Interview: 'This is a Show Where You Really Feel the Electricity': Actor Ami Okumura Jones on Returning to the Magic of MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO

'I think there are so many different ways you can view the story and so many different things you can take away from it.'

By: Nov. 27, 2023
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Interview: 'This is a Show Where You Really Feel the Electricity': Actor Ami Okumura Jones on Returning to the Magic of MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO
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After winning six Olivier Awards, The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of My Neighbour Totoro has returned to the Barbican Centre. Based on the iconic Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli film of the same name and adapted by Tom Morton-Smith, the play transports audiences to 1950s Japan, where two sisters, Satsuki and Mei, encounter spirits in their new home while waiting for their mother to come home from the hospital. 

BroadwayWorld spoke with Ami Okumura Jones, who returns to the role of Satsuki, Mei’s older sister. We discussed what it has been like to be part of both the original and current production of the show, how it feels to be part of an adaptation of a classic Studio Ghibli film, and what was her first reaction to seeing the puppets.

How did you first get involved in theatre?

My first memory is being sent off from my parents to do a summer course. It was probably to get me out the house during the summer holidays, and I must have been about nine or ten. And it was this very silly, very fun play that I think was called Never Say Macbeth. There's photos of it somewhere where it looks like I'm wearing a curtain as a costume! But I really, really loved it. And from that moment, I thought, “I really want to do this. Can people do this as a job?” So that's where it all started. And from there, I was very lucky. I got to do a lot of theatre at my school growing up. They also did lots of youth theatre. And that was where it all began!

Were you a fan of the movie My Neighbour Totoro before joining the stage production? 

Oh, yes, like a lot of, if not all, the company! Studio Ghibli is massive in Asia, and it's begun to grow a big cult following here in the West in the last years, especially since the release of Spirited Away. But if you've grown up in East and Southeast Asia, it's a big thing. My mum is Japanese, so I grew up watching all of the films, including My Neighbour Totoro, which I think is usually the first Ghibli film you watch, because a lot of the other ones are darker and more complex. But there's something about the simplicity and the purity of My Neighbour Totoro. It was so long ago, I can’t even remember, but I'm sure it would have been one of the very first ones I watched when I was a little kid. So yeah, I very much was a fan!

My Neighbour Totoro

And what made you want to be a part of the production when you first joined?

[Laughs] When I first got the call from my agent, funnily enough, I don't think my agent even really understood what it was! Because you do find some people who are massive fans of it here and some people who just aren't. They went “Oh, it's the RSC,” and you think “Oh my god, the RSC!” And they say, “They're doing a production here at the Barbican,” which is one of my favourite theatres in London! It always programmes such amazing work. And then they went, “It’s for something called My Neighbour Totoro by Studio Ghibli,” and at that point, I flipped out. I couldn't believe that someone had the audacity, the daring to adapt [it].

My Neighbour Totoro is such an iconic film, and it was being done by the RSC and in this incredible venue. So I was just like, “I have to audition for this.” And I was excited just to be one of the few people who knew in advance because obviously, when you get these audition calls, you're often finding out before the show's announced. Even to know what's happening, it was so exciting!

Can you describe your role of Satsuki in the show?

So the story revolves around two sisters who move from Tokyo to the countryside, just outside of Tokyo, to be closer to their mother who's quite ill. I play Satsuki, so essentially, that means I'm playing a 10-year-old, which is its own interesting challenge. My good friend and colleague Mei Mac, who plays Mei, is playing a four-year-old. The two sisters go on this magical adventure and they start discovering that there are strange, magical, mythical creatures living in the natural surroundings around them. 

My Neighbour Totoro

What is it like playing into the role of a child?

It's joyous. It's so much fun. You have a lot of adults and kids in the audience. So to be able to create a show that is wonderful and spectacular and mind blowing for children when they see these incredible puppets and the incredible set is one is one thing. And then also, the adults - to remind them about the joy and the wonder and innocence of childhood, which is something we often lose and leave behind us. It’s just a really lovely thing to be able to go back there and re-access my inner child has been a lot of fun and really rewarding.

You mentioned the puppets - what is it like working with puppets in My Neighbour Totoro?

