Bringing Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away To Life With Puppets


Initially released in 2001, Spirited Away was loved by fans and critics. The award-winning film showed the depth and brilliance of Hayao Miyazaki’s imagination. The creation stage version of the live performance hasn’t been accessible, mainly due to the pandemic and the travel ban. “The main problem was just the sheer number of characters and fantasy elements, and how we were going to bring them to life on stage.” – Puppet Artist and Director Toby Oli tell Kotaku. “Miyazaki’s imagination is so limitless that the number of transformations, locations, and scales of the spirits was something we practiced and developed in practice to determine how we were going to achieve them.”

After discovering a book on doll making in the school library, Oli first became interested in doll art at the age of six. The cover featured a dinosaur doll made from an egg carton, covered in a woolen sleeve. On a hat evening, he asked his parents for the things necessary to create it. He was on the hook. After studying puppetry at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. Oli has designed and produced puppets for high-profile productions in the UK at the National Theatre. The Royal Shakespeare Company, and the Royal Ballet. As well as around the world. And when he received an email in early 2020 asking him to work with director John Caird on Spirited Away couldn’t answer fast enough.

2D animated

It’s never easy to recreate 2D animated characters for live performances. Especially on stage. In addition to getting the right look, internal difficulties can be dealt with. Cinematic gimmicks such as CGI are not available in live theater. For example, in Spirited Away, the child turns into a bit of a mouse, and U-bird turns into a miniature crow-like creature. They are tiny on screen. Oli enjoyed the opportunity to create characters for a 2,000-person theater. For production, he researched the original animation artwork, official merchandise. And fan art to understand better how people saw these characters.

The most elaborate puppet created for the show is Haku’s dragon form. The instrument measures almost 20 feet, much larger than a small workshop in staging. “Haku’s head also has more mechanisms than I usually put in a puppet, but a trigger to make him growl and another to pull his ears back proved important for scenes where he writhes in pain and thrashes around the room like a wild animal,” Olie says, adding that it took “an alarming amount” of math and trigonometry to give the dragon puppet’s body a snake-like articulation.

“I’m fortunate to have a great team of creators working on the project because as you work with puppets, there are always a lot of problems to solve – it’s not something that you can create on paper as a plan and just hand it over to construction.”


Adapting anime is difficult enough, especially from Studio Ghibli, a company with notoriously high standards, but things have become even more complicated during the pandemic. To reduce household chores, Japan has implemented a travel ban, barring non-citizens and non-foreigners from entering the country. This meant that in the summer of 2021. The doll art development workshop was held in London and not in Tokyo. Like so many other times during the pandemic, it also told that work was being done through Zoom. Managing a puppet theater for such a large-scale performance via Zoom meant a whole host of new tasks, not to mention a start in the morning for the UK team working on Japanese time.

“It was more of a shock than a surprise, but we didn’t expect to be unable to get to Japan for rehearsals due to Omicron’s option to extend travel restrictions,” says Olie.

But despite these problems, the film crew, translators, camera operators. And the creative team and actors in Tokyo were able to put the scene together. Show diligence, patience, and diligence. The result is live-action, an adaptation that graced some of the highest praise of all.

Studio Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki attended one of the first preview screenings of the production in Tokyo. After the show ended, he turned to the play’s director, John Caird, and said one word: “Great.” The production, according to Olie, could not require more approval than this.


Stage productions are a team effort and Oli wanted the following creators and co-writers to be credited. John Caird (adapter and director), Marko Imai (co-adapter), John Bowser (set designer), Sachiko Nakahara (costume designer). , Hiroaki Miyauchi (hair and makeup designer), Shigehiro Ide (choreographer), Jiro Katsushiba (lighting designer), and Koichi Yamamoto (sound designer). Toby Oli puppeteer and director of theatrical adaptations.

That Spirited Away the theatrical version is currently playing in Tokyo. Performances will take place in Osaka in April, and in the following months in Fukuoka, Sapporo and Nagoya. For ticket information in English, check here.


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