Moving away can be tough, but it doesn’t always have to be. For Satsuki and Mei, two rambunctious children living in Japan in the 1950’s, it’s an adventure, in spite of the sad circumstances that brought them to their new home. The Kusakabe family has just moved from the big city into a more rural, country-esque community, surrounded by farms and woods, but they aren’t there for the change of scenery. They’ve moved there to get closer to the hospital that their mother is staying at while she battles an unspecified long term illness. The community is warm and welcoming, their new neighbors are supportive to them, but most importantly, they have each other. While their father Tatsuo spends his day working in his room, Mei and Satsuki play with each other around their new property, searching the house for ghosts, running around the yard, and exploring all the weird and quaint wonders of their new home.
It isn’t long at all, however, before things start to get strange. Their first encounter with the supernatural was fairly innocuous, as they discover a horde of tiny black soot spirits living in the dark corners of their home, which flee into the shadows whenever the two of them enter a room. Things get even more bizarre the first time Mei is left to her own devices, and she begins to uncover creatures living near them in the woods, including the mighty Totoro, a hibernating beast nestled deep below the roots of a giant tree, who becomes fast friends with her. Described by her father as The King of the Forest, Totoro isn’t always around, but he shows up when they need him, keeping them company or helping them out, all without saying a word. They’ll need his help more than ever, however, as a vague telegram brings up the troubling news that their mother’s condition has gotten worse, and a fight between the two sisters creates a terrifying situation. Can they rely on their spirit friends once more to see them through, or have they been all alone from the beginning?
This is the third Studio Ghibli film that I’ve reviewed, and out of the three, this one is probably the closest to what I’d consider the standard Hayao Miyazaki style. Of course, almost all of Miyazaki’s movies are visually gorgeous… My Neighbor Totoro is a solid thirty years old now, after all… But Totoro is one of his more cartoony looking projects, and it’s probably one of the best looking out of them. One particular note I’d like to make is something I didn’t really notice until watching this movie again this week for the third time in my life… There are exceptions, notably Spirited Away, but for the most part, the characters in Hayao Miyazaki’s films look less realistic the younger they get, with the adults having more or less realistic proportions, children being a little more exaggerated with larger facial expressions, and the littlest of children being portrayed as adorable little goblins with heads too big for their bodies and mouths wide enough to make Totoro himself jealous. It works well because of the cartoony nature of the designs, though.
The same can’t really be said for the backgrounds, which are highly detailed and realistic throughout, although they did manage to create some incredibly diverse scenery. There are times when the background can feel a bit stiff and lifeless, but this is mainly during scenes where we’re supposed to be paying attention to the characters anyway, and the artwork itself is still beautiful to look at. I haven’t been this entranced by the clouds in the sky of an animation since I reviewed Diebuster, and a lot of the imagery from the forest seemed like it was taken right from the forest next to my own house, which I used to explore quite liberally when I was younger. Honestly, the tunnel under the shrubbery that Mei takes to get to the large clearing is a dead wringer for a similar path that I used to crawl through back in the day. Backgrounds that actually move, like scary swaying trees at night, tall grass being pushed through and fields of grass and other plants being rustled by gusts of wind, are very well captured and lushly drawn.
The character movement is perfectly fluid and graceful, well, as graceful as two clumsy, awkward kids and a cat bus with creepy, millipedey legs can be. There’s a lot of running, which I’ve heard can be particularly difficult to animate in 2D, but that’s what this movie entirely is… Traditional, hand-drawn 2D animation, which makes the aesthetic especially impressive. And that’s not anything against the CG that Miyazaki would use in later movies… I understand perfectly well why they needed to use it in Spirited Away, because the story took place in one giant set piece, with a terrifying number of working parts and crazy inhabitants, so it had to be a major boon for them, but I still vastly prefer the look of the hand drawn Kusakabe house, as it gives so much life to the crumbling old structure. The final thing I should mention is probably the design of Totoro himself, as they were so flawlessly able to walk the line between unique looking monster and fluffy, adorable gentle giant, and while I don’t know enough about Japanese mythology to place whether he’s based on anything, I can still understand any kid wanting to befriend him.
Just like Spirited Away, the music for Totoro was composed by Joe Hisaishi, but this time around, since there’s less going on in the story, I was able to soak it in a lot better, as his tracks aren’t just supporting the product, but acting as important elements all their own more often than not. Since there’s no real action to speak of in the film, the score is very childhood oriented, with tracks ranging from happy, fun and upbeat to calm and relaxing, with very few exceptions for the sake of it’s few serious scenes. The most memorable track is easily it’s theme, literally a song about having fun with your friend Totoro, and while it’s been parodied mercilessly(The South Park Cthulhu version is my favorite), it’s hard to listen to without feeling something. The instrumental portion has a curious motif going on, as quite a few of it’s tracks, which otherwise don’t sound that much alike, do manage to have a few bars in common, and they’re bars that also get hummed by the characters a few times, but I’m not sure what the significance is. They are pretty, though, which I think I can say for the rest of the score as well.
