellow worker Lin, and the spider-like boiler-man Kamaji.

It’s a lot of ground to cover – not to mention characters transforming into something else, plus carnivore spirits, emetic dumplings and surprise twins. I’d recently rewatched the movie, which helped me keep up with the zigzagging plot. Even so, it can be frustrating trying to read the busy surtitles and keep your eye on the stage too.

Mainly because there’s always something vivid and fascinating to engage with, and the care the team has put into every detail is remarkable. Peripheral characters who are barely involved in the scene are still fully realised and extravagantly costumed, building out a world rich with wonder.

Spirited Away - LT - 1200

When Yubaba erupts in fury, a giant version of her face is suddenly conjured by several puppeteers piecing together various parts of it. There are different-sized versions of the pivotal dragon spirit, so we glimpse it fluttering in the distance and, later, it’s a fully-formed marvel which takes flight with Chihiro on board.

As Chihiro, Mone Kamishiraishi has a convincingly youthful physicality – inching down a treacherous staircase on her bottom, or collapsing her whole body into a despairing wail. Excellent too are Kotaro Daigo are Haku, leading the way with commanding gestures, Fu Hinami as the gutsy Lin, and Mari Natsuki as the fabulously malevolent Yubaba.

Hikaru Yamano brings slinking grace to the lonely masked outcast No-Face, who contorts his body within his black shroud so that it looks eerily insubstantial. Tomorowo Taguchi is a genial scene-stealer as the many-limbed Kamaji (I loved him offering multiple high-fives), as is Obata no Oniisan’s boisterous frog spirit Aogaeru, and the adorable puppet soot sprites with their googly eyes and “meep” yelps.

Caird, who co-adapted with his wife Maoko Imai, sticks faithfully to the film, but could probably diverge more – either to trim the three-hour runtime, or to introduce fresh theatrical elements. There are some of the latter here, including an ensemble fan dance and plaintive songs, backed by Joe Hishaishi’s evocative score.

It’s part coming-of-age tale, but also muses on consumerism, found family, identity, embracing change, and the animism creed that there’s spiritual connection in the natural world all around us, if we open ourselves up to it.

But, beyond all the busy ideas and invention, the production also leaves breathing space for quieter scenes to play out. A sequence set in a train carriage, as the light falls, is utterly exquisite: a sort of living painting. It’s magical theatre.

Spirited Away is at the London Coliseum through 24 August.

Photo credit: Spirited Away (Photo by Johan Persson)

Originally published on

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