MANILA: Since its premiere in 2001, Hayao Miyazaki’s film “Spirited Away” has pushed the limits of what is possible in the world of animation. For 19 years, it was Japan’s highest grossing picture of all time, and it changed the public’s perception of animated films, showing that they can be more than just cartoons for children. It was also the first and only non-English animated film to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Film (and the only one that was hand-drawn).
To a large extent, the story takes place in a cherry-red bath house located near what appears to be the gateway to another realm. She has to fight tirelessly to save her parents who have been transformed into pigs at the hands of a 10-year-old Chihiro. During her journey, she encounters a diverse cast of Japanese ghosts and deities that has captivated viewers for almost two decades. For the first time ever, these iconic characters can be seen on stage, due to the work of English director and designer Toby Olié, who supervised the construction of 50 puppets across London.
Yubaba’s bathhouse owner was Kayla Teodoro’s subject of six weeks of hard effort, and she was part of the team behind the scenes of the production.
A WhatsApp group of all Asian makers exists in the United Kingdom, according to Teodoro, and the actress who played Cho Chang in the Harry Potter films, Katie Leung. For whatever reason, someone had put out the call for an Asian puppet maker. Friends invited me to the group and mentioned that Kayla was a “maker” and a “puppet-maker.” After receiving a phone call, they informed me that the project was for ‘Spirited Away’ and I had no idea what it was.’ Also, I was overjoyed since I adore the film; it’s one of my all-time favorites!
This time, Teodoro worked with Harbour Scenic—a London-based creative studio that creates sets, displays, and props—for the project. The co-founder and managing director of Harbour Scenic was her direct supervisor. Yubaba’s construction was led by Chen.
They sent a steady stream of photographs and videos to Japan throughout the process. Over fifty puppets were being built in London at the same time, so there was a lot of back and forth.
Puppeteering Yubaba is a team effort that necessitates three to four persons. Three people worked on the puppet itself, too. When Teodoro stated it was large, he meant bigger than himself. A Yubaba head was formed from “parts of her face that came together,” she explained. When Chihiro (or Sen at this time in the movie) asked Yubaba if she wanted a job at the bathhouse, she was replaced by this puppet instead of the actor she had been throughout the performance.
A pre-cut block of styrofoam shipped from Japan as Yubaba. She had a face but her backside was still incredibly thick, Teodoro said. “The puppet would be very heavy, so I had to make it as light as possible by polycarving as close to the face as feasible.” Polycarving is a puppet-making process in which a styrofoam block is carved.
Even though they were working with a pre-made model, Teodoro was able to design and construct a few extras to go along with the construction. This allowed me to work on the teeth and tongue, which weren’t included in the sculpt. “I had to start from scratch with that. To play around with that system was enjoyable,” she remarked. “We utilized foam for the teeth. A skrimmed layer was also required.” Scrambling is a type of paper mache that uses different materials and fabrics on top of a foam base to create puppets. “Using cheesecloth and wood glue, we ensured that the surface was rigid and easy to paint on. In essence, you’re making it into a painting,” Teodoro added.
The finished Yubaba in various promotional materials was enough for her, even though she didn’t see any of the other 50 puppets being worked on. At long last, she was able to view it, and she’s overjoyed that it will be available to stream on Hulu.
‘Spirited Away’ had its world premiere on March 2nd, 2022, at Tokyo’s Imperial Theatre in Marunouchi, where it will play for the next 29 days. From April 13 to 24, the show played in Osaka’s Umeda Arts Theater in Chayamachi, and it is currently playing at Fukuoka’s Hakataza Theater through May 28. Touring dates have been set for June 6 to 12 at the Sapporo Cultural Arts Theater hitaru and June 22 to July 4 at Misonozoa Theatre in Nagoya.
The stage play adaptation will not be shown outside of Japan, but Hulu will stream the final two performances on July 3 and 4.