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3 April 2023

The magical realism of My Neighbour Totoro

The RSC production of the Hayao Miyazaki film – which has deservedly won six Olivier Awards – combines enchanting stagecraft with emotional truth.

By Tom Gatti

The RSC production of My Neighbour Totoro – which deservedly won six Olivier Awards yesterday (2 April) – contains one of the purest moments of stage magic I have seen. At the Barbican theatre in London it drew a noise from the audience – a cry of collective joy – that was totally unlike the irritating and knowing “mmm” that tends to greet “clever” moments in adult shows. The scene is now imprinted firmly in my brain alongside my first glimpse of the utterly alive daemons of Nicholas Hytner’s 2003 production of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials or the dreamlike flying papers of Théâtre de Complicité’s 1990s adaptation of Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles.

Unfortunately, I can’t describe it to you, because to attempt to capture the moment when the woodland spirit of Totoro is revealed would be nothing less than a crime against magic. This is presumably why the director of the show, Phelim McDermott, has banned any photographs of Totoro being taken or shared. In the world of the story, he’s a creature that you can only find when your mind is in a childlike state of openness to possibility. He does not live on Instagram.

The film My Neighbour Totoro was directed by Japan’s most famous animator, Hayao Miyazaki. Since its release in 1988 it has developed a devoted following at home and a cult fanbase abroad. Set in rural Japan in the late 1950s, it begins with a father and his two young daughters moving into an old house to be closer to the hospital where their mother is being treated for a long-term illness. The youngest daughter, four-year-old Mei, is intrepid and curious enough to encounter the elusive, furry Totoro – a new friend who will later help the daughters to navigate a family crisis.

Miyazaki’s film is low on plot, action and dialogue, but high on beauty, wonder and emotional truth. In an interview with Roger Ebert in 2002, Miyazaki explained that his aim was to “quiet things down a little bit; don’t just bombard them with noise and distraction. And to follow the path of children’s emotions and feelings as we make a film. If you stay true to joy and astonishment and empathy you don’t have to have violence and you don’t have to have action. They’ll follow you.”

This stage version – which won best entertainment or comedy play and best director as well as several technical categories at the Oliviers – is strikingly faithful to the tone and spirit of the original. Mei Mac somehow finds an inner four-year-old to play her namesake Mei with a convincing emotional volatility: her outpouring of grief when she learns her mother’s illness has become critical is shockingly raw. Both the set and the puppetry – the latter by Basil Twist, with input from the Jim Henson Company ­– have ingenuity and wit, and a dynamism provided by the highly skilled company of puppeteers. The production returns to the Barbican from November 2023 to March 2024: like the RSC’s Matilda, it deserves a long and happy life.

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Do not make the mistake of dismissing Totoro as “only” a kids’ show. For all its stagecraft, it would be nothing without the emotional truth at its core. My Neighbour Totoro is not about a fantasy land but the real world, which, regardless of our age, never ceases to be a place of both wonder and terror, in which we are lost and found.

[See also: The best children’s books for spring 2023]

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