REVIEW: Ghibli Fest 2023, Screening Two – Spirited Away – Live on Stage (2022)

As with a previous blog post, I have been fortunate enough to attend various showings of theatrical films from Japan’s Studio Ghibli in theaters throughout the year, and it has been a real treat. While I have seen all of these films, save a few newer ones from the company, I have seen very few of these in theater as of yet. Dubbed Ghibli Fest 2023, this year’s lineup features all of Hayao Miyazaki’s films, excluding those made before the studio’s existence (Castle of Cagliostro, for example). The second screening for Ghibli Fest 2023 was Spirited Away – Live on Stage, a filmed version of a 2022 theatrical production that had two distinct runs with separate casts, most notably at Tokyo’s historic Imperial Theatre. They even preserved the double cast situation for the Western showings, depending on which day you attended you could watch oe of the two versions. The showing I saw featured Mone Kamishiraishi in the starring role of Chihiro/Sen (Kanna Hashimoto played the role in the other cast), which seems to be the version featured in most of the promotional videos. I fully assume the two versions are likely quite similar and only discovered the double casting a few days prior, so I didn’t feel the need to attend both.

This particular showing of Spirited Away – Live on Stage was perhaps one of the main attractions of the entire 2023 series, as stage productions of this nature rarely make their way to the United States. In practice, most stage productions are not released on DVD, Blu-Ray, or streaming platforms due to the contractual agreements actors have with their respective theater companies. However, a glimpse at one of the actresses’ Twitter accounts might suggest otherwise. To not leave anything to chance, I saw this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to witness this production.

The structure of having two casts in a theatrical production reminds me of a similar showing I attended of National Theatre Live’s production of Frankenstein, where Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller (who humorously both played versions of Sherlock Holmes after this) swapped roles during the run. For example, I saw the version where Cumberbatch played The Monster, but in others he played Victor Frankenstein, and vice versa with Miller. While that was more of a marketing ploy, in this case, different actors were cast for the same role due to the simultaneous showings in different theaters in Japan. It’s always interesting to see how different actors bring their own interpretations to a character.

“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. 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.”

For more information on this series of showings CLICK HERE

All Images (unless otherwise noted) are from the Gkids press release HERE, Chihiro (Mone Kamishiraishi) and Kaonashi (Tomohiro Tsujimoto)

Given the fantastical nature of the original film version of Spirited Away, I was initially skeptical about how it could be successfully translated to the stage. With numerous monstrous characters, elaborate set pieces, a flying dragon, and shape-shifting characters, staging such a production could either be prohibitively expensive or end up looking cheap. However, the stage designers and director managed to address all of my concerns remarkably well. For many special effects, stagehands manipulate puppets or create the illusion of flight, and as long as the viewer can suspend disbelief and imagine that they are not there, everything is handled with great finesse.

For instance, the spider-like character Kamaji is brought to life by an actor assisted by four stagehands, each controlling one of his numerous limbs. Other sections, such as Haku’s flying scenes in his dragon form, are accomplished using puppets attached to long sticks. Iconic moments like Yubaba’s head growing to an enormous size or No-Face’s grotesque mutated form are executed with the help of stagehands manipulating parts of a large puppet. Overall, I was highly impressed by the way the production team handled the special effects, and I would love to see this production company tackle more projects if they ever consider replicating the success of Spirited Away – Live on Stage.

Chihiro (Mone Kamishiraishi) and Oshirasama

While I can’t speak on the acting in the version I did not see, I was Immersed in the enchanting performance by Mone Kamishiraishi’s awe-inspiring portrayal of Chihiro/Sen. Kamishiraishi’s exceptional talent shone through her expressive performance, imbuing the character with a profound emotional depth that surpassed my expectations. Witnessing her genuine tears during poignant moments added an extraordinary layer of authenticity to the experience. Things like this are something that would likely be lost on the crowd in the audience, but looked amazing here due to filming for this release.

Notably, even the most monstrous puppet characters conveyed a surprising range of emotions, a testament to the meticulous craftsmanship and attention to detail evident in this production. Unlike many stage adaptations of anime properties, which often struggle to capture the essence of the animated counterparts, Spirited Away – Live on Stage approached the material with utmost seriousness and assembled an exemplary cast and crew that brought their A+ game to the forefront.

The production didn’t shy away from incorporating musical and dance elements into the narrative, elevating the performance to new heights. Several captivating songs, flawlessly sung by the talented cast, seamlessly intertwined with interpretive dancing and ballet. Yet, what sets this production apart is its ability to strike a delicate balance, steering clear of pretentiousness and never descending into an all-out, over-the-top dance extravaganza akin to a classic Rodgers and Hammerstein play. As someone who typically veers away from overtly musical productions (I honestly don’t like most of them), I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed these interludes, a testament to their tasteful execution.

Chihiro (Mone Kamishiraishi) and Kamaji (Satoshi Hashimoto)

If there’s one aspect that could benefit from improvement, it would be the runtime, which stretched over three hours. Considering that the original film has a runtime of only around two hours, the additional time resulted in a noticeable slowdown. While the extended duration effectively built up the tone in some introspective and emotional scenes, there were instances where the pacing could have been accelerated. The inclusion of an intermission in the live play, although absent in the theatrical version, might have injected some much-needed energy into the experience, even if the duration didn’t necessarily warrant a formal break.

I understand that the extended runtime likely accommodated costume changes and set movements, so this observation is simply a subjective viewpoint. It’s akin to how binge-watching a TV series can sometimes become repetitive and monotonous due to its original intention of being watched weekly rather than in one continuous sitting. On the flip side, by presenting the theatrical production without editing, home viewers can authentically experience it as intended, without the need for substantial expenses associated with live performances. In that regard, the production team has indeed succeeded in their goal.

Chihiro (Mone Kamishiraishi) and Haku (Hiroki Miura)

Spirited Away – Live on Stage encapsulated the essence of the beloved film while crafting a distinct theatrical experience that left an indelible impression. It was a true testament to the dedication and artistry of the entire cast and crew involved, and an occasion that reminded me of the transformative power of live performances. As someone who doesn’t typically watch live theater, I wouldn’t consider myself an expert on the art form. However, as a complete novice, I found this experience to be highly enjoyable. If Spirited Away – Live on Stage ever becomes available for home consumption, I would wholeheartedly recommend watching it, especially if you have an appreciation for these films. The achievements of this production are truly remarkable, and as previously mentioned, I genuinely hope to see more endeavors like this in the future.

Mone Kamishiraishi (left) and Kanna Hashimoto © Toho Co. Ltd.

You don’t have to wait very long for my next review, as I am seeing Ponyo this upcoming weekend! If you are interested I have posted the schedule below, most theaters that carry “Fathom Events” seem to run them, and a ton of theaters in my area had them easily accessible. I’m sure people in rural areas might have some trouble, but sadly that’s almost always the norm. See you all soon!


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