My Neighbour Totoro at the Barbican: how the RSC turned a cult cartoon into autumn’s must-see theatre show

 (Photo by Manuel Harlan (c) RSC, with Nippon TV.)
(Photo by Manuel Harlan (c) RSC, with Nippon TV.)

With the news that My Neighbour Totoro will be returning to the Barbican next autumn, here’s the behind the scenes story of how the original production came together.

When tickets for the stage adaptation of My Neighbour Totoro went on sale at the Barbican last autumn, demand was so high that it broke the venue’s record for sales in a single day. Such was the clamour that it proved even more popular than Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet, put on at the venue at the height the actor’s Sherlock fame.

Those who have never heard of Totoro or indeed Studio Ghibli – the Japanese animation studio behind that and many other hand drawn cartoon feature films – will be asking the question: why is this the hottest ticket in town?

Essentially, Ghibli is one of Japan’s great cultural exports and, as the ticket sales show, it has legions of devoted fans around the world. Co-founded by Hayao Miyazaki, three works to come out of the studio are in Japan’s top five top grossing films worldwide. The Oscar-winning Spirited Away from 2001 made more at the box office globally than Disney’s 1967’s The Jungle Book or 1998’s Mulan.

Ghibli references have appeared in The Simpsons, Toy Story 3 and the comic book pages of The Sandman and X-Men. Some of the studio’s animated characters have even been dubbed in English by Hollywood stars such as Gillian Anderson and Christian Bale. The studio is, as this new stage production’s director Phelim McDermott, says, “A massive cultural phenomenon.”

 ((c) Studio Ghibli)
((c) Studio Ghibli)

An impossible task

There was something kismet about My Neighbour Totoro’s selection for stage adaption. The Royal Shakesspeare Company had wanted to put on a child-friendly play for some time; playwright Tom Morton-Smith, who penned the RSC’s 2015 play Oppenheimer, suggested My Neighbour Totoro, and they then wrote to Studio Ghibli. Sometime later Joe Hisaishi, who composed some of Ghibli’s best known scores, got in touch with the RSC hoping to put on a play that would be able to use his celebrated music throughout. My Neighbour Totoro was the animation he had in mind.

But what may at first seem like a simple enough project – an adaptation of an 86-minute children’s animation – soon threw up complications. First of all film is slow, almost plotless at points, focusing instead on the magic of nature through the eyes of two young girls, Satsuki and Mei, who have moved to the country with their father – their mother is ill and is in care. It’s set in post-Second World War Japan and there is a giant cat-bus, which they ride, small and large Totoros, thousands of soot sprites (balls of sentient soot) and magic trees that soar up through the ground.

“That’s what I loved about the film. It’s so confident in its belief that we might just watch some water in a stream for a bit. We might just watch some trees rustling or a landscape,” says McDermott. “I spent the last 15 years doing Philip Glass operas where very little happens. Or there’s one scene that’s 15 minutes long, and it’s got one event in. So the idea that you might try and do that, in a family show – a show that children might watch – got me really excited.”

Phelim McDermott and Joe Hisaishi at the Barbican (Photo by Ellie Kurttz (c) RSC)
Phelim McDermott and Joe Hisaishi at the Barbican (Photo by Ellie Kurttz (c) RSC)

The next stage was the decision to use puppets in the production - including Totoro, a giant furry creature, itself. “When I pitched it, and when I started working on it, I had no idea of the scale that we might be able to achieve,” says Morton-Smith. Now the production has a fleet of puppets of different kinds and sizes, from chickens to Totoros, all circumnavigating the stage at different times.

McDermott turned for help to long-time puppet collaborator Basil Twist, whose 1998 Symphonie Fantastique show brought the artist international acclaim. For this RSC production, Twist has worked alongside several puppet builders, most notably Jim Henson’s Creature Shop (whose founder, puppeteer Jim Henson, created The Muppets) and Mervyn Millar’s Significant Object (who worked on Paul McCartney’s Appreciate).

Although the RSC has been keeping details about how they created the cat-bus and giant Totoro under wraps, they did release a sneak peek of some of the creation processes. Makers can be seen tying thousands of pieces of wool onto the stomach of a giant Totoro. “Totoro must be that you want to touch him, that you want to fall asleep on his belly,” says Twist in the clip.

According to McDermott, the Japanese producers and Hisaishi pressed the importance of the puppets moving through human and not mechanical workings in the play. In the end, the puppeteers are not mechanical, but nor are they traditional Japanese Bunraku puppet performances either – McDermott and his crew have created their own style of puppetry, which they have called “wind spirits”.

