Totoro Finds New Neighbors at London’s West End

The stage adaptation of Studio Ghibli’s ‘My Neighbor Totoro’ is breaking box office records

Ami Okumura Jones and Mei Mac in My Neighbor Totoro
Ami Okumura Jones and Mei Mac in My Neighbor Totoro Royal Shakespeare Company

What will Totoro, the fuzzy, huggable giant creature that stars in Studio Ghibli’s 1988 animated classic My Neighbor Totoro, look like on a stage? What about the Cat Bus, the film’s friendly feline who doubles as a transportation vehicle?

You’ll have to see the new stage adaptation at London’s West End to find out. That’s because the production is withholding images of the Totoro and Cat Bus puppets “in order to not diminish the magic for audiences,” writes Andrzej Lukowski for Time Out.

Rest assured: According to the critics, they’ve nailed it. 

“It’s one of the most stunning theatrical images in years,” Johnny Oleksinski writes for the New York Post. “In an otherwise pitch-black theater, two giant eyes blink open and float to the front of the deep stage to reveal they belong to a humongous, fuzzy bear.” 

Writing for the New York Times, Matt Wolf asks: “Who’d have thought an enormous mound of fur would be the most endearing sight on the London stage?”

My Neighbor Totoro premiered at the West End’s Barbican Theatre on October 8. Steering the ship are director Phelim McDermott and playwright Tom Morton-Smith. Joe Hisaishi, who has composed the scores of many Studio Ghibli movies (including Totoro), joins the production as its composer and executive producer, and Basil Twist is behind the show’s awe-inspiring puppets.

For the uninitiated, the original My Neighbor Totoro takes place in 1950s Japan and follows two young sisters, Mei and Satsuki, as they move to the countryside with their father in order to be closer to their mother, who has fallen ill. As the sisters adjust to their new surroundings, they discover a fantastical world only they can see. The original film was written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, the legendary storyteller behind classics like Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle. On the London stage, Mei Mac and Ami Okumura Jones take the lead as Mei and Satsuki, respectively.

“The beautiful thing about playing a child is that there’s a tendency to imagine a 4-year-old as being naive,” Mac, who is 30, tells Backstage’s Theo Bosanquet. “But like many children from the postwar era, Mei and her older sister Satsuki have seen things beyond their years. There’s a real maturity to them, and Mei drives the imagination of the story.”

“At its heart, Totoro is about grief, and these two girls who are missing their sick mother,” Mac adds. “Their coping mechanism is to lean into curiosity and escapism. There’s something really beautiful about that; the world needs it right now.”

Ticket sales certainly suggest that the world—or at least London audiences—need My Neighbor Totoro: The show broke the Barbican box-office record for ticket sales in a single day, according to a statement from the theater.

Studio Ghibli films have made their way to the stage before. Earlier this year, a theatrical adaptation of Spirited Away premiered in Japan, and a Princess Mononoke adaptation ran in 2013. 

Totoro is a Japanese work famous throughout the world, and so this stage adaptation could have the potential to reach global audiences,” Hisaishi tells Playbill’s Leah Putnam. “That’s what I thought, and I told Mr. Miyazaki, ‘I want to see such a show,’ and he said, ‘Yes, only if you are going to do it.’”

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