It's just unbelievable, and an enormous privilege. The puppets are out of this world. The range of them, from really small, delicate, beautiful puppets to bigger, more intricate puppets . . . The sheer range of them and the mastery with which they've been designed and built by our Head of Puppetry and his Associate, Bail Twist and Mervyn Millar, and then being made by the Jim Henson Workshop, they're just incredible.

And it's just so much fun every night, waiting for the moments where the audience sees some of the showstopper puppets. You have so many fans in the audience - you know they're just waiting for that moment. I love working in theatre because you have a connection and you get a sense of the audience. But this is a show where you really feel the electricity and the reaction of the audience when these puppets come out. And it's not just because people are seeing an iconic character on stage, but it's because of the detail and the incredible work that's gone into them. It's just wonderful.

My Neighbour Totoro

Do you remember your first reaction seeing the puppets? 

[Laughs] Oh yes! So last year, when we did the original version, we were working up in Stratford-upon-Avon. We were rehearsing and gradually, different elements were introduced. There was one particular day where the puppetry team took us to the workshop so we could meet most of the puppets, and people just lost their minds. It was like a rockstar had walked in the room! And I guess, in a way, a rockstar had! It was joyful and almost hysterical - people just lost it. It was incredible. It was a really, really memorable moment and really, really joyous.

What has it been like being a part of an adaptation of such a beloved work like My Neighbour Totoro?

There's an incredible amount of pressure and a fair amount of anxiety, because when you adapt anything that people really love, and that has a big - and sometimes quite intense - fan base, there are a lot of expectations there. But one thing that I really love about this production is how cleverly it's handled adaptation. So there's certain iconic images and moments that you have to deliver, and Totoro looks like he does in the film, but it's also distinct from the film.

There are scenes that take place in the production that aren't in the film. The characters, particularly Satsuki, are not quite the same as they are in the film. So I think it treads this really beautiful line of saying, “You're here to see My Neighbour Totoro and you will see those beloved amazing moments, but it's not the exact same thing.” It's not lifted shot-for-shot. It's its own separate creature that has its own identity that's connected to the film but distinct from it. 

Have you had any highlights from audience reactions or talking to audience members?

So many! We've been really, really lucky. So much love already exists for the film, and that's a huge privilege. It's a lot to live up to! But on the flip side, the warmth and the joy you get from audiences is immense. One thing that's been really lovely and really important for me is seeing the Japanese community, both here but also people overseas. We've had people who are immigrants to this country, people who are second generation, I'm sure we've had a couple of people travel from Japan to see the show. And a lot of them have been really moved by and then almost surprised by, which is sad in a way, the respect and care we show for the culture in our adaptation in small details and the way things are handled. A lot of the songs that are sung in the piece, some of the lyrics have remained in the original Japanese, there are little moments of dialogue and text spoken in Japanese . . . Just little moments. A lot of people were really surprised and touched and moved by that. So that's been a wonderful thing. 

As actors, sometimes you complain about a two-show day because it's tiring and it means to get out of bed earlier. And sometimes, when you work in theatre, you think, “Oh God, we have to do a matinee show.” But this is a show where the matinee is just so much fun because you will have a higher ratio of children in the audience, and they just can't contain themselves. When they see Totoro, when they see the Catbus . . . Their reactions are just wonderful. So actually, this is one of the shows where I really enjoy the matinees!

How did bringing in and honouring the culture in the show work?

When we did the first version last year, we had really strong representation from the Japanese community in the room. You-ri [Yamanaka], our movement director, is an immigrant from Japan. Ailin Conant, our Associate Director, has Japanese heritage. Amongst the company, about half the original cast had Japanese heritage, whether they were immigrants themselves or the children of immigrants. It was really great having that bit of support so that we could help, particularly given that our director and writer are white. They are phenomenal and have been incredible allies, but that being the case we just had such a large body of people who could consult one another and talk to each other. They were so receptive to us talking about things like how we deal with things like taking shoes on and off when you enter houses, all quite mundane things, really. But slowly, when you piece those details together, you do create a sense of authenticity.

I think it is important because the more specific you are in your storytelling, and the more it feels anchored to a time and place, that's what makes it feel universal, because there's the specificity and attention to detail. And we've managed to carry that spirit through to the revival. It's a fully East and Southeast Asian cast, and that includes people who are not of Japanese heritage, and the work and the care those company members who are from different backgrounds have given has also been really incredible and touching to watch. 

How has it been going from the first version to this current version?