As for the English dub, I was surprised to find out the two main child characters, Satsuki and Mei, were actually played by the Fanning sisters… Respectively, Dakota and Elle. Remember in my review of Spirited Away, how I said the character was voiced in a more childlike way compared to the sub, and it didn’t feel like much acting was really being done? Well, the same thing happens here, but it works a lot better for three reasons. First of all, this is a different kind of story. I won’t get into too much about the focus of the plot just yet, but it’s not the kind of story that really requires the individual characters to be particularly interesting or memorable. The focus is primarily on the family, so of course the kids are going to be portrayed as kids. This inevitably leads into the second thing, the brilliant casting of two real life sisters as the main characters. The bond between Dakota and Elle translates completely into their characters, and you can feel the love and familiarity of their established bond, and it adds a level of caring to their dynamic onscreen.
The third reason is that even in her worst movies(Hide and Seek, anyone?), Dakota Fanning’s been a fantastic actor ever since she started out in her career. From her collection of TV cameos in the year 2000, she’s always had the kind of acting chops, timing and stage presence that some adults are never able to achieve, so even in a role where she’s not really expected to do anything more complex than hang out with her little sister, she still manages to shine whenever one of her scenes calls for more emotion… When Satsuki’s worried about her mother, or frustrated with her sister, or going through the big climax of the third act, she does manage to put on a compelling performance. Elle, to a lesser extent, does an okay job as well, I mean she couldn’t really bomb this part as long as she continued to read her lines, but like I said before, the most important thing was their bond, which does sell the characters to us. We do wind up caring about them.
As for the rest of the cast, there really aren’t any other major notes I can make. Satsuki and Mei’s parents are played by respectable character/voice actors Tim Daly and Lea Salonga, one of whom has a long resume stretching back to the eighties, and the latter being a mainstay of Disney movies, playing the singing voice for numerous Disney Princesses. They’re strong actors, but neither had a lot to do here. More noteworthy is Pat Carrol, who was born in the twenties and has been acting since the forties, and is actually still alive and performing today, with a recent role in the Tangled cartoon series. She plays a very kind and lovable old woman, the first person to welcome them to the village and the person who explains the spirits in the area to the two girls. Finally we have the legendary Frank Welker, voice of millions of animated animals, playing the titular character Totoro, among others. It’s a testament to his abilities that he’s able to convey emotion and personality from a role that’s basically just Chewbacca roaring. The adaptive writing does change things, but it does so with a bit more respect for the audience than some other films.
While most of Ghibli’s films are able to garner their own consistent reputations, My Neighbor Totoro seems to be one of the more divisive films in their collection. There are a lot of people who consider the film to be a great nostalgic classic, one of the main movie of their childhoods, but I’ve seen an equal number of people saying that they find the film to be boring, and it’s hard to not see both sides. As much as it manages to be a whimsical tale of childhood innocence, there really isn’t a lot going on in it… It has almost no plot to speak of, and viewers can get so disengaged that they wind up focusing more on the puzzle of whether or not Totoro even exists in the story, rather than anything actually going on in it. There’s also a third camp, people in the middle, who think it’s perfectly fine as a kids movie, but doesn’t have as much appeal to an older audience. These are all solid points, and I can understand where they’re all coming from, but I honestly do feel that it has more to offer, even to adults, than most viewers would realize.
As I stated before, Satsuki and Mei are not, on their own, interesting or compelling characters. You would never want to go to great lengths to see them in any other context, nor would you really want to catch up with them in the years following the movie’s conclusion. They work as a unit, and while they’re not entirely defined by each other… Satsuki is a bit more serious and responsible, Mei is a bit more careless and dependent… They are each other’s most important qualities. What I didn’t mention is that they both share equal space as main characters, something I rarely ever see in sibling-centric stories. Ed and Alphonse are both important in FMA, but Ed is still clearly the main character. Mirai is clearly the star of Tokyo Magnitude 8.0, with her puppy Yuuki just being there to act cute, die, and make us cry. Gregory is a very interesting and quirky character in Over the Garden Wall, but he’s still clearly a sidekick in Wert’s story. Mabel and Dipper share equal billing in Gravity Falls, but Dipper is still the one moving the plot forward.
