Studio Ghibli’s work ‘like Shakespeare’, says My Neighbour Totoro stage show’s director

<span>The new production of My Neighbour Totoro (above, in 2022) will run at the Gillian Lynne theatre for 34 weeks. </span><span>Photograph: Manuel Harlan/RSC with Nippon TV</span>
The new production of My Neighbour Totoro (above, in 2022) will run at the Gillian Lynne theatre for 34 weeks. Photograph: Manuel Harlan/RSC with Nippon TV

The work of Studio Ghibli’s Hayao Miyazaki should be considered as remarkable and timeless as Shakespeare’s First Folio, according to the director of the hit stage adaptation of My Neighbour Totoro, which is returning to the West End next year.

Phelim McDermott, who was behind the six-time Olivier-winning production that was last at the Barbican in 2023, said Miyazaki’s work continued to attract audiences because it dealt in the same kind of universal themes which made the bard’s work endure.

He said: “It’s like Shakespeare: those films are archetypal, they’re mythical. Shakespeare was an improviser, he’s making it up as he goes along and creating theatre for his time. Disney and early Pixar are the same, and absolutely in those Studio Ghibli cartoons, Miyazaki was inventing something new.”

McDermott led the Royal Shakespeare Company’s stage adaptation of the 1988 animation about two girls – Satsuki and Mei – who are befriended by a forest spirit (Totoro) when their mother becomes ill. It was the company’s biggest release since Les Mis in 1985.

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When tickets went on sale in 2022, the production broke the Barbican’s box-office record for sales in one day. It included puppets that were made by Jim Henson’s Creature Workshop in Los Angeles, which were operated, directed and designed by the master puppeteer Basil Twist.

The production, which was adapted by Tom Morton-Smith, will run at the Gillian Lynne theatre in the West End for 34 weeks from 8 March 2025 and McDermott puts its appeal down to the adaptation’s core themes and subtlety in dealing with big, topical issues.

He said: “It talks about grief, loss and the children worrying about their mother, but also man’s disconnection from nature. But at no point do you think you’re being preached to. It’s embedded in a way that’s authentic.”

Miyazaki co-founded Studio Ghibli in 1986 and led it to become the world’s second biggest animation studio after Disney, producing numerous acclaimed films including Spirited Away (an Oscar winner), Princess Mononoke and Kiki’s Delivery Service. His films often focus on childhood while also prodding at wider issues such as ocean pollution (Ponyo), or are a response to contemporary conflicts such as the Iraq war (Howl’s Moving Castle).

“If you look at the current climate crisis it’s easy to despair and to lose hope,” said McDermott. “But the thing that really keeps people fighting for what’s important, working to change things, is spirit and there [Totoro] is in the forest.”

After Miyazaki’s Oscar win there was talk of retirement – he has announced his retirement three times, before U-turning – but arguably the work of Studio Ghibli has never been more popular. In Japan, 95% of people aged 16-69 say they have watched at least one of his films, while the appeal has spread elsewhere in the West End.

My Neighbour Totoro comes after another Studio Ghibli stage adaptation of Spirited Away, which opens at the London Coliseum later this month for a 12-week run. Miyazaki’s work has never been more accessible, with 21 of the studio’s films also available on Netflix.

The show’s producer, Griselda Yorke, said over the initial two runs at the Barbican nearly every ticket was sold, over 290,000 people saw it and yet “there remains a real appetite for it”.

“Miyazaki has the most extraordinary insight into humanity, and an ability to speak to the child in each of us,” she said. “That’s what he does most masterfully.”

Miyazaki’s Oscar-winning last film, The Boy and the Heron, broke box-office records in China, topping $100m, while Cannes announced that Studio Ghibli would be presented with an honorary Palme d’Or – the first time a collective has received such an award.