Spirited Away at the Coliseum review: this Studio Ghibli show is relentlessly inventive but is just too long

Mone Kamishiraishi in Spirited Away (Johan Persson)
Mone Kamishiraishi in Spirited Away (Johan Persson)

Although Hayao Miyazaki’s anime films for Studio Ghibli give me the ick, with their nightmare tweeness and yowling urchins, this faithful adaptation of his 2001 hit is superbly done.

Live action, music and bewitching bunraku puppets – created by Toby ‘War Horse’ Olié – combine in John Caird’s production to replicate the film’s baffling dream logic, where a young girl battles adversity in the spirit world, finds love and saves her parents.

The actors create credible relationships with serpentine dragons, giant, rotting godheads and tiny soot sprites, and there’s a core of emotional truth behind the story’s non-sequiturs and wild tangents.

The show captures scale and perspective in a way theatre rarely achieves. It plunges us into rivers, zooms us into the sky and is visually ravishing throughout. Jon Bausor’s sets unfold and reform like origami and Joe Hisaishi’s original score is milked for its lush sentiment.

Caird’s adaptation, created with his wife Maoko Imai, began life four years ago and its Tokyo run sold out in four minutes. It’s performed here in Japanese with English subtitles, and though this is testament to London’s cosmopolitanism, I do wonder who its audience is meant to be.

It’s too sappy and fairytale-ish to be entirely for adults, too discomfiting and grotesque for some children. It’s less accessible than the RSC’s similarly inventive 2023 adaptation of Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro, which transfers to the Gillian Lynne Theatre later this year.

 (Johan Persson)
(Johan Persson)

Various actors rotate through the lead roles in Caird’s production but on opening night Mone Kamishiraishi was a winningly brave heroine Chihiro, evading many of the tics to which adults playing children are too often prone. En route to a new house Chihiro’s parents take her to an abandoned theme park, eat a mysterious buffet and are turned into pigs by the witch Yubaba.

Shape-shifting dragon-boy Haku (Kotara Daigo, overdoing the mystical pensiveness) helps Chihiro overcome tasks in order to lift the spell in Yubaba’s bath-house, where gods and monsters come to relax. It’s a parable of growing up and staying true to yourself – Yubaba dominates her minions by stealing their names – with echoes of The Wizard of Oz and the Alice books.

Whatever the merits of the human cast it’s the creatures that matter, from the comic frog-spirit Aogaeru to the spidery janitor Kamaji, his attenuated extra limbs operated by four puppeteers. Yubaba becomes a Thatcher-like bird and a giant, articulated head, while the wan, masked and cowled spirit No-Face morphs into an enormous, malign mass with a cavernous, devouring mouth.

Even the relentless inventiveness of Caird, Olié and their team starts to pall though as the story meanders through yet more bizarre twists and turns and the acting gets shoutier. The stage adaptation runs more than 180 minutes to the film’s 125. So if you ask me what Spirited Away is really about, I’d say it’s about an hour too long.

London Coliseum, to August 24; londoncoliseum.org