Miyazaki Hayao’s My Neighbor Totoro gets London Stage musical theater play in 2022


Poster for the musical
Poster for the upcoming musical My Neighbor Totoro. Photo credit: Royal Shakespeare Company

London’s Royal Shakespeare Company is collaborating with multi-award-winning composer Joe Hisaishi to prepare a stage adaptation of Miyazaki Hayao’s quirky 1988 Studio Ghibli film My Neighbor Totoro.

Joe Hisaishi has been associated with animator Hayao Miyazaki since 1984 and has composed the musical scores for all but one of his films: Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Laputa: Castle in the Sky, Porco Rosso, Princess Mononoke, and My Neighbor Totoro more! Joe Hisaishi’s musical scores, full of whimsy, helped set the mood in these fantasy films.

Tom Morton-Smith will write the play’s screenplay. Phelim McDermott will direct the play with production design by Tom Pye. Nakano Kimie will design the costumes; Lighting by Jessica Hung Han Yun and choreography by Yamanaka You-Rei. The play will feature puppetry created by Basil Twist. The music from Hisaishi’s score is performed live in a new orchestration by Will Stuart with sound design by Tony Gayle.

Painted backdrops and artwork for the play include a hand-drawn title by Studio Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki. Toshio Suzuki helped plan and produce the original animated film. Casting calls for the play will be announced shortly.

The enchanting coming-of-age story explores children’s connection to magic

The coming-of-age story, set in 1950s Japan, revolves around a summer in the life of two sisters – Satsuki and Mei (around ten and four years old respectively). The sisters move to an old house in the country to be closer to the hospital where their mother, Yasuko, is recovering from a long-term illness.

The house is inhabited by “susuwatari” or dust spirits, which the girls can see as they move from shadowy places to bright areas. After a thorough cleaning, the dust ghosts decide to leave. Shortly after, the girls have another encounter with the supernatural when two little spirits lead Mei to the nearby forest and into the cave of a camphor tree. There, she encounters a giant ghost speaking in a roar, which Mei interprets as “Totoro”.

Mei believes Totoro to be a troll from the book Three Billy Goats Gruff she is reading, when in reality he is the ancient protector of the forest. Mei falls asleep on top of Totoro, but when her sister Satsuki comes to find her, Mei just sleeps on the floor. Mei tries in vain to find the special hollow to prove Totoro’s existence. Her father, Tatsuo Kusakabe, a university professor, tells his daughter that Totoro will reveal himself if he wants and needn’t worry.

On a rainy night, the sisters are waiting for their father’s bus, which is late. As Mei falls asleep, her sister puts her on her back when Totoro suddenly appears next to Satsuki and lets her see him for the first time ever. When Satsuki realizes that the giant Totoro has only a small leaf on his head to protect him from rain, she generously offers the umbrella she wanted to give her father.

Poster for My Neighbor Totoro.
Poster image for My Neighbor Totoro. Photo credit: Studio Ghibli

After befriending Totoro, the sisters embark on fantastical adventures

Totoro is happy to give her a bag of nuts and seeds in return. A giant, cat-like bus appears, which Totoro gets on and then departs. Shortly thereafter, her father’s bus arrives. The two sisters decide to sow the seeds and a few days later they are awakened at midnight by singing. They leave their home to discover Totoro and other forest spirits in the midst of a ceremonial dance around the planted seeds. The sisters join in and the seeds grow into a gigantic tree. To celebrate, Totoro takes the sisters on a ride through the sky on a magic top.

However, in the morning when the girls wake up, the tree has mysteriously disappeared, but their seeds have developed into tiny seedlings. When the sisters learn that their mother’s visit has to be postponed due to a setback in her treatment, Mei doesn’t take it well and has an argument with Satsuki. Mei secretly goes to visit her mother in the hospital to bring her some corn. Finding Mei missing, Satsuki and her father enlist the help of the neighbors to search for her.

Satsuki gradually loses hope of finding her sister and decides to go to the camphor tree where Totoro lives to ask for his help. Totoro enthusiastically summons the cat bus and they travel to where Mei is. After an emotional reunion between the sisters, the cat bus takes them to the hospital. The sisters overhear their parents talking about how their mother is actually doing better but was unable to leave the hospital because of a cold.

The sisters decide to leave the ear of corn on the windowsill where their parents later discover it before returning home. Eventually, her mother Yasuke returns home and things in their household return to normal. Totoro and the other forest spirits watch over Satsuki and Mei while they play with other children their own age.

Totoro, Satsuki, Mei, Forest Spirits and the Cat Bus.
Totoro, Satsuki, Mei, the forest spirits and the cat bus. Photo credit: @wallpapercave.com

A universal story that appeals to people of all cultures and languages

Hisaishi commented, “In Japan, many people have a passion for theater and musicals, but there are no original Japanese shows or musicals performed in the world. My Neighbor Totoro is a Japanese work that is famous around the world and as such this stage adaptation could have the potential to reach a global audience. That’s what I thought, and I said to Miyazaki-san, ‘I want to see a show like that,’ and he said, ‘Yes, only if you do it’.”

Hisaishi continued, “This responsibility is a huge task, but we have chosen to work with the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), a world-renowned company, and with their support we can make this happen. I am very happy that the RSC has become our partner, because I have a lot in common between the quality of the RSC and Mr. Miyazaki’s aesthetic. I was involved with the original animated film, so doing the film justice is very important to me. If the story is universal – as I believe – it will have global reach, even if performed by people from different cultural backgrounds, speaking different languages. I was sure of that, so we decided to open outside of Japan. For me that was important. It’s important to keep your distance from the film, but it’s also important to have new encounters.”

Erica Whyman, RSC Associate Artistic Director, commented: “Adapting this well-loved magical tale for the stage is the next chapter in our long-standing commitment to creating spectacular and accessible productions that see the world through the eyes of children, most recently The Magician’s Elephant , Wendy and Peter Pan and of course Matilda The Musical. We know this major new contract will attract a wide range of theater audiences as well as loyal fans of the original film.”

Toni Racklin, Director of Theater and Dance at the Barbican School of Dance, commented: “This ambitious cross-cultural production marks 10 successful years of collaboration between the Barbican and the RSC and we are very proud to be the RSC’s second home .”

From October 8, 2022 to January 21, 2023, My Neighbor Totoro will play a 15-week season.

You can buy tickets on the official website here.

There is also a video in which executive producer Joe Hisaishi, director Phelim McDermott and members of the film’s creative team discuss the creative process behind the adaptation of Studio Ghibli’s 1988 animated film My Neighbor Totoro in collaboration with Nippon TV and Improbable.

The film’s creative team discusses its production.

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