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

The Royal Shakespeare Company in London has teamed up with multi-award winning composer Joe Hisaishi to create 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 and has composed the music 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 music scores that were full of whimsy helped set the mood in these fantasy films.

Tom Morton-Smith will write the play’s script. Pelim McDermott will direct the piece with production design by Tom Pye. Nakano Kimie will design the costumes; there is lighting by Jessica Hung Han Yun and choreography by Yamanaka You-Rei. The piece features 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.

The painted backgrounds and illustrations for the piece 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 piece will be announced shortly.

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

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

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

Mei believes Totoro is a troll from the book she read 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 look for her, Mei is only sleeping on the floor. Mei tries to find the special cavity again to prove the existence of Totoro in vain. Her father, Tatsuo Kusakabe, a college professor, tells his daughter that Totoro will reveal himself whenever he wants and not to worry.

One rainy night, the sisters wait for their father’s bus, which is late. When Mei falls asleep her sister puts her on her back, this is when Totoro suddenly appears next to Satsuki and shows her him for the very first time. When Satsuki notices that the giant Totoro has only a small leaf on his head as protection from the rain, she generously offers the umbrella she planned to give to her father.

Poster for My Neighbor Totoro.
Visual poster for My Neighbor Totoro. Photo credit: Studio Ghibli

After befriending Totoro, the sisters embark on fantastic adventures

Totoro gladly gives her a bag of nuts and seeds in return. A giant, feline bus appears, which Totoro gets on and then leaves. Not long after, their father’s bus arrives. The two sisters decide to plant 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 during 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 across the sky on a magical spinning top.

However, in the morning, when the girls wake up, the tree has mysteriously disappeared, but their seeds have been spat out into small 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 fights Satsuki. Mei secretly leaves to visit her mother in the hospital with the intention of bringing her some corn. Realizing that Mei is missing, Satsuki and her father enlist the help of the neighbors to find her.

Satsuki begins to lose hope of finding her sister and decides to go to the camphor tree where Totoro lives to beg his help. Totoro enthusiastically calls 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 hear a conversation between their parents about how their mother is actually doing better, but couldn’t leave the hospital because of a cold.

The sisters decide to leave the ear of corn on the windowsill, where their parents discover it later, before going home. Finally, their mother Yasuk returns home and everything returns to normal in their household. Totoro and the other forest spirits watch 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. Photo credit: @wallpapercave.com

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

Hisaishi commented: “In Japan, many people are passionate about 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 all over the world, and so this stage adaptation could have the potential to reach a worldwide audience. That’s what I thought too, and I said to Mr. Miyazaki, ‘I want to see a show like that’ and he said, ‘Yeah, only if you’re going to do it.’

Hisaishi continued: “This responsibility is a formidable task, but we have chosen to partner 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 is our partner, because I feel a lot of similarities between the quality of the RSC and the aesthetics of Mr. Miyazaki.I was involved with the original animated film, so I think it is important to do justice to the film. If the story is universal – as I believe it is – it will have a global reach, even if it’s staged by people from different cultural backgrounds who speak different languages, I was sure of that and that’s why we chose to open outside of Japan. this was important. Keeping distance from the film is essential, but it is also important to have new encounters.”

Erica Whyman, Artistic Director of RSC, commented: “Adapting this much-loved magical story 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 commission will attract a wide range of theater 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 are extremely proud to be the home of the RSC, away from home.”

My Neighbor Totoro will run for a 15-week season from October 8, 2022 to January 21, 2023.

Tickets can be bought at the official website here.

There’s also a video where 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 feature My Neighbor Totoro in collaboration with Nippon TV and Improbable.

Creative team for the film discussing its production.

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