My Neighbour Totoro review – dazzling staging of the Studio Ghibli classic

Barbican, London
The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production has astonishing puppetry, magical music and huge emotional impact

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.
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”.


Arifa Akbar

The GuardianTramp

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