The 1988 Studio Ghibli classic My Neighbour Totoro continues to capture hearts all over the world, with its touching exploration of childhood and whimsical visual beauty. It’s a film that so strongly harnesses the limitless capabilities of animation, that bringing it faithfully to life on stage has seemed a herculean task. However, through ingenuity and great respect for the source material, the Royal Shakespeare Company has brought Ghibli magic to the Barbican theatre, in staggeringly immersive fashion.
The audience is transported to rural post-war Japan, where young sisters Mei and Satsuki move into a new house near to the hospital where their mother is recovering from a long-term illness. However, they soon discover that the house and the surrounding forest is inhabited by all manner of creatures and spirits. An obvious hurdle in staging this story is the fact that it is mostly told through the eyes of a 4 and a 10 year-old, characters simply too young to be cast accordingly. It would be impossible to truly present Mei Mac (serendipitously named?) and Ami Okumura Jones as girls of this age, but their hilarious childlike mannerisms are so perfectly rehearsed that the audience’s disbelief is easily suspended, and the disconnect between actress and character holds none of the awkwardness one might expect. Dai Tabuchi puts on a wonderfully warm performance as their father Tatsuo, a character we easily grow an affection for as he eworks to maintain his daughters’ childlike wonder in the face of adversity.
Once the painted background is lifted, the audience becomes deeply immersed in a resplendent world, where an invitingly rustic house shifts and revolves, musicians play from high vantage points in the treetops, and a black-clad ensemble works tirelessly to create a fluid sense of magic. The set’s exciting introduction is enough to place anyone back into the wide-eyed world view of a child. As the story evolves, the production’s visual splendour continually unfurls itself, culminating in the colossal feat of puppetry that is Totoro himself. Huge and huggable, with astounding attention to lifelike details, he elicits no end of swoons and laughs from the audience. No less delightful are the smaller spirits that scuttle animatedly across the stage, the host of elusive soot sprites, and the iconic Catbus, in the form of an illuminated inflatable bounding around the set. The darker themes of the original film are certainly present here, and will particularly resonate with parents. Ultimately, however, this is a sparkling, heart-lifting production that Ghibli enthusiasts and new fans alike will fall in love with.