What to expect from London shows based on Studio Ghibli films

Studio Ghibli is a renowned Japanese animation film studio founded in 1985. They are known for creating imaginative movies, including My Neighbour Totoro and Spirited Away.

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

This autumn, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s triumphant 2022 stage adaptation of My Neighbour Totoro returns to the Barbican for a second run due to enormous popular demand. The show won six Olivier Awards and broke the Barbican’s box office record for the most tickets sold in a single day.

But that’s not the only show in town based on a film by renowned company Studio Ghibli. It was recently announced that the Japanese stage production of Spirited Away will come to London’s West End in April 2024, directed by the Olivier and Tony Award-winning John Caird.

So, what do you need to know about Studio Ghibli, and what can you expect from these two exciting productions? Read on for our handy guide to this magical world.

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What is Studio Ghibli?

Based in Koganei, Tokyo, Studio Ghibli is a hugely successful Japanese animation film studio. It was founded in 1985 by directors Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata and the producer Toshio Suzuki, following the success of 1984 anime film Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, which Miyazaki based on his manga comic book.

Studio Ghibli’s first project was the 1986 film Castle in the Sky, which followed a boy and a girl in a fictional version of the 19th century trying to protect a crystal from various factions, all while searching for a magical floating castle. It was a box office hit, paving the way for the company’s ground-breaking projects to come.

In 1988 Studio Ghibli released My Neighbour Totoro and also Kiki’s Delivery Service, the latter about a young trainee witch who earns a living by making deliveries on her broomstick. Kiki’s Delivery Service was their first film distributed in partnership with Disney.

Many more films followed, leading to one of Studio Ghibli’s highest-grossing and most critically acclaimed works, Spirited Away. The 2001 film follows a young girl who enters a spirit world and must brave a witch in order to free her parents, who have been turned into pigs. The movie took almost $400 million at the worldwide box office and went on to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature — the only hand-drawn and non-English-language film to win that award in history.

Other successes for Studio Ghibli include 2004 film Howl’s Moving Castle, based on Diana Wynne Jones’s novel. The film’s heroine is Sophie, who gets turned into an elderly woman by a witch’s curse, encounters the titular Howl, and plays a key role in an ongoing war. The movie was another big box office hit and was nominated for an Oscar.

What is the Studio Ghibli film style?

Studio Ghibli’s style is very different to most modern films, as it continues to use traditional animation methods, known in Japan as anime. Every frame is drawn by hand, and the emphasis is on 2D animation with artistic flair - watercolour and acrylics, arresting colours, and idiosyncratic, whimsical details.

The Studio Ghibli films also share prevailing themes, such as environmental campaigning and a love for nature, anti-war messaging, the rise of feminism, the idealism of young people, and the power of found families — plus an imaginative spin on our real world. Instead of good characters versus evil ones, the conflicts tend to be more nuanced, emotional and philosophical.

What happens in My Neighbour Totoro?

The stage version closely follows the movie’s plot. You are introduced to a pair of young sisters, Satsuki and Mei - daughters of a university professor. They move to an old house, close to where their mother is being treated in hospital, and begin to encounter various spirits.

Those include the forest protector Totoro, who takes them on magical journeys that mirror the wonder of nature - like seeds sprouting after a ceremonial dance. The story also charts the family’s difficult time as the girls worry about their mother’s recovery.

A big theme in the film is animism: the belief that everything around us, including natural elements, has a spirit element. There are also nods to Shinto tradition, like a shrine to Totoro, as well as more universal ideas such as the joys to be found in rural living and communing with nature, and the importance of protecting our environment.

My Neighbour Totoro Jim Henson's Creature Shop - 750 - LT

What is My Neighbour Totoro like on stage?

The RSC has done an astonishing job with translating Studio Ghibli’s distinctive anime style to the stage. The company teamed up with a Japanese broadcaster, Nippon TV, and the show is executive produced by Joe Hisaishi — the film’s original composer, whose work is once again a key element in the theatrical incarnation.

Playwright Tom Morton-Smith, who had a big hit with the RSC with his 2015 play Oppenheimer, has brilliantly adapted the film for theatre. Of course, the company has an incredible track record of bringing classic works to the stage, from Roald Dahl’s Matilda and Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby to Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables.

But how do all those magical elements come to life? One answer is puppetry. Basil Twist has designed the puppets, and they have been built by none other than Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, also known as the geniuses behind The Muppets and Sesame Street. Music is also key, with Will Stuart supplying new orchestrations of Hisaishi’s transporting score.

In London Theatre’s five-star review of My Neighbour Totoro, we called Phelim McDermott’s production “theatre at its most magical” and predicted that it would be “a massive hit”.

It definitely is! The production broke the Barbican’s box office record for ticket sales in one day - a record that was previously held by the Benedict Cumberbatch-starring Hamlet from 2015 – and it’s already back for a second run after huge demand. So, don’t wait too long to experience this very special show.

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What happens in Spirited Away?

Studio Ghibli’s 2001 film follows 10-year-old Chihiro, who is travelling to her new home with her parents. They stop at an abandoned amusement park and her parents eat the food they find in a restaurant – which turns them into pigs.

Guided by the spirits in the bathhouse, and by the ruler of this world, the sorceress Yubaba, Chihiro gets a job there. She has to contend with the insatiable No-Face and various shapeshifting creatures, and is aided by her friend Haku. Eventually Chihiro passes a test set by Yubaba, and she sets her parents free.

The themes of Spirited Away include Shinto-Buddhist ideas, a similar animism to My Neighbour Totoro, the dangers of consumerism, and the journey from childhood to adulthood.

What will Spirited Away be like on stage?

The stage adaptation of the Oscar-winning Spirited Away premiered in Tokyo in 2022. This Japanese production will have its European premiere at the London Coliseum in April 2024, with exact dates to be announced.

However, we do know that the original cast, led by Kanna Hashimoto and Mone Kamishiraishi as Chihiro, will perform in the London version, directed by John Caird – whose numerous successful productions include the original Les Misérables.

The stage adaptation of Spirited Away will be in Japanese, with English captions. As with My Neighbour Totoro, music will play an important role: a live orchestra will play the film’s score by Joe Hisaishi.

You can also expect more jaw-dropping puppetry, by Toby Olié, plus a spectacular set design by Jon Bausor, choreography by Shigehiro Ide, and costumes by Sachiko Nakahara.

Check back soon for information on Spirited Away tickets on London Theatre.

Photo credit: My Neighbour Totoro still (Photo courtesy of Studio Ghibli)

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