Sunday, March 4, 2012

100 Movies - No. 65: My Neighbor Totoro

65. My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
Animation, Adventure, Family, 86 minutes
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Starring the voices of Dakota Fanning, Elle Fanning and Tim Daly (US dub)

My Neighbor Totoro hasn’t yet been released on Blu-ray. Disney is working its way through the Studio Ghibli titles and has released most of them on DVD, but a Blu-ray release for this particular film is likely one or two years away. While I intend to own them all on the best possible format, I just had to buy Totoro on DVD until it sees a high definition release.

This is going to be a difficult review because my love for Studio Ghibli and its worlds is hard to put into words. I’ll do my best.

Hayao Miyazaki’s films aren’t for everyone. They should be, but it just isn’t the case. The reason is that we in North America have come to expect a certain style when it comes to animation.

Animated movies are typically fast-paced and filled with action. They have heroes, villains, chase scenes and conflict. What’s more, they are noisy. It seems that without constant action, there’s a fear that the audience might become bored. This is not a criticism, merely an observation. I’m quite happy watching such things as Kung Fu Panda, Megamind, Tangled or How to Train Your Dragon.

Miyazaki’s films don’t follow the typical Hollywood style. Until very recently, everything was hand-drawn. Each frame is like a watercolor painting and has a certain beauty. Those who only watch modern CGI animation may not appreciate the classic two-dimensional style.

Another huge difference is the pacing. Instead of constant action, you’ll see occasional shots of the countryside, a stream, an animal or clouds. It’s a cultural difference and reflects a society in which people are more in tune with nature and the simple joy of being alive. Miyazaki’s stories unfold gradually in their own time.

Like most Studio Ghibli releases, My Neighbor Totoro doesn’t contain any villains. We are shown situations that its characters encounter and we watch them figure things out. It works because the characters are well-defined and we care about them. We want to see how they will proceed and whether they will succeed.

The story is set in the 1950s in a Japanese village and begins with Professor Kusakabe (Daly) arriving at his new house, along with daughters Satsuki and Mei (Dakota and Elle Fanning). Satsuki is about 10 years old and Mei around 4. The sisters are delighted with their new home. Mei mimics her sister’s actions and sometimes repeats what she says. I have never seen a more realistic depiction of how children think and behave.

The children are full of life and explore their new house with excitement. It’s rumored to be haunted, but they only encounter soot sprites which leave at the sound of laughter. The sprites are only visible to children. Another cultural difference is highlighted when the professor shares a bath with his daughters. His girls happily help with the chores before they run off to play. This is a world in which TV doesn’t exist. The children spend their free time playing outside.

Professor Kusakabe puts the girls on his bicycle and takes them to a hospital where their mother is being treated. Miyazaki’s own mother suffered from tuberculosis and, although it’s never stated, this is probably what Mrs. Kusakabe was recovering from. It’s not typical for animated films to deal with such themes as illness, but this is a realistic world and the situation fits. They learn that she’s almost ready to return home and see their new house.

Satsuki cooks for the family and her father works at home when he’s not lecturing at the university. It’s a benign world where children walk to school without any fear of abduction or similar dangers.

Mei isn’t yet old enough for school and plays outside while her father works at his desk. She views the world with the charming fascination of a child, exploring her surroundings and watching tadpoles swim in the stream. Then she sees a pair of white ears in the long grass, belonging to a creature resembling a rabbit. The creature scurries away from her alternating between visible and invisible. She tracks it into a tunnel formed by overhanging trees. After entering a hole in the trunk of a vast tree she emerges in a clearing occupied by a giant sleeping creature.

We are more than 30 minutes into the film before she encounters the sleeping totoro. The film takes its time and doesn’t feel the need to introduce the creature from the start. It looks like a cross between a cat, a teddy bear and an owl. She prods it inquisitively and it seems unconcerned by her presence. There’s no sense of danger and she simply curls up on top of it and falls asleep. Her father and sister notice she is missing and set out to find her. When they arrive, she’s sleeping on the ground in the forest with no sign of the totoro.

When she tells her unlikely story, her father and sister believe her. They accept that she wouldn’t lie. It’s very refreshing to see that kind of trust between adult and child. Professor Kusakabe speculates that the totoro can only be seen when he wants to be seen and that Mei was very lucky to have the chance. These simple words make her happy.

The film defies our expectations at every turn. When her father has to go to the university, Mei starts to miss Satsuki, so the old woman looking after her takes her to the school. Satsuki explains to the teacher that their father will be home in a couple of hours and Mei is allowed to stay with the older children. She feels important and quietly sits at her desk drawing a picture of the totoro.

I don’t want to give away the whole story, but the totoro has an important part to play in the lives of the girls. The most worrying part of the film lasts about ten minutes, but it’s a realistic situation and doesn’t contain any villains. Their friend the totoro is a reassuring presence and knows how to solve the problem.

