My Neighbour Totoro review - November 2023

A magical tour de force of pure imagination

Nothing can prepare you for the first appearance of Totoro. The awe-inspiring scale and detail with which the titular forest spirit is brought to life on stage at the Barbican Theatre elicits gasps and chuckles of unbridled joy from the entire crowd. Every twitch of his whiskers and blink of his eyes is meticulously handled by an army of puppeteers who work with military precision. The star of My Neighbour Totoro is undoubtedly the enormous, furry beastie at the heart of the story and every moment he is on stage brings a smile as broad as his own.

The cast of My Neighbour Totoro at the Barbican Theatre. Mei Mac as Mei, Ami Okumura Jones as Satsuki and Dai Tabuchi as Tatsuo.

This isn’t to say you won’t already be charmed before his reveal. My Neighbour Totoro so deftly brings the beloved anime film to life that both productions exude the same sense of childlike wonder from the very beginning. Even before the curtain rises, the opening title dances in such a way that you will likely think it to be a projection at first. In fact, it is constructed of pliable cut-out props, animated by the aforementioned puppeteers. After this, a landscape of further two-dimensional cut-outs is revealed, painted in warm pastel colours that emulate the anime style of the source material. These opening moments seem to celebrate traditional styles of animation, reminding us that no amount of glossy, 3D computer imagery can match the soul of hand-drawn, cell-shaded art.

As the scene opens to reveal the ramshackle house in which most of the action takes place, the stage becomes inhabited with a revolving, sliding Jenga tower of wood and paper Shōji doors and lattice frames. The set design paints a romanticised landscape of mid-Shōwa era rural Japan with the puppeteers further detailing scenes with rice paddies, corn fields and even a flock of plucky chickens. High above the action, amongst the trees and silhouetted by a rising sun or waning moon, the band plays a soundtrack that is at times haunting, at times jaunty and always effective. Vocalist Ai Ninomiya brings a lullaby quality to the songs, with their mix of English and Japanese, that adds to that youthful sense of magic. So evocative were the sights and sounds of Totoro that they made me homesick for a place I’ve never been to and nostalgic for a time before I was born.

Into this landscape step a father, Tatsuo, and his two daughters, Satsuki and Mei. Having moved out of Tokyo to the countryside to be nearer the hospital where their mother is recovering from an unnamed illness, Satsuki and Mei tear around the house with a mix of excitement and fear that any child will recognise. Ami Okumura Jones plays Satsuki with the innocent curiosity of a girl at the pre-dawn of adolescence as well as the diligent determination of a child who suddenly finds herself “woman of the house.” Mei Mac is convincingly animated and expressive as headstrong four-year-old Mei. The relationship between the two girls forms the emotional core of the story and any observers would be forgiven for thinking they are genuine sisters.

Dad Tetsuo (Dai Tabuchi) is a sympathetic fish out of water, bringing heart and humour to a man at the end of his emotional tether, but trying not to show it. The trio are complimented by an able cast of supporting characters, such as helpful elderly neighbour Granny Ogaki (Jacqueline Tate), awkward preteen boy Kanta (Ka Long Kelvin Chan) and their poorly mother Yasuko (Emily Piggford).

The cast and puppeteeers of My Neighbour Totoro on stage at the Barbican Theatre. The puppeteers are controlling several chicken puppets so they mill around on the ground in front of the characters.

However, as the mythical creatures that haunt the nearby woods reveal themselves to the sisters, it is these who steal the show. From the hundreds of soot-sprites that linger in the dark corners of the house, the adorable woodland spirits that look like smaller relatives of Totoro, to the enormous, illuminated Cat-Bus that dominates the stage when it flies in, galloping on its 8 legs. This storybook menagerie will challenge your disbelief through the life they are given by the puppeteers, who themselves are draped and hooded in black, evoking the tangible quality that darkness and shadows have in the eyes of an imaginative child.

Ultimately, My Neighbour Totoro achieves what only the best screen-to-stage adaptations can. It delights fans of the source material (as this self-confessed otaku can confirm) while standing on its own as a powerful and spectacular delight for newcomers. The Royal Shakespeare Company and producer Joe Hisaishi have created a tangible celebration of the West’s embracing of Japanese popular culture, resulting in a magical tour de force of pure imagination.

5 stars

Reviewed by Jim Dixon
28 November 2023, Barbican Theatre