5 stars out of 5
The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production has astonishing puppetry, magical music and huge emotional impact
Mei Mac, Ami Okumura Jones and Dai Tabuchi in My Neighbour Totoro. Photograph: Manuel Harlan
How to adapt an iconic film made by the creative giants at Studio Ghibli, directed by the genius Hayao Miyazaki and considered an unsurpassed feat of fantasy animation? And do so without getting egg on your face?
Just like this, it would seem. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production, written by Tom Morton-Smith and with music by Joe Hisaishi (who composed the film score), is a thing of beauty in its own right which – as sacrilegious as it may sound – emulates Miyazaki’s original story of two sisters who move with their father to the countryside, in postwar Japan, and see other worlds emerging out of it.
Under the direction of Phelim McDermott, it is not an exact replica. There is a different imagination at work here, but it is just as enchanting and perhaps more emotionally impactful.
The sisters Satsuki (Ami Okumura Jones) and Mei (Mei Mac) are played by adults and appear cartoonishly excitable at the start but they win us over. Mac, who plays the younger sister, almost seems to transform into an infant. Her fall in the hollow of the camphor tree in which she meets Totoro is a magnificent set-piece combining a multilayered set with swirling movement and mime. The relationships between the two girls and their father (Dai Tabuchi) are caught tenderly and both are quietly moving in their understated yearning for their hospitalised mother (Haruka Abe).
Music is a central part of the drama with a live band on a raised platform and a terrific singer, Ai Ninomiya, who intermittently enters the action. There are long, hypnotic dialogue-free scenes filled with musical and visual storytelling which are meditative and magical.
The set, designed by Tom Pye, is as mobile as origami, with a central revolve used in wonderful ways; the movement never feels giddy but creates a great sense of flow, as if the pages of a graphic novel have come to life. One set, and scene, breaks apart to form another, each entrancing with the world it assembles.
A great sense of flow … My Neighbour Totoro. Photograph: Manuel Harlan
The drama comes infused with Shinto and Japanese folklore which renders it a different narrative experience to western fairytales. It takes on an almost spiritual energy with its indistinguishable line between dreamworld and reality along with its centring of children’s imaginations and the importance of nature.
The puppetry by Basil Twist creates much of the magic. Farm animals bring comedy, especially a mop-head of characterful hens, while otherworldly creatures supply the wow factor: the soot sprites are black pom-poms on sticks that move like a murmuration while Totoro is formidable, rumbling, eerie, comic and endearing at once. Catbus is a thrilling sight too – a giant inflatable with laser eyes, like a vision from a psychotropic dream. However odd or lumbering, each creature comes with their own distinct personality.
The puppeteers are a kind of murmuration too: they become a human field of corn, swaying as one, then invisible forces from another realm, weaving among these humans. They bring some fleet metatheatrical touches – witty, original and based in physical comedy.
It is not nearly as high-powered in its special effects as a Disney adaptation but just as dazzling in its magic realism. There is no Disney ending either. The future remains uncertain but Satsuki and Mei carry on believing in all things magical and unseen, and the lessons for life are kindness, hope and community. As one character says, talking to each other and listening to each other’s stories is “simply the best use of our time”.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Mei Mac, Ami Okumura Jones, Dai Tabuchi
© RSC/ Nippon TV, photo by Manuel Harlan
It can feel glib to praise the ambition of a production, but in the case of My Neighbour Totoro, adapted by the RSC from Studio Ghibli’s 1988 cult classic anime, one can only stand back and marvel at the sheer audacity of the undertaking.
For not only is this tale of two girls who encounter a mythical creature in the woods a beloved staple of many childhoods, it’s also, frankly, completely bonkers. That aforementioned creature, the titular Totoro, is a giant, hairy, shouting sort-of-rabbit who flies around in a massive ten-legged cat-bus. Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece, set in postwar Japan, is a fever dream of disparate ideas and ancient mythology.
Many years in development, this theatrical incarnation makes innovative use of puppetry, designed by Basil Twist and the Jim Henson Company, to bring its cast of magical spirits and more earthly creatures to life. The staging is genuine jaw-on-the-floor stuff, with a team of visible puppeteers (several gags are made about this) flitting around to manifest everything from tiny, fluffy soot sprites to the proscenium-filling main character, whose first appearance is greeted by an ovation.
