This Filipino puppet maker helped bring ‘Spirited Away’ to life

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A photo from the stage production of "Spirited Away," featuring Chihiro and the life-sized puppet of the bathhouse’s owner, Yubaba. Photo courtesy of KAYLA TEODORO

Since its release in 2001, Hayao Miyazaki’s film “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 hand-drawn one, too), it held the record for Japan’s highest-grossing film of all-time for 19 years, and was largely responsible for reshaping the public opinion on animated works — that they can be much more than just cartoons for children.

The film is primarily set in a cherry-red bathhouse lodged at the entrance of the spirit world. There, 10-year-old Chihiro must work to save her parents, who had been turned into pigs. She meets a colorful cast of Japanese spirits and deities that continue to enamor its audiences 21 years later. Now, thanks to English director and designer, Toby Olié, who oversaw the production of 50 puppets made all across London, these beloved characters have been transported from the screen to the stage.

Part of the behind-the-scenes ensemble was Kayla Teodoro, a young Filipino puppet maker who spent six weeks working on a life-sized puppet of the bathhouse’s owner, Yubaba.

“In the UK, there’s a network of all Asian makers, and [Katie Leung] the actress of Cho Chang from "Harry Potter" has a WhatsApp group and it’s all Asian makers,” said Teodoro. “There was a callout — someone was looking for an Asian puppet maker. A friend added me to the group and said, ‘Oh, Kayla is a maker and she makes puppets.’ I didn’t know what the project was but then 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’s one of my favorite movies!”

For the project, Teodoro worked under Harbour Scenic, a London-based creative company that specializes in various scenic elements, like complete sets, displays, and props. Her direct supervisor was Becks Chan, one of Harbour Scenic’s co-founders and managing directors. Chen headed Yubaba’s build.

The promotional poster for the "Spirited Away" stage production. Photo from TOHO CO. LTD.

“The method of making it was really streamlined because, obviously, you have Studio Ghibli, a franchise which is 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 crew sent reference pictures and 3D models. They 3D printed everything and digitally molded polystyrene and styrofoam to make sure that it looked exactly like the anime.”

Throughout the process, they continually 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,” said Teodoro.

Yubaba is so large it takes three or four people to puppeteer it. Similarly, it took three people to finish the puppet itself. “It was really big, like bigger than me,” Teodoro said. “What we did was — it was pieces of her face that came together that made 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 movie) asked her for a job at the bathhouse.

Yubaba arrived from Japan, pre-cut, as one block of styrofoam. “You had a face, but then the back of her face was still super 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 technique in puppet making where a block of styrofoam is carved.

While they had the pre-made model to work with, Teodoro had the opportunity to create certain appendages to accompany the build. “I was able to work on the teeth and the tongue because [those] didn’t come with the sculpt. That was something I had to do from scratch. It was nice to be able to play around with that mechanism,” she said. “For the teeth we used foam. On top of that we needed to do a skrimmed layer.” Skrimming is similar to paper mache, but instead of paper, puppet makers use different materials and fabrics on top of the puppet’s foam base. “We put cheese cloth on top of it and painted it with wood glue to make sure that it was hard and easy to paint on. You’re turning it, essentially, into a canvas,” Teodoro said.

While she did not see any of the other 50 puppets being worked on for the production in person, witnessing the finished Yubaba captured in various promotional materials was enough. “[In] the end, I was super surprised to be able to see it and I’m excited because they’re going to stream it on Hulu!” she said.

"Spirited Away" premiered at the Imperial Theatre in Marunouchi, Tokyo, on March 2nd, 2022, where it ran until the 29th. The production traveled to the Umeda Arts Theater in Chayamachi, Osaka, from April 13 to 24, and is currently at the Hakataza Theater in Fukuoka, Fukuoka, where it will run until May 28. It is slated to tour the Sapporo Cultural Arts Theater hitaru 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 stage play adaptation to premiere outside Japan, the last two show dates on July 3 and 4 will be streamed on Hulu.