With My Neighbor Totoro, however, both children get equal time to shine, spending more or less the same amount of time both alone and together, both having interactions with Totoro himself, and the only real exception… A certain crisis in the third act… Is still entirely focused on their relationship, despite the relatively dramatic stakes. If it wasn’t for the fact that I’d gone over ten years without watching it right up until the time of this writing, the two of them would have been a shoo-in for my top ten siblings list a few years ago, as the bond between them is so strongly written and developed that Miyazaki had no trouble making you care about them and get invested in their story, despite their lack of individual development. I’d even go as far as to say I like the two of them on a more personal note, as they remind me a lot of my brother and me as children… Granted, we were closer in age than these girls are, with only about a year and a half between us, but we still hung out a lot, explored together, and fed both off of and into each other’s imaginations.
And that’s ultimately the point of this movie… The importance of imagination in a healthy childhood. My Neighbor Totoro makes no bones about the fact that Satsuki and Mei are going through a rough time, with their mother in the hospital and their dad working, so the two of them are left with nothing but each other as a support system, coming up with fantasies and elaborate creatures that the adults in their lives are more than willing to humor and encourage. Yeah, that’s right, I think all the supernatural stuff that happens in this movie was imaginary, because I’ve been there… I’ve been a kid, entertaining myself with epic fantasies playing out around me, and even when the creatures in the movie DO tangibly interact with the girls, I could easily see these moments being recreated from stories they told each other or came up with to describe the events around them, much like Edward Bloom from the movie Big Fish. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Totoro and his little minions didn’t appear until Mei was all alone.
With her sister in school, Mei no longer had her playmate, and had to come up with a new one… A big, giant furry one who’s subtly hinted to be based on a frog, and maybe a little off of Mei’s initial impression of the old lady next door. Satsuki didn’t see him at first because it took her a little while to understand why he was important, and to come around to Mei’s way of thinking. Then again, maybe I’m wrong, and it was all real. Maybe Totoro really is the spirit of the forest, he really can fly and call upon help from a cat bus with weird centipede legs, and the two girls are seeing something that’s really there. If this were the case, it wouldn’t bother me at all, as it wouldn’t take away from the movie. It’s never made clear whether or not Totoro exists in the real world or just in the children’s heads, and that’s exactly how it should be. It’s that blur of fantasy and reality that expresses just how important and, well, real our imaginations are to us, both when we were children and even as adults.
All right, before I wrap this up, I should talk about the elephant in the room. Actually, there are two; The first one is that there’s a nude scene in this movie. It’s only a few seconds long, but it shows the girls and their father bathing together, and while that may seem weird and creepy to a western audience… I wouldn’t judge you for not wanting your kids to see it without parental guidance… It is, in and of itself, an innocent scene, as families bathe together in a completely non-sexual context all around the world, so it’s a perfectly innocent moment. I did, however, have a friend once who, when I mentioned the movie to him, immediately said “Ooh, the bath scene…” We’re not friends anymore. Don’t be friends with people like this. The other elephant is a weirdly popular fan theory that the movie is a metaphorical retelling of an old murder, with the girls both secretly dying in the third act, and while I don’t personally believe in this theory, I can kind of see how it came about, and I do get that there’s some evidence for it. I don’t think it holds up, myself, and I personally like to view the movie on it’s own merits, but hey, you do you.
My Neighbor Totoro is available from Gkids, with the original Disney release being out of print. A novelization by Tsugiko Kubo and illustrated by Miyazaki himself is also available stateside with an English translation. Interesting note, Totoro also showed up as a plush toy in Toy Story 3. If you can find it, there’s also an older DVD where, on the case’s artwork, it looks like Totoro’s top is sticking out of his butt. Your welcome.
My Neighbor Totoro is one of Studio Ghibli’s flagship titles, with the big fluffy Totoro himself serving as the Studio mascot, much like the Cat in the Hat is with the Dr. Seuss empire. It might not have accomplished as much as certain other titles in their filmography, with Spirited Away being their only major award-winner in the United States and some of the more dark titles garnering far better critical praise, but in my opinion, this is one of their biggest triumphs. This movie does everything it set out to do and so much more, becoming a timeless classic that even thirty years later, still manages to capture the hearts and minds of children and even some adults(like yours truly). It’s simplistic, but it still has an unmistakable dignity to it, and it stands as proof that you don’t need epic circumstances, intense action scenes or complex writing to make a movie good, and you don’t need randomness, quick editing or flashy CG to appeal to children. If you treat your audience with respect, they’ll come to you, and they’ll never forget you. I give My Neighbor Totoro a 9/10.