Ami Okumura Jones, Mei Mac, Jaqueline Tate
© RSC with Nippon TV, photo by Manuel Harlan
Director Phelim McDermott throws all of his characteristic inventiveness at Tom Morton-Smith’s faithful adaptation, and the result feels like a loving homage to the film in both its embrace of visual quirkiness and wilful ignorance of narrative convention. As in The Snowman, which I’ve often considered Totoro‘s close relation, the story itself is pretty thin stuff. It’s the incredible – and incredulous – main encounter, and the mix of comfort and wonder it brings to the children, that generates the magic.
Morton-Smith has added a bit of extra padding, most notably by expanding the character of the sisters’ awkward young neighbour Kanta (Nino Furuhata). But the sparseness of the dialogue on screen is largely echoed on stage, where the pacing can accurately be described as glacial. This is a world where detail is everything, and planting acorns and waiting for them to grow counts as a dramatic high point.
The Barbican’s expansive main stage is filled to the gunnels by Tom Pye’s highly dynamic set, which slides in and out to form the Kusakabe family home one minute and Totoro’s woodland enclosure the next. At various stages trees arch over the stage and a huge moon illuminates the back wall. It evokes a landscape that is at once rustic and strange, a place where labourers work the fields and spirits control the elements. And it’s all sumptuously lit by Jessica Hung Han Yun; when the cat-bus arrives it’s like the sun itself has descended onto the stage.
Ami Okumura Jones, Mei Mac
© RSC and Nippon TV, photo by Manuel Harlan
It all makes for an incredible spectacle, especially for children. I took my eight-year-old daughter, a Totoro aficionado, and she was literally jumping in her seat for much of it, whispering excited exclamations (“my seat’s shaking,” she said as Totoro emitted his deep, visceral roars). But for all its grandeur there are simpler charms as well; see a gag where a bus enters, and the driver castigates the puppeteer on whose shoulders he is sitting for walking too fast.
There are some enjoyable performances too, particularly from the central family. Ami Okumura Jones and Mei Mac exhibit all the playfulness, squabbling and care embodied by sisters Satsuki and Mei, while their father Tatsuo is a fittingly lovable Dai Tabuchi. In one particularly moving moment he is forced away from his wife Yasuko’s (Haruka Abe) hospital bed by the puppeteers, as if unable to move himself. The emotion is heightened by Joe Hisaishi’s wonderful soundtrack, played by an orchestra arranged on a platform across the back of the stage. The songs, especially that peach of a title number, are sung with delicate beauty by soloist Ai Ninomiya.
The ending can feel anticlimactic, and I wasn’t convinced by the additional dialogue that seemed to be trying to compensate for its ambiguity and tie things up a little too neatly. But the elongated curtain call is among the most joyous and creative finales you will see, and leaves you floating out afterwards feeling like you’ve just spent two and a half hours in a kind of all-over spa for the soul. Right now we could all use a big hug from Totoro, and this is about as close as you can get.
4 stars out of 5
Hayao Miyazaki’s beloved anime has been triumphantly brought to the stage in the RSC’s transportive production
ByDominic Cavendish, CHIEF THEATRE CRITIC18 October 2022 • 11:23pm
My Neighbour Totoro, at the Barbican CREDIT: Manuel Harlan
RAAAR! This world-premiere stage adaptation of the animated feature My Neighbour Totoro, a 1988 sleeper hit for Japan’s famed Studio Ghibli, was a monster smash for the RSC even before it started previews. The opening ticket sales broke Barbican box-office records, taking more than Benedict Cumberbatch’s 2015 Hamlet.
You have to go back to the mega-musical Matilda to find a family friendly RSC project around which so much excitement buzzes and upon which so much hope is pinned. There’s actually a notable point of comparison between the two shows, in that both give centre-ground to inspiringly plucky young girls and feature supernatural goings-on, seemingly bound up with what the battling heroines are going through.
But Hayao Miyazaki’s tale of Satsuki and Mei, the daughters (aged 10 and four) of a university professor, Tatsuo, who relocate to the countryside to be near the hospital of their convalescing mother is worlds away from Dahl-land, or for that matter Disney. Its hallmark is a gentle, philosophical pace, and a beguiling strangeness that characterises even the hulking, potentially scary figure of the Gruffalo-like Totoro, befriended by chance by the tiny but indomitable Mei as she explores the vicinity.
It’s a pleasure to report that what fans loved about the film has been beautifully served in this stage version, scripted by Tom Morton-Smith and directed by Phelim McDermott. It boasts music by Joe Hisaishi that embellishes his film soundtrack with songs soothing and stirring, without straying towards being an overt Musical.