The girls are very sweet, but it isn’t overdone. Little Mei is probably my favorite character in any animated film. She’s thoroughly adorable. Miyazaki’s drawings are quite simple, but he can convey emotion with just a few expressions. He varies the size of the children’s mouths and eyes according to the mood of the scene.

My Neighbor Totoro is set in a world that no longer exists. The parents care deeply for their children and the two sisters love and depend on each other. Villagers pull together in times of crisis and care about their neighbors. Children respect older people and there’s no sense of danger. It’s a warm and happy place to visit and I wish the real world were more like Miyazaki’s imaginary ones. This is what human beings are supposed to be like.

Miyazaki has a wonderful imagination and it’s even more prominent in fantasy worlds such as those encountered in Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Castle in the Sky and the Oscar-winning Spirited Away. All of his stories have warmth and heart. If you see him interviewed, it’s apparent that he loves what he does. His enthusiasm is infectious and he smiles when he talks about his worlds. He sees things that most of us take for granted and miss altogether.

I consider My Neighbor Totoro to be the perfect family film. It may also be the happiest film I’ve ever seen and the relationship between the sisters is wonderful to watch. They aren’t constantly bickering. If Mei gets tired, Satsuki carries her. Adults treat children seriously and genuinely want to know what’s important to them. In today’s world, with the pressures adults place on themselves, that isn’t always the case.

Miyazaki has crafted a film filled with wonder and a sense of discovery. It’s like returning to your childhood and seeing the world from that perspective. The expressions of concentration, determination and pure wonder on Mei’s face are depicted perfectly. The film is full of beauty. I don’t just mean the animation – although it is beautiful – I’m also referring to the actions performed by the people and creatures in the film.

The feelings created by the story are considerably enhanced by Joe Hisaishi’s haunting score. He’s responsible for the music in all of Miyazaki’s films and the two have established a good understanding. The melodies seem so simple, but it’s hard to imagine the film without their presence.

While I’m delighted that Disney is releasing the Studio Ghibli titles on Blu-ray, it can’t happen fast enough. Some will argue that the English dub of the film ruins the experience. The good thing about the recent releases is that the original Japanese versions are included as an option. If you want to experience the film in its native language, you can now do so, with or without subtitles.

There’s also a short film set in the same world; Mei and the Kittenbus. It hasn’t been released commercially, but is sometimes shown at the Studio Ghibli museum in Mitaka, Japan. You’ll have to reserve a ticket in advance if you want to pay a visit. It’s a long trip to see a 14-minute short film, but it’s currently the only way to see it. My forlorn hope is to see the short included among the special features when the film is released on Blu-ray.

I would recommend Miyazaki’s films to everyone, although I realize that some people won’t connect with them. The potential reward is worth the time investment. If you have children, there’s even more reason to give one a try. Try to go in with an open mind. My Neighbor Totoro isn’t about constant action or conflict, but it’s an experience that shouldn’t be missed. It’s closer to a film like Bambi than Megamind or Despicable Me.

Just because a film is about young children, it doesn’t mean that the viewer has to be a young child in order to appreciate the story. Pixar has elevated North American films to new levels over the past two decades, but I can honestly say that Studio Ghibli, and Miyazaki in particular, has produced films with more heart. They are beautiful, magical and full of imagination. These stories matter to me and I can’t wait to see the next one.

Click here to see where My Neighbor Totoro ranks in my Top 20 animated films list. 

If you like My Neighbor Totoro:

Studio Ghibli has created some incredible films over the years and every single one is worth seeing. My Neighbor Totoro is often said to be aimed at young children, but I think it works for anyone who is open to the experience. The most similar in feel is Ponyo, but stories involving slightly older children and young adults should not be missed. The best of those are Spirited Away, Kiki's Delivery Service and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.

Disney finally put some funding into promoting its Studio Ghibli titles with the recent release of The Secret World of Arrietty. Although Miyazaki was involved with the adaptation of the screenplay, it was directed by Hirosama Yonebayashi. It doesn't match the incredible standards set by My Neighbor Totoro, but it is a charming film in its own right.


  1. I've watched Spirited Away and Arrietty. Your words: 'My Neighbor Totoro is set in a world that no longer exists. The parents care deeply for their children and the two sisters love and depend on each other.' well, I don't know, I think that kind of relationship is rare, but not completely vanished. I agree that it's a refreshing film, much like any Ghibli movies are. But anyway, a very nice review, Steve.

  2. Thanks Andina,

    I was just highlighting the changing world. There is so much entertainment to choose from that families rarely sit down as a group and do something together. It's certainly becoming less common anyway. Sometimes both parents feel the need to work and families suffer because of that lack of attention. There are exceptions of course.