My Neighbour Totoro was released in Japan 1988. Image: Studio Ghibli
In the middle of the forest, asleep in the heart of a tree, Totoro is snoring. Looking something like a cross between a big grey cat and a bear, he is actually “mori no nushi“, or “master of the forest”. And he’s the hero of beloved Japanese animated film My Neighbour Totoro.
More than 30 years after the movie was released by Studio Ghibli – in many ways, the Japanese Disney – Totoro is stepping out of our screens for the first time, and onto the stage at the Barbican in London. He brings with him a message about the wonder of nature, and our responsibility to protect the environment, that could not be more prescient.
My Neighbour Totoro starts with a young father and his two daughters moving into the countryside, near to where their mother is recuperating in hospital from a long-term illness. While they’re living there, they connect with the idyllic rural landscape – and the spirits that animate it, from Totoro and his coterie of mini-me friends to soot sprites and even a massive cat in the shape of a bus.
It’s a huge responsibility – and a wild challenge – to bring it to the stage for the Royal Shakespeare Company, says internationally renowned production designer Tom Pye. Though he had never seen the film before long-time collaborator, director Phelim McDermott brought the potential project to him, he immediately grasped the beauty and relevance of the animation.
“I was immediately blown away,” he says. “And I couldn’t believe how old it was. It seems so pertinent, particularly with the environmental issues. It seems very, very current.
“The real celebration of nature spoke to me. Every time I freezeframe it, I’m blown away by the detail that the animators put into it. You can really see that they’ve taken time to look at nature. The variety and the detail in there is just staggering.”
Pye says he likes a challenge, but even he thought to himself, “how the hell as theatre makers do we honour that and try not to disappoint the fans and try to make something that celebrates the film, and tells the story in a totally different way?”
He found the answer in playing with 2D and 3D shapes. Instead of trying to turn all the two-dimensional images into 3D props, he has done something that’s more akin to a pop-up book, in which layers of 2D shapes give the stage depth. “There’s a lot of wood,” he adds. “I didn’t want to put a load of plastic leaves on stage. I just thought there’s nothing less Japanese than doing that. So, I’ve really avoided that and got a completely different route.”
Capturing an authentic sense of the setting was important to make the production work, and to really nail the environmental themes at the heart of the story – many of which are related to a uniquely Japanese attitude to nature. For that cultural understanding, Pye says he relied on costume designer Kimie Nakano.
“I’m western, and I don’t have that history, and I don’t have that understanding,” he explains. “So it’s really important to have really tight collaborations. I bring a western point of view and Kimie brings a more Japanese point of view, then we choose the right path. I think Totoro does sit in between, in a sort of cross-cultural place. It always has done.”
When My Neighbour Totoro first came out in Japan, Nakano was living in France. Her cousins back home were so excited about this new film from Studio Ghibli maestro Hayao Miyazaki – the man who would later bring us Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke and Ponyo. When she went back home to visit, her cousin had a big toy Totoro in the house.
An instant hit, today Totoro is as familiar to Japanese children as Winnie the Pooh is to kids from the UK. The film – and its setting – was so powerful that it has inspired a forest nature reserve in the Sayama Hills where the movie was set. Totoro no Mori (Totoro Forest) now boasts several museums, visitor centres, walking trails and a Totoro statue.
But initially Nakano was puzzled by her family’s reaction: “I couldn’t understand, what is my cousin so excited about? She’s wise. Then when I saw the Totoro film I just connected, especially because I had already spent time abroad, outside of Japan. It was nostalgic for me. It’s about the countryside in Japan, and family and philosophy.”
The philosophy of Shintoism, with its close links to nature, remains influential in the way Japanese people think and act. In Shintoism, supernatural entities are believed to inhabit all things, hence the forest spirits, wind spirits, and soot sprites that populate My Neighbour Totoro. In Japan, there are around 100,000 public Shinto shrines. In fact, in the movie, Totoro is portrayed as living at the foot of one such shrine.
“Totoro is a very special character because it’s not a fairy, not a European, western fairy, neither is it like the Scandinavian Moomins. The first Totoro sketch I saw by Miyazaki was of him living inside the tree. Around Totoro are his friends: Kazuko, the wind spirit; the soot sprites and the Catbus, so it’s not only Totoro.” Through them, the story has a really vibrant sense of the urgency and vitality of nature, says Nakano.
In the Barbican production, she brings the sense of spirits onto the stage by adapting traditional Kabuki theatre costumes to evoke the life forces that animate Shinto. In Kabuki, the black-costumed stage assistants are known as kurogo. They inspired the indigo blue outfits for the puppeteers that bring Totoro and the Catbus to life, as well as for the musicians and singers. Nakano says she thought of them all as wind spirits, inspired by the song The Path of the Wind, written by soundtrack wizard Joe Hisaishi who also acts as executive producer of the play.
The ideas behind Shinto evolved from Japan’s vulnerability to natural disaster, Nakano thinks. And as the world faces more and more extreme weather as a result of climate change, we can all can learn from that approach.
“I think naturally, maybe, Shintoism is very close to the nature because Japan is a very small island, floating in the middle of the ocean. There’s no safe place in Japan,” she explains. “In Japan there are earthquakes, typhoons. There’s a volcano and the tsunami. Natural disasters happen very often. So this is a reason we need to respect nature. And especially now, with global warming, that is not only [relevant to] Japan. The whole world needs to think about it very seriously.”
Perhaps even more so than the original film, Nakano says the message about respecting nature – and living together in harmony – is at the heart of the stage production. Thirty-four years after Miyazaki first gave us the tale of the adorable big furry forest spirit, Totoro is more needed than ever.
“Because of global warming, it’s more important for future children. They need to understand nature and we need to respect nature,” she says. “But Totoro’s story is not only between nature and people. It’s between people and people. Totoro’s village, it’s very small village, but it is very important – not only in the village but in the city, everywhere – to learn how to live together.”
Pye says that he and McDermott “try to not bash our own concepts into things” so it wasn’t that they’ve been adding more environmental themes to Miyazaki’s vision, it’s more that those concerns are very pressing for audiences watching in 2022.
“I think the piece is so perfect,” he says. “If you look at it with an environmental perspective, you absolutely see tonnes of references and connections to today. It feels so completely up to date, when we have a government that’s pouring sewage into every river in the UK. You can’t help but think of these things when you you’re immersed in this story.”
Work on the play started just before Covid hit back in 2020, so much of the creative effort to make the sets and the plans for the production was done remotely. In the wake of the pandemic lockdowns, when many of us rediscovered our own relationships to the great outdoors and so many of us had to deal with illness or loss, Pye believes that people are primed to connect with Miyazaki’s story.
“I’m lucky enough to live in the country. I live up in north Essex. So I was totally immersed in nature during lockdown,” he says. “But everyone came away from that year thinking: I want to live in the countryside, I want to get out of the city. Totoro has got more pertinent since the lockdown. It’s so of our time.”
My Neighbour Totoro is at the Barbican until January 21, 2023. Find out more here.