It's wonderful to come back, and it's nice to come back knowing what we're making this time, but it's been a different process. Last time, there was the unknown, not knowing a lot of the time exactly what we were going to make, not knowing if what we're going to make was going to be any good, and discovering day by day. So there was that excitement and terror the first time around. And this time around, it feels like we know what we're working towards. There's a really great opportunity to come into it with more of a sense of ease and relaxation and to keep challenging ourselves to bolster the things that were really great from last time, and to keep finding new moments, new challenges, new surprises. And [it’s] also just surreal to suddenly be back in the building back in the same costume. But surreal in a very lovely way!

How do you feel that you've developed as an actor over this time?

I've never worked with a director like Phelim [McDermott]. We talk a lot in theatre about values like openness and democracy and trying to be non-hierarchical in our practices, but Phelim really takes those ideals to a level I didn't think possible in a rehearsal room. And the way that this is such a truly collaborative process, the way it's so open, and the amount of space that's left for play has been really amazing, has really changed the way I work and the way I see acting and theatre and has really taught me how to keep surprising myself in my performances.

Can you go a bit more into the openness and what that's been like?

It's hard to describe! In Phelim, there's just this wicked, mischievous imp of a man. Even the energy he brings into the room, you feel there's a kind of naughtiness and an excitement in the way he runs things, but also a profound kindness in the way he manages his spaces.

We have this thing we do every morning in rehearsals called the “Check In,” and the principle is that we all sit, the full company, together, and we just talk about whatever is alive within us that morning. It's a way to touch base with everyone. And sometimes they last two and a half hours, which is insane! [Laughs] Not many directors would be willing to give up two hours of their rehearsal process to sit around, what looks like sitting around, and chit-chatting. But what it means is that your real life and what's really going on with you is allowed into the room and is present in the room - it's not something that's forced out and pushed out.

It's also an opportunity to flag any issues. So rather than being afraid to speak out about an issue because of the hierarchy of the room, it’s a space where people can bring those things into the circle. Especially with a play that has a lot of representation from the East and Southeast Asian community, there's a lot of shared trauma in that community. It's historically been a very underrepresented community. And also it’s a community where we've seen ourselves depicted in really racist and offensive ways, and continue to do so.

It was a space where there was a lot of unpacking of shared trauma and something about that process really bonded us together. Not that it was like that every morning! There were mornings that were full of joy and laughter as well. And something about that openness and democraticness beds something that is very intangible and difficult to describe, but really knits an ensemble together. And I think that really shines through when you see the show - how strong of an ensemble who trust each other and are linked so delicately and sensitively with each other. And I think that's something Phelim’s direction is able to create.

Sounds like the perfect director for this kind of show!

He really was! I can't imagine anyone else directing this production,

Do you have a favourite moment in the show?

I can’t give too much away, but there is a moment where it is just me on stage with a whole bunch of the Sootsprites, which are these simple but breathtaking puppets. And it is one of my favourite songs from the film score that's been beautifully orchestrated by Will Stuart, our orchestrator of Joe Hisaishi’s incredible music. When all those elements come together, it is just spellbinding. That's one of my favourite moments in the show.

What do you hope audiences take away from My Neighbour Totoro?

I hope they take away whatever they need to take away from it. I think that's one of the reasons why people really love Ghibli films - the ambiguity and gentleness and the strangeness of them, and the way they don't have rigid plot arcs, or at least not the plot arcs we're used to in Western storytelling. They have a meandering, gentle quality to them that can be almost meditative. So every time you come back to one of the films, you think you understand what it's about, and then you watch it again five years later, and you go, “No, actually, it's about this other thing,” and then you watch it again, and it's about this other thing!

So whether it's an amazing spectacle with music and puppets, or a great day out for the family with little kids who will see these magical creatures come to life, whether it's something more complex and healing about the pains of growing up and leaving childhood and becoming an adult, or whether it's a story about having a family member who's ill and how a community can gather around you to help you, I hope audiences take away whatever they need from it. I think there are so many different ways you can view the story and so many different things you can take away from it.

My Neighbour Totoro runs until 23 March 2024 at the Barbican Theatre.

Main Photo Credit: David M. Benett/Jed Cullen/Dave Benett/Getty Images

Production Photo Credits: Manuel Harlan © RSC with Nippon TV