Tripping the sprite fantastic

Children can see and do things that adults cannot – and adults, poignantly, love to make art for children in which this old rule is applied. It applies, for example, to the vastly popular Studio Ghibli film My Neighbor Totoro, Hayao Miyazaki’s story of Satsuki and her little sister Mei, who move with their father, Tatsuo, from postwar Tokyo to the Japanese countryside; They are moving to be nearer to their mother, who is in hospital. While Satsuki quickly makes friends at her new school, and Tatsuo works, Mei is left to amuse herself. It is this opportunity for adventure that leads her to the belly of a giant camphor tree, where she encounters the delightfully abdominous creature she calls Totoro – a described by Kunio Hara, in his book about the film’s soundtrack, as a “large, furry , owl-shaped creature with stubby legs, long claws, tall pointy ears, small eyes, and a wide flat snout, wearing an enormous grin”. The giddily happy Mei falls asleep, to be found later by her sister, alone, in a clearing.

Tatsuo – understandably driven, by his academic pursuits, to dozing at his desk – never gets to see Totoro for himself. As he tells his daughters, though, there are certainly spirits out there in the woodlands that may feel moved to show themselves from time to time. (Kami, some might say, although that word is not used.) These encounters are relatively few, and the film spends much of its eighty-six minutes reminding the viewer about some basics of life in the human world: home, education, agriculture. (The girls’ mother, Yasuko, is supposed to be coming home.) Yet it is Totoro, usually accompanied by two smaller counterparts, who lends the film its magic and has conjured, in the years since the film’s release in 1988, a healthy line in Disney-ish merchandise.

A different kind of magic is required for the stage adaptation of My Neighbor Totoro now running at the Barbican Theatre. Produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company in collaboration with Nippon TV and Improbable – whose co-founder Phelim McDermott directs – this abundantly inventive and engaging show depends centrally on how well two adult actors can play children. Fortunately, both Ami Okumura Jones as Satsuki and Mei Mac as Mei ape youthful sprightliness with gusto, the latter flinging herself into classic four-year-old’s clownishness, full of exaggerated sulks, untrammelled fits of laughter and determined attitudes. Dai Tabuchi makes a decent, gentle Tatsuo, supported well by Haruka Abe as Yasuko, Jacqueline Tate as their grandmotherly housekeeper and Nino Furuhata as a tongue-tied boy. The production also requires a very particular balancing act.

On the one hand, impressive attention has been paid to capturing the film’s tenor, drawing on its palette (summery greens and blues, amid some darker corners) and soundscape (provided by the film’s composer, Joe Hisaishi). There are also plenty of moments that closely recall their screen equivalents, as with the opening “title sequence” (featuring a jolly waggling of spiders, cats and other creatures), which gives way to a bucolic backdrop, a view of the Japanese countryside through which the family’s small removals van is making its way. As in the film, the new home is discovered to hide a horde of susuwatari – benign but nervous dust sprites that later fly off into the night. Totoro himself is indeed large and furry, with long claws and a propensity for grinning widely. Such stage miracles are achieved, with playful faithfulness, through puppets courtesy of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop and a company of black-veiled puppeteers. As with the National Theater’s adaptation of His Dark Materials (2003) and the more recent theatrical version of Life of Pi (2019), seeing both a fantastical creature and the dextrous manner of its animation may produce a pleasant effect on children of all ages.

Against this playful faithfulness, on the other hand, may be set the stage production’s shortcuts and embellishments. Early on in the cinematic original, for instance, father and daughters laugh off the ominous high winds that rattle the walls as they sit in the bath, with Satsuki at first not even immersed. Prudently, at the Barbican, Tom Morton-Smith’s script has them laughing it off in the garden, fully clothed. Tatsuo’s subject of research, meanwhile, is here specified as “paleolithic burial rites” (and does it somehow add to his dreaminess that his study is almost bare of books, unlike in the film?); A little extra humour is extracted from his apparent lack of parenting skills.

While this family under threat lies at the heart of the matter on stage as on screen, there is also the question of the community to which they do or do not belong. In a desperate moment, as the film’s easy-going story gives way quite abruptly to a nightmare situation, Satsuki steps into the road and stops a couple driving home. In the film they answer her question and drive on. On stage the woman in the vehicle voluntarily steps out so that Satsuki can take her place. It’s just a detail, but also a nudge in the direction of cosiness. It may seem a moment of relief as the stage adaptation draws out the suspenseful third act of the film.

Such embellishments are not all questionable; They merely show how Morton-Smith’s imagination operates at a slight removal from Miyazaki’s. My Neighbor Totoro Seemingly belongs to a world without television, yet Satsuki is here made to draw attention to the point by recollecting that her old neighbors in Tokyo had a TV set. Mei, meanwhile, asks the housekeeper about her late sister – a victim of the war, you are invited to think. Maybe a detail like that is another nudge, this time in the direction of Grave of the Firefliesthe equally acclaimed tragedy of war and two children, directed by Isao Takahata, that Studio Ghibli, as a relatively new and unproven enterprise, first released in a double bill with My Neighbor Totoro. These two films perhaps speak to one another more than is comfortable to contemplate.

But these are no more than nudges, of course. The Totoro staged by the RSC et al is a safe delight, presided over by a large, furry, owl-shaped creature whose principal contribution to the dialogue is to roar from time to time. The audience leave humming Hisaishi’s catchy theme tune, as they should.

Michael Caines is an editor at the TLS and co-editor of the Brixton Review of Books

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