“It’s very, very human facilitated,” says McDermott. “We’ve got an on-stage ensemble of puppeteers. They’ve got their own costumes that help them be invisible at certain points, but they’re a presence. And they are like storytellers. It’s a little bit like in the movie, if you suddenly got to see the animators who were making that cartoon happen.”

 (Photo by Manuel Harlan (c) RSC, with Nippon TV.)
(Photo by Manuel Harlan (c) RSC, with Nippon TV.)

A Japanese house

When My Neighbour Totoro was created back in the Eighties - it was realeased in 1988 - it was billed as Studio Ghibli’s most ‘Japanese’ animation: “Crucially, after two films based in fictional worlds created from a patchwork of mostly Western storytelling influences, My Neighbour Totoro would see Miyazaki turning his attention to a uniquely Japanese setting and story,” wrote Ghibli specialists Jake Cunningham and Michael Leader in their book 2021 book Ghibliotheque.

At the time, Miyazaki had lamented, “Though we live in Japan, and are without doubt Japanese, we continue to create animation films that avoid depicting Japan”. The result is Totoro, a film that gently fizzes with Japanese culture, mysticism and Shintoism, which doubles as a love letter to nature.

This focus on the natural world has the power to strike a particular cord with modern audiences. “Totoro found a moment with its environmental message, I think it’s having a resurgence for obvious reasons,” says the stage show’s production designer Tom Pye.

Cunningham agrees: “[Ghibli’s] outlook on humanity manages to be entirely un-mainstream. But also proved to be commercially viable as well, which is astonishing, really. These are very humanist, pacifist fables that connect to a huge number of people.”

It was hugely important, then, that the RSC authentically convey the Japanese culture humming throughout the animation. The production team worked closely with Studio Ghibli (often via Zoom meetings) and costume designer Kimie Nakano, to make sure things were, as precisely as they could be, culturally accurate. They also gained input from the show’s 22-strong cast and company of actors with East and South-East Asian heritage.

When it came to building the set itself, Pye did not work directly with Japanese designers, but used classic English theatre-making techniques (the set is built in steel) and then added a “beautiful oak veneer” on top.

He focused on creating a house, rather than trying to replicate the countryside in any way (where he might have had to smother the stage in plastic leaves - “I just felt that there’s nothing less Japanese than green-painted plastic,” says Pye). The designer also used Japanese wood techniques, such as Shou Sugi Ban (a wood treatment) in certain parts of the house.

In an effort to maintain the gentleness of the original animation, the production team also tried to make each part of My Neighbour Totoro feel somehow homemade. The wind spirit puppets are a central part of this effort, but even videographers Finn Ross and Andrea Scott  have worked on how to make their digital art form feel analogue. Pye also played with the idea of the 2D animation turning to 3D, using 2D images as a way to solve problems such as how to create the forest.

 (Photo by Manuel Harlan (c) RSC, with Nippon TV.)
(Photo by Manuel Harlan (c) RSC, with Nippon TV.)

Expanding My Neighbour Totoro

For purists, the RSC adaptation might come as a little bit of a shock. The animation has been adapted to work as a play, meaning that scenes have been “deepened and expanded” and characters, such as teacher Miss Hara and Satsuki’s new friend Kanta Ōgaki, and his family, have been given more prominent roles.

“It’s not like you’re going to turn up and see the film. The film still exists, and you will always be able to go back and watch that,” says Morton-Smith. “This is something that hopefully exists alongside it. And as such has to be slightly different for it to work, for it to achieve the same kind of resonance that the film does in live action.”

According to Pye, Ghibli and Hisaishi were explicitly looking for someone to reinvent their animation in a theatrical language. In Japan, one adaptation attempt had used too much video, and people at Ghibli had apparently not been so keen on it. The studio wanted theatrics and Pye and the RSC team felt like they could deliver.

“If you really try and accurately create what was in the cartoon, then you’re always going to disappoint. Whereas if you use puppetry, and it involves people’s imagination, then the imagination fills in the blanks and that’s what’s exciting. And that makes it a reason to do it as a theatre piece,” says McDermott.

Universal appeal

Spirited Away is arguably Ghibli’s best-known work globally and has influenced dozens of films, including Marvel’s Eternals and Pixar’s 2022 film Turning Red. It centres around a love story and deals with parenting, greed, shame and identity,

My Neighbour Totoro offers viewers something else altogether, though still complex: it deals with the anxiety around moving house as a child, the realisation that your parents are mortal and coming to terms with grief.

