Famed Japanese composer Joe Hisaishi has partnered with the UK’s Royal Shakespeare Company to create a stage version of Japanese animation legend Hayao Miyazaki’s 1988 hand-drawn classic My Neighbor Totoro, a beloved film that follows the adventures of two young sisters who move from Tokyo city to the countryside.
Set in 1950s Japan, the film introduces us to Satsuki and Mei who move with their father to their new home, near a forest. Left to their own devices, they discover spirits and magical creatures; two furry ones are of particular interest – a giant fluffy creature known as the Totoro, and a mammoth cat bus that takes on passengers then soars off into the sky.
Hisaishi will executive produce the show with the RSC in partnership with Studio Ghibli, where Miyazaki creates his films, in collaboration with UK theater company Improbable and Nippon TV.
Miyazaki’s Spirited Away won the Oscar for best animated feature film at the 2003 Academy Awards. The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures opened last year with an exhibition of Miyazaki’s work. Also his full catalog of feature films have become immensely popular on Netflix.
Hisaishi’s score from the film My Neighbor Totoro will be used in the stage production plus orchestral pieces and songs that were written for the movie but weren’t included in it.
The film has been adapted for the stage by British playwright Tom Morton-Smith (Oppenheimer). Phelim McDermott, co- Artistic Director of Improbable, will direct the show with longtime collaborator Tom Pye signed on as production designer.
McDermott told Deadline that he’s thrilled Kimie Nakano (costumes), Jessica Hung Han Yun (lighting) and You-ri Yamanaka (movement) have joined the creative team. “I’m not from that culture (Japanese) and there are things in the piece I don’t understand about. It’s absolutely essential to have those voices in the room, “he said.
Equally, the large ensemble cast will be of Japanese, East and South-East Asian heritage. The show’s two young sibling heroines are unlikely to be played by children. “We have to use performers who can do many things… puppetry, physical stuff, so there are choices to be made,” McDermott noted.
He’s very clear, though, that the production of My Neighbor Totoro opening at London’s Barbican Center for a 15-week season from October 8, 2022 through January 21 2023 will not be a musical in the strictest sense of the word.
There will be a band onstage playing live music. “It’s going to have very present music,” McDermott said. “And it may be that during certain scenes you’ll hear a beautiful voice, like you do in the film,” he explained.
He argued that “if we turn it into a musical it says something different from what the original source material does.”
McDermott’s production will use a vocabulary of puppetry (to be created by acclaimed puppeteer Basil Twist) and visuals. “You see images and hear a voice singing rather than a character burst into a song, which wouldn’t be right,” he added.
The show will have an environmental sensibility about it, McDermott said. Not just as part of the story’s plot but also woven into how the show’s puppets will be created using environmentally friendly materials. “There will be tiny details of nature in this crazy story about spirits in the wood,” McDermott said, chuckling.
McDermott said his friend and frequent collaborator, the composer Phillip Glass, introduced him to Hisaishi in London five years ago. Hisaishi had wanted to meet the theater director to discuss an idea of bringing My Neighbor Totoro to the stage. This was around the same time that Pippa Hill, the RSC’s Head of Literary, invited writer Morton-Smith to pitch a suggestion for a family show.
He came up with My Neighbor Totoro. “Serendipitously, Studio Ghibli reached out to the RSC saying that they wanted to work with us on stage adaptations of their work. They said how much they liked (Ton winning musical) Matilda. It all came together at once, ”Morton-Smith told Deadline.
Morton-Smith traveled to Japan for a meeting with Miyazaki. The filmmaker asked him if he was a feminist. ”I said‘ yes ’and that was very important to him and that the girls are central. All of his films are fantastic and magical and there’s so much in them that chime with childhood. It’s all about exploring the natural world and running around and having this really involved fantasy life, ”Morton-Smith said.
The writer said that pretty much everything that’s seen in the film “is going to find its way on stage but if you look at the screenplay in isolation, it’s very sparse in terms of dialogue so I’ve been able, and had the permission, to expand on the beats that are already there and show some scenes that aren’t in the film. ”
My Neighbor Totoro will be one of the biggest undertakings in the RSC’s history. Erica Whyman, RSC Acting Artistic Director, has taken a close interest in her progress and has attended several pre-production workshops for puppetry, music and casting. Full rehearsals start in July.