As in the original, the piece (now more like two hours) takes its intoxicating, detail-savouring time. The sisters – Mei Mac, her hair in bunches, her fists often clenched and always delightful as little Mei, with gangly cavorting from Ami Okumura Jones as the older Satsuki – first scamper about their crumbling, spooky new home. Acorns plop down and spider-like ‘soot sprites’ scuttle and butterfly-flutter (the puppeteers, black-clad, help form part of the mutating landscape of the evening). In this more talkative treatment, more is made of the gauche boy neighbour, bringing adolescent angst to the fore, but it’s still the untutored curiosity of Mei, tripping between unfamiliar reality and dream-like encounters, that hooks you in.
My Neighbour Totoro, at the Barbican CREDIT: Manuel Harlan
There’s a humble, faux-naif quality to some of the scenic elements, but ‘Totoro’ is magnificently humongous with a mighty, reverberating growl, wicked smile, lumbering walk and bouncy castle of a fluffy tum. The wow-factor of his spectacular appearances, worth the price of admission alone, is matched by the hallucinogenic, 12-legged ‘Cat-bus’, a bright yellow, internally lit inflatable sight to behold, with search-light eyes and serrated grin. Yes, the first half climax, with fast-sprouting mega-tree, and lo-fi flying Totoro, smacks overly of panto but in toto it’s a triumph – a vital power surge of Anglo-Japanese creative electricity fit for these soul-sapped times.
The faux-primitive production delivers a delightful melange of wooden homes and a tangle of forest, all stunningly lit
What can you say about this phenomenon? Millions of children, not to mention a fair number of adults, have fallen under the spell of the Japanese animated film, released in 1988, that provides the inspiration for this show. Little wonder that the Royal Shakespeare production — a collaboration with the composer Joe Hisaishi, Nippon TV and Improbable theatremakers — has been laying waste to box office records.
If you’re an admirer of Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli movies, you’re almost certain to feel the same about Tom Morton-Smith’s puppet-driven adaptation, which adds flesh to a pastoral storyline that is so slender it could be described as Teletubbies go zen. The original doesn’t have much in the way of linear narrative, rather a string of gentle vignettes. “Hey, tadpoles!” is a typical line of dialogue.
Phelim McDermott, the stage director, provides more of a spine. As pure spectacle, the results are overpowering, even if Hisaishi’s score is never more than amiable — think Einaudi with a jaunty beat.
Ami Okumura Jones and Mei Mac capture the angular vitality of the girls
Set in the mid-1950s, when Japan was still clawing its way back to normality, the film follows young sisters Satsuki and Mei, who are taken to live in the countryside with their academic father while their mother is in hospital with a serious illness. Settling into their new home, the youngsters encounter troll-like spirits who draw them into a mystical realm in which the whimsical and the vaguely sinister co-exist. Totoro, the most charming, is a gigantic beast. Communicating through thunderous roars, he is as friendly as the shaggiest of designer dogs.
Ami Okumura Jones and Mei Mac may not be children, but they capture the angular vitality of the girls. Swirling all around them are puppeteers in black, who go about their business with remarkable grace, manipulating the exotic menagerie created by puppetry veteran Basil Twist. The enormous, glowing Cat Bus, with a grin reminiscent of that Seventies hustler, Fritz the Cat, sweeps back and forth. I was, though, equally taken with the hustling, bustling flock of humble chickens. In a particularly clever touch the puppeteers send themselves up with cleverly choreographed gaffes.
Tom Pye’s faux-primitive production design delivers a delightful melange of wooden homes and tangle of forest, all stunningly lit by Jessica Hung Han Yun. A live band, perched in the branches, becomes a silhouetted part of the landscape. It’s just a pity that the music itself — including songs performed by Ai Ninomiya, at the rear of the stage — are so insipid. Somehow, I don’t think the army of admirers will worry about that. Would I recommend this family-friendly show to neutrals? Yes, with reservations. If you’re a Totoro devotee, you’ll probably already have bought a ticket.
The stage adaptation of Studio Ghibli animator Hayao Miyazaki’s classic 1988 film My Neighbour Totoro, officially opening Tuesday night at London’s Barbican Theater, has attracted immense interest from the international theater community. Stage producers and theater owners from New York, Paris, Australia, Korea, Canada and Australia have been tracking the progress of the production being presented by composer Joe Hisaishi and the Royal Shakespeare Company.
“There has been a lot of interest,” Griselda Yorke, the show’s executive producer for the RSC, told Deadline. “Lots of people are coming to see it, which is really gratifying. But there’s nothing more concrete than that it’s sparking a lot of interest at this stage of the game.”
Yorke said the fact that so many members from film and theater communities “are coming from all over the world to see it” is a tribute to the collaboration of the RSC, Hisaishi, Studio Ghibli, director Phelim McDermott, writer Tom Morton-Smith and the Jim Henson Creature Shop.
