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What to expect from the world premiere of Studio Ghibli's 'My Neighbour Totoro' on stage

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

This autumn, the Barbican invites you into a magical world as My Neighbour Totoro makes its highly anticipated world premiere. The Royal Shakespeare Company production is based on the 1988 animated film from Studio Ghibli, which became a global sensation. But what exactly does the Japanese company Studio Ghibli do and what can you expect from this new show? Read on for our guide to My Neighbour Totoro in London.

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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?

If the stage version follows a similar tale to the movie, you can expect to meet a pair of 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 will My Neighbour Totoro be like on stage?

This is the exciting question: how will the RSC translate Studio Ghibli’s distinctive anime style? The company is teaming up with a Japanese broadcaster, Nippon TV, and the show is executive produced by Joe Hisaishi — the film’s original composer, whose work will once again feature in this new theatrical incarnation.

Playwright Tom Morton-Smith, who had a big hit with the RSC with his 2015 play Oppenheimer, will adapt 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 will all those magical elements come to life? One answer is puppetry. Basil Twist will design the puppets, and they are being built by none other than Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, also known as the geniuses behind The Muppets and Sesame Street.

London theatre has had an incredible run of puppet-based work recently, so hopes are high that Studio Ghibli’s otherworldly creatures can be reborn via puppetry in My Neighbour Totoro. Check out all the West End puppet shows currently running.

My Neighbour Totoro will also be a musical, with Will Stuart supplying new orchestrations of Hisaishi’s transporting score. That should be particularly effective in this new theatrical version. Phelim McDermott directs the production; he has an impressive track record of pioneering work with his company Improbable.

The one thing we do know for sure is that this is already a massively popular production. My Neighbour Totoro 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. So, don’t wait too long to book your tickets for My Neighbour Totoro. It will almost certainly have a life in the West End and beyond, and you can say you saw it here first!

Book My Neighbour Totoro tickets on London Theatre.

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

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