Since its release in 2001, Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away has pushed the boundaries of what animation can accomplish. It is the first and only non-English animated film to win the Oscar for best animated film (the only one also hand-drawn), it held the record for the highest-grossing Japanese film of all time for 19 years, and was largely responsible for reshaping public opinion on works of animation – that they can be so much more than just cartoons for children.
The film mostly takes place in a cherry red bathhouse housed at the entrance to the spirit world. There, Chihiro, 10 years old, must work to save her parents, transformed into pigs. She encounters a colorful cast of Japanese spirits and deities who continue to enchant her audience 21 years later. Today, thanks to the English director and designer, Toby Oliewho oversaw the production of 50 puppets made across London, these beloved characters were transported from screen to stage.
Part of the backstage ensemble was Kayla Teodoro, a young Filipina puppet maker who spent six weeks working on a life-size puppet of bathhouse owner Yubaba.
“In the UK there is a network of all Asian manufacturers, and [Katie Leung] ‘Harry Potter’ actress Cho Chang has a WhatsApp group and they’re all Asian manufacturers,” Teodoro said. “There was a call – someone was looking for an Asian puppet maker. A friend added me to the group and said, ‘Oh, Kayla is a designer and she makes puppets. I didn’t know what was the project, but I got a phone call and they were like, ‘Oh, it’s for Spirited Away.’ And I was super excited because I love the movie, it is one of my favorite movies!”
For the project, Teodoro worked under picturesque harbor, a creative company based in London that specializes in various stage elements, such as complete sets, displays and props. His direct supervisor was Becks Chan, one of Harbor Scenic’s co-founders and managing directors. Chen led the construction of Yubaba.
The promotional poster for the stage production “Spirited Away”. Photo by TOHO CO. LTD.
“The manufacturing method has been really streamlined because obviously you have Studio Ghibli, a franchise that’s super well-known, and [with] “Spirited Away” you can’t design something and pretend it’s Yubaba because we all know [what] Yubaba looks like,” she said. “What they did – the Japanese design team sent in reference images and 3D models. They 3D printed everything and digitally molded polystyrene and polystyrene foam to make sure it looked exactly like to anime.
Throughout the process, they continuously sent photos and videos to Japan. “There was a lot of back and forth because over fifty puppets were being made in London at the same time,” Teodoro said.
Yubaba is so big that it takes three or four people to puppet him. Likewise, it took three people to complete the puppet itself. “It was really big, like bigger than me,” Teodoro said. “What we did was pieces of his face came together to form a big Yubaba head,” she said. While Yubaba was an actress throughout the show, she was replaced by this puppet when Chihiro (or Sen at this point in the film) asked her for a job at the bathhouse.
Yubaba arrived from Japan, pre-cut, in the form of a block of styrofoam. “You had a face, but the back of his face was still very thick,” Teodoro said. “The puppet would be really heavy, so what I had to do was polycarve as close to the face as possible to make sure it was really light.” Polycarving is a puppet making technique where a block of Styrofoam is carved.
While they had the pre-made model to work with, Teodoro had the opportunity to create some appendages to go along with the build. “I was able to work on the teeth and the tongue because [those] did not come with the sculpture. It was something I had to do from scratch. It was nice to be able to play with this mechanic,” she said. “For the teeth, we used foam. On top of that we had to do a skim coat. Skimming is similar to papier-mâché, but instead of paper, puppet makers use different materials and fabrics on the foam base of the puppet. “We put cheesecloth on it and painted it with wood glue to make sure it was tough and easy to paint. You turn it, essentially, into a canvas,” Teodoro said.
Although she didn’t see any of the other 50 puppets being worked on for the production in person, it was enough to witness the finished Yubaba captured in various promotional materials. “[In] at the end, I was super surprised to see it and I’m excited because they’re going to air it on Hulu! she says.
“Spirited Away” premiered at the Imperial Theater in Marunouchi, Tokyo on March 2, 2022, where it ran until the 29th. The production traveled to the Umeda Arts Theater in Chayamachi, Osaka from April 13-24. , and is currently at the Hakataza Theater in Fukuoka, Fukuoka, where it will run until May 28. It is planned to visit the hitaru of the Sapporo Cultural Arts Theater. in Hokkaido, Sapporo from June 6 to 12 and the Misonozoa Theater in Nagoya from June 22 to July 4.
While there are no plans for the adaptation of the play to premiere outside of Japan, the final two show dates on July 3 and 4 will stream on Hulu.