Creatives from Jim Henson Creature Shop was invited to join the project by puppetry director Basil Twist to help create Totoro, the magical forest spirit at the heart of the story. Totoro is discovered by two sisters — 10-year-old Satsuki and 4-year-old Mei — who move with their father to a Japanese village, close to where their mother is hospitalized with an illness. The Creature Shop also built the show’s cat bus, a vehicle that takes on passengers and flies. Another company, Significant Object, created other puppets for My Neighbour Totoro.
During one recent afternoon, the show’s gift shop was crowded with children — along with parents and guardians on hand to pay for a range of fluffy Totoros plus T-shirts, umbrellas and key rings created by the RSC with Studio Ghibli’s blessing. There were many other cute goodies emblazoned with the eye-catching Totoro image designed by theater-land marketing agency Dewynters.
Yorke told Deadline that Studio Ghibli “receive a royalty for every bit of merchandising.”
The show has broken box-office records at the Barbican, with its 15-week run close to selling out.
Yorke was unable to discuss the possibility of a transfer from the Barbican to the West End. However, director McDermott didn’t rule it out during a public talk about My Neighbour Totoro held in one of the Barbican’s cinemas.
”We would love the show to continue,” he told the audience. ”I’m pretty sure that this won’t be the end of the story, and I think the challenge for us is: How do we look after the spirit of the piece so that it is maintained?”
McDermott said that the production, which he described as a play with music — he insisted that it’s not a musical because the performers do not sing, only a singer does — is not really an adaptation of the Studio Ghibli film. ”My dream is that it’s like a sister; a sister piece of art that sits alongside that extraordinary piece of film,” he said.
His other dream, the director said, would be for audiences to see the play at the Barbican, then watch the film on Netflix, which has an extensive range of Studio Ghibli animated movies. ”Have that double experience, they talk to each other,” he said of the show and the film.
McDermott said that sisters Satsuki and Mei are played by adults, Ami Okumura Jones and Mei Mac, respectively. He and other production colleagues felt it was safer to cast adults. ”You couldn’t ask children to do what we’re asking the cast to do,” he said referring to the puppeteering and stage mechanics.
5 stars out of 5
My Neighbour Totoro review “Unadulterated joy”
Exquisitely lovely and enormously beguiling take on the anime classic
He’s the world’s most unlikely superstar: an enormous, cuddly creature with googly owlish eyes and a deafening roar, emblem of Japan’s famous Studio Ghibli. Since its release in 1988, Hayao Miyazaki’s anime film, with its titular furry hero, has become a cult global hit, despite its gentle pace and whimsical plot. And when this Royal Shakespeare Company stage version was announced earlier this year, it broke box-office records. Its appeal is pure and universal. Have you ever felt lost, or frightened or alone? Ever longed for comfort from someone wise, and warm, and bigger than you? Maybe we all need a neighbour like Totoro.
Faithfully adapted by playwright Tom Morton-Smith and directed with wit and tenderness by Phelim McDermott, the show is a quirky delight that enchants and amuses, but also moves: its child’s-eye view of the world evokes both wonderment and vulnerability. It could so easily be tacky or saccharine. Instead, it’s exquisite, every detail of design and execution painstakingly considered.
The story sees four-year-old Mei (Mei Mac, in a pink smock and frilly drawers) and her older sibling Satsuki (Ami Okumura Jones), moving to the countryside outside Tokyo with their Dad (Dai Tabuchi) in the 1950s. The girls’ mother is ill in hospital, and although their bucolic adventures ring with laughter, anxiety casts a chilly shadow, particularly on sunny Satsuki, who’s trying so hard to be grown up, and look after her father and little sister: what if Mum never comes home? Perhaps Totoro – a wood spirit only the children can see – is just their fantastical imaginary friend. But Basil Twist’s stunning puppetry means we, too, believe in his magic.
Asleep in the forest, a snoring mountain of shuddering, shaggy fur, claws and whiskers twitching; or standing over the girls in a rainstorm, a protective sentinel, Totoro is weirdly, wonderfully lovable, with his piano-key teeth and giant, lolling tongue. Just as jaw-dropping is the Cat-Bus – a peculiar hybrid of moggy and motor vehicle, here a massive inflatable ginger tom with headlight eyes (you know it’s a tom, because it even has a neat pair of testicles where the exhaust should be).
