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‘My Neighbor Totoro’ Director Unpacks New Season of Hit Show

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My Neighbor Totoro,” a stage adaptation of Miyazaki Hayao‘s beloved 1988 Studio Ghibli film, is set to return to London’s Barbican Theatre this fall. 

The production is a collaboration between multi-award-winning composer Joe Hisaishi, who executive produces, the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), Improbable and Nippon TV. The production, adapted by Tom Morton-Smith (“Oppenheimer”) opened at the Barbican in October last year and broke the venue’s box office record for most tickets sold in a single day. It won six Olivier Awards, five What’s on Stage Awards and the Critic’s Circle Awards for Best Design. Variety gave the production a rave review.

The coming-of-age story follows one summer in the lives of sisters Satsuki and Mei. In order to be closer to their mother while she recovers from an illness in a rural convalescent hospital, their father moves the family to the countryside. Mei encounters magical creatures and the ancient protector of the forest she calls Totoro and the sisters are soon both swept up in adventures.

Morton-Smith told Variety that while there are no major changes in the second iteration of the show, learnings from the first season have been taken on board and the rhythms and some stagecraft technicalities have been enhanced. “That’s one of the joys of being able to return to some things – you can tighten the screws a little, make it smoother and flow better. And when you’ve watched it several times, there might be little moments of rhythm within each individual line that no one else would notice, but I like to go back and fix that,” Morton-Smith said.

Adapting “My Neighbor Totoro” seemed like a natural choice for Morton-Smith when the process began in 2018. “When the RSC asked me to think about writing a family show, and if there was anything I wanted to adapt, ‘My Neighbor Totoro’ came to mind simply because the film is so beautifully atmospheric and what theater can do so well is create atmosphere and I think you gain a lot from inhabiting those atmospheres with live actors on stage. So I knew that it would work because if we could even get close, even if we could get halfway to the atmosphere of the film, then it’d be something that would be worth doing,” Morton-Smith said.

What also appealed to Morton-Smith was that the plot is quite gentle and was of a tempo quite different to what theater usually demands in that it allowed the atmosphere and the lives of the characters to wash over the audience.

“My Nieghbor Totoro” released in 1988 and the plot is set in the 1950s. “It’s already very much set at a different time to when it was written, so that helped me. It’s not like I was trying to update the story, I haven’t reset it in the contemporary world and [have] kept it in that original 1955 time period. And so I didn’t need a huge amount of updating in terms of talking to modern sensibilities because it’s got that beautiful, timeless quality to it already,” Morton-Smith said.

The idea of a story where city kids moved out to the countryside and and explored a magical world that returned to nature as healing felt like something that can be found throughout European and British literature and particularly in British theater, Morton-Smith said. The show has certainly resonated with U.K. audiences to the extent that the entire first run was sold out as has the most of the second run.

In a post-COVID world, “My Neighbor Totoro” also provides some life lessons. “What works so beautifully about the film, and what I hope what we’ve managed to capture in the stage version, is that it speaks to people differently depending on where they are in their life and what their experiences are,” Morton-Smith said. “So for the youngest kids, it’s very much an exciting fantasy adventure with big furry friends in the woods. And for slightly older children, it’s got a coming-of-age story that’s in there about Satsuki, the older sister, learning about mortality for the first time and learning that her parents aren’t perfect, and realizing that she has to grow up a bit in order to take a bit more responsibility.”

“It’s a much sadder story for adults because it’s about these two parents, the mother is incredibly ill and might not survive, and all of the fear that that brings up about, ‘what’s going to happen to my two young children and how we’re going to cope.’ And the film doesn’t shy away from the idea of loss, of the children learning about the reality of, and presence of death in their lives. But it does it gently, and it does it in that brilliantly beautiful Ghibli way of just not watering it down, but not not being heavy handed, it’s just there, it’s just part of life,” Morton-Smith added. “And that’s the message of the piece, that this is stuff that we all go through when we’re kids, we learn that our parents aren’t going to be around forever at some point. And maybe we’ll escape into a fantasy world in order to help ourselves through it, because that’s what stories and dreams and spirits help us with but ultimately, life is what it is. And you have to learn about it at some point.”

On whether the stage production of “My Neighbor Totoro” will travel to its country of conceptual origin, Morton-Smith said, “Obviously, it would be a delight to take it to Japan. And there are conversations that are ongoing about everything.” However, nothing is confirmed at the moment.

Mei Mac will reprise her Olivier and What’s on Stage Award-nominated performance as Mei Kusakabe with Ami Okumura Jones returning as older sister Satsuki, Dai Tabuchi in his role as Tatsuo and Jacqueline Tate as Granny. 

“My Neighbor Totoro” returns to the Barbican from Nov. 21, 2023 – March 23, 2024.

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