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

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

The Royal Shakespeare Company in London is teaming up with multi-award-winning composer Joe Hisaishi to ready a stage adaptation of Miyazaki Hayao’s whimsical 1988 Studio Ghibli film My Neighbor Totoro.

Joe Hisaishi has been associated with animator Hayao Miyazaki since 1984, having the composed 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, My Neighbor Totoro and more! Joe Hisaishi’s musical scores that were filled with whimsy, helped set the mood in these fantasy movies.

Tom Morton-Smith will write the play’s script. Phelim McDermott will direct the play with production design by Tom Pye. Nakano Kimie will design the costumes; there will be 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 will be performed live in a new orchestration by Will Stuart with sound design by Tony Gayle.

Painted backdrops and artwork for the play will include a hand drawn title by Toshio Suzuki, a Studio Ghibli producer. Toshio Suzuki was involved in the planning and production of the original animated film. Casting calls for the play will be announced soon.

Enchanting coming-of-age story explores childrens’ connection to magic

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

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The house is inhabited by “susuwatari” or dust spirits that the girls can see when they move from shadowy places out into bright areas. After a deep cleaning the dust spirits decide to leave. Soon after, the girls have another encounter with the supernatural when two small spirits lead Mei into the nearby forest and into the hollow of a camphor tree. There, she meets a giant spirit that speaks in roars, which Mei interprets as meaning “Totoro”.

Mei believes that Totoro is a troll from the book she’s been reading Three Billy Goats Gruff, when in fact 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 is merely sleeping on the ground. Mei tries to find the special hollow again in order to prove Totoro’s existence to no avail. Her father, Tatsuo Kusakabe a university professor, tells his daughter that Totoro will reveal himself when he wants to and not to worry.

One rainy night, the sisters are waiting for their father’s bus, which is late. When Mei falls asleep, her sister places her on her back, this is when Totoro suddenly appears beside Satsuki, letting her see him for the very first time. When Satsuki notices that the giant Totoro only has a small leaf on his head for protection against the rain she generously offers the umbrella she had been planning to give to her father.

Poster for My Neighbor Totoro.
Poster visual for My Neighbor Totoro. Pic credit: Studio Ghibli

After befriending Totoro the sisters embark on fantastical adventures

Totoro happily gives her a bag of nuts and seeds in return. A giant, cat-like bus appears, which Totoro boards and then departs. It’s not long after that that their father’s bus arrives. The two sisters decide to plant the seeds and a few days later they’re awakened by the sound of singing at midnight. They exit their house to discover Totoro and other forest spirits in the middle of a ceremonial dance around the planted seeds. The sisters join in and the seeds grow into a gargantuan tree. To celebrate, Totoro takes the sisters on a ride through the sky on a magical spinning top.

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In the morning, when the girls wake up, however, the tree has mysteriously vanished, but their seeds have spouted into tiny seedlings. When the sisters find out their mother’s visit has to be postponed because of a setback in her treatment, Mei doesn’t take it well and fights with Satsuki. Mei secretly departs to visit her mother in the hospital with the intention of bringing her some corn. Satsuki and her father realize Mei is missing and enlist the help of the neighbors to search for her.

Satsuki begins to lose hope of finding her sister and decides to go to the camphor tree where Totoro lives in order to beseech 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 happen to overhear a conversation between their parents about how their mother is, in fact, doing better, but wasn’t able to leave the hospital due to a cold.

The sisters decide to leave the ear of corn on the windowsill, where their parents later discover it, before they return home. Eventually, their mother Yasuke returns home and things return to normal within their household. Totoro and the other forest spirits are seen watching over Satsuki and Mei as 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. Pic credit: @wallpapercave.com

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

Hisaishi commented, “In Japan, many people are passionate about theatre and musicals but there are no original Japanese shows or musicals performed in the world. My Neighbor Totoro is a Japanese work famous throughout the world, and so this stage adaptation could have the potential to reach global audiences. That’s what I thought, and I told Mr. Miyazaki ‘I want to see such a show’ and he said ‘yes, only if you are going to do it’.”

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Hisaishi went on to comment, “This responsibility is a huge task, but we chose to work with the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), a globally prestigious company, and with their support we can make it happen. I am delighted that the RSC have become our partner because I feel much in common between the quality of the RSC and Mr. Miyazaki’s aesthetic. I was involved with the original animation film, and so I feel strongly about doing justice to the film. If the story is universal – as I believe it is – it will have a global reach even if it is performed by people from different cultural backgrounds speaking different languages. I was sure of this and so we have chosen to open outside Japan. To me this was important. It’s vital to keep distance with the film but it’s also important to have new encounters.”

Erica Whyman, RSC acting artistic director commented, “Adapting this deeply loved magical story for the stage is the next chapter in our longstanding commitment to making 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 that this major new commission will attract a wide range of theatre audiences as well as loyal fans of the original film.”

Toni Racklin, head 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’re immensely proud to be the RSC’s home away from home.”

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

You can buy tickets at the official website here.

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

A Beautiful Piece of Theatre | My Neighbour Totoro
Creative team for the film discussing its production.

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