What surrounds these spectacular creatures is every bit as gorgeous. Black-clad puppeteer-performers glide among the sliding screens and sinewy branches of Tom Pye’s set, like benign, watchful ghosts. They conjure fields of swaying corn and rice paddies, flocks of butterflies, fluffy chickens and darting soot sprites. Given kinetic energy by You-Ri Yamanaka’s elegant movement and Twist’s artistry, everything is gloriously alive. Music by the film’s original composer Joe Hisaishi, performed by a treetop band and singer Ai Ninomiya, is by turns bouncy and shimmering; Jessica Hung Han Yun’s lighting drenches everything in sunbeams and moonlight; and the cast perfectly marry playfulness and truthful emotional simplicity to extraordinary technical sophistication. It’s unadulterated joy: a huge, healing hug of a show, generous and utterly beguiling.
4 out of 5 stars
In the RSC’s new blockbuster awe-inspiring puppets bring Studio Ghibli’s masterpiece to the stage flawlessly
Studio Ghibli’s 1988 cartoon masterpiece ‘My Neighbour Totoro’ is a stunningly beautiful, devastatingly charming film, in which not a huge amount happens per se.
It follows two young sisters who move to the countryside with their dad and basically get up to a lot of extremely normal things… while also fleetingly encountering a succession of astounding otherworldly creatures, most notably Totoro, a gigantic furry woodland spirit, and the Cat Bus, a cat that is also a bus (or a bus that is also a cat, whatever).
Its most iconic scene involves young heroines Meil and Satsuki waiting at a bus stop, and Totoro shuffling up behind them, chuckling at their umbrella (a new concept to him) and then hopping on his unearthly public transport. So if you’re going to adapt it for the stage you’re going to have to absolutely nail the puppets you use to portray Totoro and co.
The RSC absolutely understood the brief here, although you’ll have to take my word for it, as for this first ever stage adaption – by Tom Morton-Smith, overseen by legendary Ghibli composer Joe Hisaishi – the company hasn’t allowed a single publicity photo of a single puppet (bar some chickens) to be released.
Nonetheless, the puppets – designed by Basil Twist, assembled by Jim Hendon’s Creature Workshop – are fucking spectacular.
They have to be fucking spectacular because that’s the offer of this show. It’s ‘My Neighbour Totoro’, but IRL. Morton-Smith has not radically revised Hayao Miyazaki’s original screenplay, director Phelim McDermott and designer Tom Pye have not significantly tinkered with the look; Hisaishi’s sprightly songs are still there, performed by the talented Ai Ninomiya. It even begins with a lovely faux-facsimile of the film’s iconic opening credits, complete with animated letters (including a cheeky ‘u’ that apologetically slinks down to alter the name from ‘neighbor’ to a more British ‘neighbour’).
Spoiler alert, but there are actually at least five Totoros, ranging from his colossal sleeping form – when Mei Mac’s Mei first randomly encounters him under the giant camphor tree near her house – to smaller, more mobile forms, and even a sweet 2D faux-woodcut version. All of them are absolutely charming, and most of them have the troublingly enormous teeth and tongue that define the OG screen version. I wrote a somewhat emotional review when the theatres reopened last year about how the giant bunny rabbit in the Bush Theatre’s reopening show ‘Harm’ really restored my faith in the stage. And frankly that rabbit is literally and spiritually dwarfed by Totoro, a titanic, unknowable furry wall of whimsy who laughs, roars, licks his lips, rolls his eyes and waits for busses and it’s all basically the greatest thrill ever (NB I still love that rabbit). The Cat Bus is great too, like a colossal Chinese lantern, and Totoro’s goggle-eyed, rabbit-like minions are a delight. But it’s the big guy who truly enchants.
The show has assembled an admirable range of British East Asian actors, smartly getting around the nominal youth of the story’s heroines (Mei is four) by casting adults Mei Mac (Mei) and Ami Okumura Jones (Satsuki) but stuffing them in perspective forcing costumes that make them look more like children dimensionally. In many ways the true leads are the anonymous legions of black-clad puppeteers who archly double, triple and quadruple up as everything from Totoro to the hordes of ‘dust sprites’ that populate the girls’ new house, to a flock of wobbly chickens.
My only quibble is that in its sheer reverence for the source material, ‘My Neighbour Totoro’ feels entirely beholden to it. Of course you’d enjoy it if you hadn’t seen the film, but nonetheless, there is no question that its purpose is to put the film on stage. Colossal as the talent on display is, there’s not much room for fresh artistic vision. But it’s what the people want, and when what the people want is a house-sized forest demon furry thing with a massive tongue, the people should not be denied. Yes, it’s a faithful transposition of the film. But every setpiece you’re willing to be a stunner, is a stunner, an endless cavalcade of sweet, strange joy.