Impressed, but not transported, by 'Spirited Away'
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Impressed, but not transported, by 'Spirited Away'
Tomorowo Taguchi as Kamaji, the creepy boiler room employee whose tentacles are operated by puppeteers, in “Spirited Away,” directed by John Caird at the London Coliseum. A stage production of the beloved Studio Ghibli movie is big on spectacle, but rarely grabs the heart. (Johan Persson via The New York Times)

by Matt Wolf

NEW YORK, NY.- There’s big, and then there’s “Spirited Away,” a show on a scale that few theater productions attempt.

Adapted from the venerated Studio Ghibli film by Hayao Miyazaki, British director John Caird’s stage iteration was first seen in Miyazaki’s native Japan in 2022 and has now traveled to the London Coliseum — the West End’s largest theater — where it runs through Aug. 24.

Performed in Japanese, with many of the original cast members along for its British premiere, the production has size, sweep and opulence to spare. Length, too: At just over three hours, the stage version runs nearly an hour longer than the film. I can’t remember a foreign-language production given such a long run on a London stage — which itself speaks to the international cachet of this title.

What’s missing, though, is human connection. The story of “Spirited Away” gets lost amid the spectacle, and, exciting though it is to watch, the show rarely grabs the heart.

Both the stage and screen versions introduce so many characters that you sometimes need a road map to keep track. Aficionados of the material will note the brilliance with which characters are brought to three-dimensional life by the genius puppet designer, Toby Olié, and his hardworking team.

Others may struggle to work out a decidedly bizarre narrative, adapted for the stage by Caird and his wife, Maoko Imai. The positioning of the English-language surtitles doesn’t help: Those are placed on either side of the Coliseum’s vast stage and high above the proscenium arch, which, unless you speak Japanese, means shifting your head throughout to absorb the onstage action and its meaning.

Our through line to the strange events is 10-year-old Chihiro (a surpassingly sweet Mone Kamishiraishi), who takes an inadvertent turn into a spirit world on a bumpy car ride with her parents to a new home. Finding herself in what seems like a disused theme park, but in fact turns out to be a supernatural realm, Chihiro gets separated from her greedy parents, who morph into pigs.

The enchanted, sometimes dangerous, world is well conjured by designer Jon Bausor, who fills every inch of the set with something to engage the eye, including an elegant wooden structure at the center of the stage — the story’s all-important bathhouse — that revolves throughout.

Chihiro encounters a cavalcade of creatures, and there’s delicious fun to be had from seeing iconic figures from the movie created anew. You thrill to the first sight of the mysterious No-Face (Hikaru Yamano), Chihiro’s lonely companion, and the creepy boiler-room employee, Kamaji (Tomorowo Taguchi), with tentacles that seem to extend for miles.

The Stink Spirit so foully memorable on-screen here appears as an oddly irresistible mound of sludge. And the range of puppets is simply astonishing, from flying dragons to soot sprites and characters, like the sorceress Yubaba (Mari Natsuki, an alumna of the film), who appear in recognizably human form one minute and then as forbidding outsized versions of themselves.

At times, the stage is so packed with activity that you lose the narrative thread and yearn for quieter moments amid the clamor. But the film’s sizable fan base will thrill to its renewed life onstage, and reactions to the show might depend on how invested you are in the material. Joe Hisaishi’s film score, played live throughout, offers an immediately nostalgic link to the celluloid source.

Comparisons are tricky, but it’s impossible not to set “Spirited Away” against “My Neighbor Totoro,” an earlier, much-loved Miyazaki title that reached the London stage in 2022, performed in English, and went on to win six Olivier Awards. That production gets a further London run starting next March.

But the comparatively streamlined “Totoro” maintains a domestic focus on a father and his two daughters throughout, and its nonhuman characters — of which there are many fewer — are easier to track. “Spirited Away,” by contrast, keeps the visuals coming until you are full to bursting, much like Chihiro’s gluttonous parents.

Was I emotionally transported, or spirited away? Alas not.

‘Spirited Away’

Through Aug. 24 at the Coliseum, in London;

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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