My Neighbor Totoro review – dazzling staging of the Studio Ghibli classic | Theater
HHow do you adapt an iconic film made by creative giants Studio Ghibli, directed by genius Hayao Miyazaki and considered an unparalleled feat of fantasy animation? And do it without getting an egg on your face?
Just like that, it seems. The Royal Shakespeare Company production, written by Tom Morton-Smith and with music by Joe Hisaishi (who composed the music for the film), is a thing of beauty in its own right which – as sacrilegious as that sounds – emulates the Original story by Miyazaki of two of the sisters who move with their father to the countryside in post-war Japan and see other worlds emerge.
Edited by Phelim McDermott, this is not an exact replica. There’s a different imagination at work here, but it’s just as enchanting and perhaps more emotionally impactful.
Sisters Satsuki (Ami Okumura Jones) and Mei (Mei Mac) are played by adults and seem cartoonishly excitable at first, but they win us over. Mac, who plays the younger sister, almost seems to turn into a baby. Her fall into the hollow of the camphor tree in which she meets Totoro is a magnificent setting combining a multi-layered setting with swirling movement and mime. The relationship between the two girls and their father (Dai Tabuchi) is taken with tenderness and the two quietly evolve in their quiet desire for their hospitalized mother (Haruka Abe).
The music is a central part of the drama with a live band on an elevated platform and a terrific vocalist, Ai Ninomiya, intermittently getting in on the action. There are long, dialogue-free, hypnotic scenes filled with musical and visual narration that are meditative and magical.
The set, designed by Tom Pye, is as mobile as origami, with central revolution used wonderfully; the movement never seems dizzy but creates a great feeling of fluidity, as if the pages of a graphic novel come to life. A decor, a scene, breaks down to form another, each captivating by the world it assembles.
The drama is steeped in Shinto and Japanese folklore, making it a storytelling experience unlike Western fairy tales. It takes on an almost spiritual energy with its indistinguishable line between dream world and reality as well as its focus on children’s imaginations and the importance of nature.
The Basil Twist puppets create a lot of the magic. Farm animals provide the comedy, especially a mop head of characterful hens, while otherworldly creatures provide the wow factor: soot sprites are black pom poms on sticks that move like a whisper while Totoro is terrific, growling, weird, comical, and endearing at times. Catbus is also an exciting sight – a giant inflatable with laser eyes, like a vision from a psychotropic dream. No matter how strange or heavy, each creature has its own distinct personality.
The puppeteers are also a kind of whisper: they become a human cornfield, swaying as one, then unseen forces from another realm, weaving among those humans. They bring some fleet metatheatrical touches – witty, original and based on physical comedy.
It’s not as powerful in its special effects as a Disney adaptation, but just as dazzling in its magical realism. There is also no Disney ending. The future remains uncertain, but Satsuki and Mei continue to believe in all things magical and unseen, and the life lessons are kindness, hope, and community. As one character put it, talking to each other and listening to each other’s stories is “simply the best way to use our time”.