“I think it’s really important to create work that’s for families, that children see, that doesn’t patronise them, and does include those big themes,” says McDermott.

“The story, though very much tied to a specific time and place, has these universal resonances that I think speak to many, if not everyone, who’s been a child,” says Morton-Smith.

“I’m a big believer, when it comes to storytelling, about how specificity kind of equals universality. If you can tell a story that’s very rooted in a time and a place in the culture, then the humanity of that story shines through and people will be able to relate to it,” he adds.

This universality is something that Cunningham also taps into with Totoro: “This in particular, maybe more so than any of their other works, connected with so many people over so many generations and ages,” he says.

 (Photo by Manuel Harlan (c) RSC, with Nippon TV.)
(Photo by Manuel Harlan (c) RSC, with Nippon TV.)

Joe Hisaishi’s music

One of the most integral components of the adaptation is Joe Hisaishi’s score, which has been reimagined by orchestrator Will Stuart. Hisaishi was working with Studio Ghibli even before its official 1985 foundation, and has composed as many as 20 Ghibli film soundtracks including the music for 1997’s Princess Mononoke, 2004’s Howl’s Moving Castle, 2008’s Ponyo and, of course, My Neighbour Totoro.

For a production in which so many elements come together at once, Hisaishi’s music acts like glue. Pye says, “It’s such a big part of the evening that without [the music], nothing quite gels or makes sense. And then the music comes in and you go, ‘Oh, okay. Now I understand what we’re doing.’”

My Neighbour Totoro’s original score is made up of a lot of electronic and synthetic sounds, which meant that Stuart worked closely with Hisaishi to transform the music for a live band. “It’s really nice to hear Will’s orchestrations of Joe’s music,” says McDermott. “Joe has been pretty hands-on about making sure it sounds how he wants it to sound.”

The live band stays on stage throughout the adaptation - Pye has built them a kind of treehouse that he wanted to be “playful and childlike” and “a bit naughty and impractical and fun”, to reflect the magic and the children’s perspectives. “The music is really evocative. It’s just gorgeous,” says Morton-Smith.

 (Photo by Manuel Harlan (c) RSC, with Nippon TV.)
(Photo by Manuel Harlan (c) RSC, with Nippon TV.)

Ghibli mania

Because Ghibli and its animations are such a phenomenon, it can be tempting to try and make comparisons between the studio and Western franchises. “From a commercial point of view, because of the amount of money that some of the pictures make, there is a Marvel comparison there,” says Cunningham.

But, he adds, the comparison is a clumsy one - the essence of the projects couldn’t be more different: “They are individual works. They’re not building a cinematic universe,” says Cunningham of Ghibli’s films.

Studio Ghibli now faces some existential questions about its next steps. Founder Miyazaki is 81 years old – he has retired twice (once in the late Nineties and again in 2013) but returned each time to make another animation. There are few obvious candidates to pick up the mantle after him (despite Miyazaki’s best efforts – it’s a storied history) and though animations are still being produced (How Do You Live? is the studio’s next project), they’re being released at a much slower pace than in previous decades.

As a result, the studio is turning its efforts to expanding its current film portfolio. A Hayao Miyazaki exhibition was the debut show at the new Academy Museum in LA in September 2021. Ghibli Park, a Studio Ghibli theme park, is currently being built in Nagakute in Japan. Starting in 2020, over 20 Ghibli films were added to Netflix, introducing the iconic animations to a much wider audience. And the RSC’s My Neighbour Totoro can be seen as another example of the studio reaching out to a brand new audience.

So, after years of preparation, with an international team working from different spots across the globe, and throughout the pandemic, the RSC’s adaptation of My Neighbour Totoro is finally here - the play started previews on Saturday and opens next week.

The RSC production has everything going for it. A stellar creative team, a 10-people band, and a beloved and evocative storyline – which speaks to current themes such as protecting the environment – as well as a devoted fanbase. As Cunningham puts it, “These are films that sustain people, and that they carry with them through life”.

Touching on the “wonderful craziness” of the animation’s story, McDermott says, Miyazake has “tapped into something, and created something that will last a long time, you know. Totoro is going to outlive him, it’ll outlive me. He’s going to be around a while I think.”

My Neighbour Totoro, November 21, 2023 to March 24, 2024;