Animating the theatre and dramatising ma: will Studio Ghibli lose its touch?

Studio Ghibli’s Oscar-winning film Spirited Away will take the stage in Tokyo in 2022. Although this production has full artistic support from Ghibli’s creator Hayao Miyazaki and producer Toshio Suzuki, does the theatre risk diluting the art form that characterises the Studio Ghibli classics?

There is no denying Miyazaki’s cinematic success: five of Studio Ghibli’s films are among the ten highest-grossing anime films made in Japan, Spirited Away being number two. Characterised by its poignant storylines, compelling musical scores and mesmerising animations, Studio Ghibli has enthralled audiences since 1985.

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It is easy to see why the likes of Spirited Away and My Neighbour Totoro top anime rankings. Such films offer an enormous comfort, a moment of reflection instilled in time and space. This is no accident, but rather a concept known as ma.

Ma is a pause in time, an interval or an emptiness in space. “It speaks of silence as opposed to sound, or lack as opposed to excess”. Creator Miyazaki silently weaves ma into his productions, and the result is the magic we see on screen. Chihiro taking in the view, eating a bun, walking through the bathhouse. The true magic lies in these liminal, almost imperceptible moments. It lies in ma.

“We have a word for that in Japanese. It’s called ma. Emptiness. It’s there intentionally. [claps his hands] The time in between my clapping is ma. If you just have non-stop action with no breathing space at all, it’s just busyness. but if you take a moment, then the tension building in the film can grow into a wider dimension.”

Hayao Miyazaki

No drama without ma?

The theatre, by contrast, is a totally different story. It is, by definition, dramatic and overstated. Performers over-enunciate and over-express; they have to make themselves seen and heard to those in the Gallery.

There is no such thing as ma in the theatre. Those quiet moments are stolen away by an old man down the row coughing into his handkerchief, or by a change in theatre set, or by the time constraint of the production.

Transforming these anime films into a stage production seems to dilute the art form that Studio Ghibli champions. First and foremost, Spirited Away is an animation – and a hand drawn one at that. To take away this art form is to take away the heart of Studio Ghibli. Not to mention the loss of ma – a concept that is perhaps less palpable, but equally as important.

Having said this, Miyazaki himself has supervised the entire production process of Sen to Chihiro (or Spirited Away). He and producer Suzuki selected Caird as director because they both liked his vision and trusted his creative direction. If Miyazaki is satisfied, then who am I to question?

Bringing animations to life

This is not to say that it is impossible to transform animation to theatre – in fact, it has been done countless times before with huge success.

Just take a look at The Lion King: Julie Taymor transformed the feel-good Disney film into the highest-grossing musical of all time. There is certainly no dilution of artistry nor culture: the production elevates its heritage, using hard-crafted African wooden masks and puppetry to bring the story to life. Such creative techniques bring this essence of animation to the theatre, without the contrived (and often pompous) “thespianage” that characterises this art form.

Interestingly, Studio Ghibli has previously tested the theatrical waters, with Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind adapted into a kabuki play in 2016. Kabuki is a style of traditional Japanese theatre involving elaborately designed costumes, intricate make-up and an exaggerated performance. One can only wonder if similar techniques will be repeated in the stage production of Spirited Away. Using such a style seems like a successful way to combine Ghibli’s all-important elements of animation and spirit, whilst celebrating the rich Japanese theatrical heritage, something which could potentially be lost if the production tours beyond Japan.

Can the theatre live up to the Studio Ghibli films?

I love Studio Ghibli. And I love the theatre. But I am just not sure the two will come together as harmoniously as Studio Ghibli merits. If you take away animation and the all-important ma, Studio Ghibli ceases to be.

Don’t get me wrong, if this production does truly come to a theatre near me, I will be first in line at the ticket booth. I just hope Miyazaki lives up to his genius legacy and offers a production that is equally as magical, artistic and reflective as so many of his films. And please, lord above, I hope it won’t be a musical.

Artwork courtesy of Fergus Byron