My Neighbor Totoro

Barbican Centre

Innocence. A fleeting thing, silverly like moonlight and in short supply at times like these. Improbable theatre company headed by director Phelim McDermott in partnership with original Studio Ghibli composer Joe Hisaishi has done the…well improbable (hahaha). Turning Hayao Miyazaki’s 1988 animation into a glorious theatre reality, bringing to life this drawn tale of childhood wonder.

Famous Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli traded partly in the commodity of innocence. The early films in their roster rejoiced in the importance of the natural world through the eyes of the young. Things darken later, and layers of menace crept in in the late 90s (ironically bringing international fame) with films such as Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. But the interplay between childhood and adulthood, nature and civilisation stayed throughout.

In the countryside of 1950s Japan, a father moves his young family from the city to be close to their mother in the hospital. The girls’ Mei (Mei Mac) and Satsuki (Ami Okumura Jones) embark on a tale of spirit and spirits, as they deal with sickness, sisterhood, and loneliness in their new home. That’s the beauty of the story, its simplicity. However, drawing something (although taking much artistic skill) is a very different kettle of forest spirit to bringing it to life in the real world of theatre.

Plonking ourselves down, even the first 5 minutes are divine, as the fluffy mop-looking title letters start to bounce and sing on a flat blue background. Producing squeals of delight from the children in the audience. We are in safe hands I think, and breathe a sigh of relief.

The bones of the show are impressive, dinosaur-like in size. Tom Pye’s set uses every inch of the cavernous Barbican theatre. The traditional Minka house sits in the centre of a nifty little revolving stage, around it the gnarled tendrils of the wood are more than just a decorative backdrop. Twisting themselves into Lorien-style elven platforms, they hold aloft at the back of the stage, the orchestra, and Japanese singer-songwriter Ai Ninomiya. Lit with warm little fairy lights it is (almost) indescribably beautiful. A clever way to have the musicians (bringing to like Hisaishi’s soaring score) within the world created, yet still leaving the stage free for action. Pye’s mix of stylistic two-dimensional scene changes (cut out’s of the family motor driving) with very three-dimensional set pieces that Rubix cube on and off is a loving nod to the tale’s flatter origins.

The faithfulness to the anime doesn’t stop there (thankfully). Joe Hisaishi as the composer and executive producer is the driving force and reason we are seeing this show at all. Bringing his Ghibli mindset and scores to the RSC and Improbable he has crafted something entirely its own, yet lovingly true to the original film. The cast understands this duality, both Mac and Okumura Jones allow the extreme physicality, and vocal work in the film to inform their performances. Not only becoming very believable children but also reminding us of the style the studio is so well known for. Some actors although skilled find this difficult to deal with such as Dai Tabuchi as their father Tatsuo. Yet overall the tale keeps its wonder without devolving into sentimentality or melodrama.

But what about the infamous neighbor? Totoro himself marked a move to financial stability for the studio. Toys of his likeness kick-started the branching out into other avenues that now include adverts, computer animation, and a theme park opening in November (outside Tokyo).

To create him for the play, they turned to Basil Twist. In many other shows, (2018’s A Monster Calls at the Old Vic for one) the use of everyday objects and clever lighting, crafts these large magical beings, with varying degrees of effectiveness. In this case, no such combination technique is used. When Mei first meets Totoro in the forest a gasp rips around the auditorium. Looking like a gigantic Snorlax, the puppet is breathing, inflated, and so humongous that Mei can sit on his chest. The fluffy-owl-badger-woodland-water-bottle has a massive pink red mouth and a moving tongue and looks…well alive. It is puppetry that crafts magic out of mechanics. His eyes swing around, claws curl, and lips rise expressively. Don’t even get me started on the glowing cat bus! Like a golden zeppelin, but much more fun, It glides off and on stage, bathing us in a sunset of light and movement.

All this wonder is puppeted by the soot sprites in human form. The all-important Improbable ensemble. Like with their Philip Glass opera Akhenaten, McDermott’s process of improvisation and playfulness crafts a show where amazing feats can be orchestrated by people in black veils and you still are utterly hoodwinked. This is a triumph for the theatre company and the director, as having created a “huge-hearted ensemble spirit” the proof is very much in the mochi.

I am already way over my word limit and can imagine my editor’s disapproving glare, but the details, where the devil are! Set changes where farmers pull crops on attached to their sandals, or Kimie Nakano’s bright, brash, perfect period costumes. Everyone is pulling together to do justice to a seminal piece of animated film.

As Mei and Satsuki plant acorns to cheer up their mother, waiting patiently for them to grow only for them to burst into dramatic life thanks to Totoro’s mystical scream, we are reminded of the complexity inside this simple story. Only the girls can see the fuzzball, yet through this friendship, they learn about themselves and the world. Similarly, this piece is a reminder of the things we forget as adults. Love, friendship, and reverence for nature. The first of the big Christmas shows is a germinating, blossoming, unfurling delight, filled with subtle environmental and social commentary. Maybe we could all do with a neighbor, like Totoro?

On until January, grab your ticket here!