A key part of bringing Studio Ghibli’s beloved 1988 animated feature film to life on stage is the costumes and lighting – how the scenery and actors appear is fundamental to its credibility. Tackling the challenge of bringing the Royal Shakespeare Company and Executive Producer Joe Hisaishi’s My Neighbour Totoro to the Barbican stage are Lighting Designer Jessica Hung Han Yun and Costume Designer Kimie Nakano, who say their love for the film infused their work on this magical production.
Hung Han Yun, who won an Olivier Award for her work on the show, says she first encountered the film as a teenager. ‘My siblings were the ones who introduced me to it. I’ve grown up with My Neighbor Totoro, but then I also grew up watching other Studio Ghibli films such as Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, Princess Mononoke and all the others – my whole family and I have been mega fans for a long time. I remember screaming when I got the email about this show.’
Nakano won the Olivier Award for Best Costume Design, and says she also was introduced to the film by a family member. ‘I missed seeing My Neighbor Totoro when it was in the cinema because I was in France at the time. But when I went back to Japan, my cousin is a huge fan and she explained it to me and I fell in love with it. It was my introduction to the work of Studio Ghibli.
Attention to detail was vital to the stage production, and Nakano focussed heavily on the fact the film is set in 1950’s Japan, ensuring every item related to the period.
‘Because of the time it’s set in, there’s a mixed Japanese-European feel to the housing and clothing. So all the details had to be of that era. What was challenging is the fact that the actors are adults playing children, and we had to make them look age appropriate.’
Satsuki’s dress was made quite short, but not too feminine in order to make it look like children’s clothing.
And instilling a sense of wonder and joy, especially when it came to the big reveal moments was what drove many of Hung Han Yun’s lighting decisions.
'There are certain moments, such as the first reveal of the house, that you want the audience to feel that ‘wow’ moment and you can really help the atmosphere through lighting, but at other times you need to divert the audience’s focus such as when the team is getting a puppet on stage or people are running the mechanics of the show.
So it’s a really interesting balance of being super creative, but also technical at the same time. But that’s been a really fun challenge.
‘It’s the integration of all of the elements that come together and gives you such a rush of emotions as an audience member. And that’s what we always aim to achieve together as a team.’
And the two said they bring their own emotional experiences and joy of the film to their work, and this is what infuses the whole production.
Nakano says: ‘When you watch Studio Ghibli movies as a child you interpret them one way but as an adult, they’re still so entertaining and relevant because you have a different perspective. As a child you enjoy it because it’s all cute, but as an adult you understand the relationship of the dad trying to look after two kids while the mum is in hospital. So we try to recreate that feeling for everyone who comes to the show.’
With a majority Southeast Asian cast and crew, My Neighbour Totoro is regarded by much of the team as a really positive development for representation – not just having actors of Southeast Asian descent, but people working behind the scenes too.
Han Yun says: ‘I think it’s really important that everyone feels represented and included. There’s not a lot of shows that have Southeast Asia representation on stage. So it’s quite amazing to see that and to hear that it can help to inspire people, especially for us behind the scenes.
And she adds: ‘Working on this has made me love the story even more. I always loved the Studio Ghibli movies. When you work on a show, you see it so many times, but no matter how many times I watch it, I still get butterflies. But also, hearing the audience reaction every night is so heartwarming.’
Words by James Drury
My Neighbour Totoro Until 23 March