Should I Watch..? 'My Neighbour Totoro'
What's the big deal?
My Neighbour Totoro is a Japanese animated fantasy film released in 1988 and was both written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, widely regarded as one of the best animators in history. The film was produced by Studio Ghibli, an anime studio Miyazaki co-founded in 1985, which adopted the film's eponymous character Totoro as its logo and mascot. The film follows two young girls moving to a run-down rural house with their father and befriending mystical woodland creatures. Initially released as part of a double-feature with Grave Of The Fireflies, the film has since received international attention and releases - most recently with the cooperation of Disney in 2005. The film has been universally praised by critics across the world and has so far grossed more than $45 million at the global box office. Becoming a cult sensation, the film made much more in terms of home video releases and merchandising with estimated revenue generated over the film's lifetime of more than $1.5 billion.
What's it about?
In post-war Japan, university professor Tatsuo Kusakabe is forced to move to a more rural location to be closer to his ailing wife Yasuko who has been hospitalised. Together with his two daughters - ten-year-old Satsuki and four-year-old Mei - the three of them move into a dilapidated farmhouse with the help of a local Nanny and her grandson Kanta. Unbeknown to the Kusakabes, the house is inhabited by tiny black creatures which Nanny describes as soot sprites. Mei and Satsuki initially try to scare them off but they eventually move out of their own accord when they realise the family mean them no harm.
After settling in to their new home, Mei one day encounters two strange creatures unwittingly leaving a trail of acorns behind them. As they flee into the forest, Mei follows them and encounters an enormous furry creature fast asleep. Befriending him and falling asleep on Totoro's belly, Mei is discovered by Satsuki and her father fast asleep on the forest floor and unable to retrace her steps back to Totoro's woodland home. As Tatsuo thanks the "forest spirits" for looking after Mei, Satsuki is convinced that Mei is somehow telling the truth...
Trailer (Disney release)
Main Cast (voice performance)
Japanese Language Cast
Release Date (UK)
17th November, 1989
Animation, Family, Fantasy
What's to like?
With the explosion in popularity in anime in the late Eighties (in the West, anyway), it's not surprising that something as unique as My Neighbour Totoro was overlooked by audiences in favour of more commercial fare such as the original Dragon Ball and Patlabor video series and the cult smash Akira. It's rare to find a film that has no villain or evil to overcome or even a real narrative to speak of. There is a hint of dramatic impetus in the final third but generally speaking, the film is a delightful experience looking back at the follies and imagination of youth. Consider that the film is entirely hand-drawn, painted and animated the way that Disney were doing back in their early days - the film is just beautiful to look at with sweeping views of the countryside framed by fluffy clouds and possessing a sense of peace and harmony between man and nature. Having been to Japan myself, it's a setting I recognise instantly so I was onside from the very beginning.
The human characters in the film are also interesting because they differ from our usual expectations. Tatsuo, essentially a single father in the film, is shown to be a decent man but one struggling to maintain a balance between his work and the girls. He is relatable, as are his two daughters who act and behave like actual children instead of two miniature heroes. The film has no need for heroes, allowing the magic and surrealism to fully embrace you. There is a powerful charm in the film that wins you over, even before the lovable sight of Totoro himself (herself? Itself? Who knows?) appears on screen. And when he does, his subtle movements and gestures speak far more than words ever could although his roars are enough to wake anyone up. Totoro is to Studio Ghibli what Buzz Lightyear is to Pixar - not just a mascot but a figurehead that instantly explains the studio's ethos as well as the recognisable face of the product. Totoro, like much of Ghibli's output, is whimsical, surreal and completely bewitching.
- Miyazaki has admitted that the film is partially autobiographical - when he was growing up with his brothers, Hayao's mother spent some considerable time in hospital with spinal tuberculosis which she suffered from for nine years. He also admitted that the film would have been too painful for him to make if the two children were boys.
- Both Totoro and the soot sprites (susuwatari) make cameos in other films. The soot sprites later appear in Spirited Away as workers in the boiler house while a plush Totoro toy appears in Toy Story 3. Totoro himself also appears in other Studio Ghibli films Kiki's Delivery Service, Pom Poko and Whisper Of The Heart.
- Miyazaki often includes flying as a personal touch to his films. Not only is Kanta seen playing with a toy aeroplane but Totoro also appears to travel via a flying spinning top when he isn't using the cat-bus.
What's not to like?
If I'm being harsh (which is kinda my thing) then I can only really think of two things about the film that I could take issue with. The first is that some of the animation, particularly that of characters and moving objects, isn't as smooth as later anime movies. This is understandable, of course - a film like My Neighbour Totoro for a then-fledgling studio like Studio Ghibli represents a considerable financial risk so it makes sense for less drawings and frames per minute than later films like Princess Mononoke or Howl's Moving Castle. The animation isn't dreadful by any means but there are occasions when character movements feel slightly jerky. The other issue I have is purely a personal one - the film is a difficult sell to Western audiences given how unusual the film is. With a distinctly Oriental style, feel and atmosphere and the lack of what we'd call a dramatic narrative, the film might feel a bit too surreal or alien to some viewers. But regardless, you should give it a go - younger viewers aren't likely to complain about such things, are they? They'll be just as hypnotised by stuff like the mind-bending Catbus as I was.
And frankly, there isn't much more to say. As an introduction to anime, it may be slightly fantastical for some tastes and it certainly lacks the more Western-appeal of other anime distributors such as Manga Entertainment which tend to focus on sci-fi flavoured violence and horror productions usually for home video markets. Anyone expecting something easily digestible such as Golgo 13: The Professional or the animated original Ghost In The Shell might be a little off-put by the strangeness of this film but consider it something like Alice's Adventures In Wonderland compared to H.G. Wells' The War Of The Worlds.
Should I watch it?
Beautiful to watch and heart-warming throughout, My Neighbour Totoro is a bewitching and adorable animated fantasy that constantly surprises you with its levels of artistry and imagination. It was one of the first anime movies to engage in surreal flights of fancy and arguably, it remains the benchmark for its countless imitators to follow. Hayao Miyazaki's reputation might sound set in stone these days but it is with films like this that such a reputation was founded on. It's just wonderful.
Great For: anime fans, marketing purposes, reminding viewers of the importance of the environment and the power of childhood imagination, Japanese viewers and culture
Not So Great For: people who process things literally, anyone who can't handle subtitles (please avoid the dubbed versions if possible), viewers who prefer more adult fare
What else should I watch?
Studio Ghibli released their debut film in 1986 with Castle In The Sky and have consistently blazed a trail for Japanese animation ever since. From cult hits like Porco Rosso to powerful anti-war films like Grave Of The Fireflies and epic fantasies like Howl's Moving Castle, the studio has become one of the most beloved producers of animation in Japan itself with a global reputation matched only by Disney and Pixar themselves. Miyazaki's last film was 2013's The Wind Rises, a fictionalised biography of aeronautic engineer Jiro Horikoshi, before announcing his retirement at the age of 72. However, he has since come out of retirement to work on the forthcoming How Do You Live? which is expecting to be released before the start of the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
But undoubtedly, Studio Ghibli's greatest film so far is the internationally renowned Spirited Away which remains the highest grossing film in Japanese history, overtaking the success of James Cameron's Titanic. With global takings well over $347 million as well as being the first non-English language (and the first hand-drawn animated) film to win Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards, the film has been universally praised by critics, audiences and other animators like John Lasseter and is often cited as one of the greatest animations ever made. Not bad for a film deeply rooted in Japanese culture and Shinto-Buddhist folklore...
© 2020 Benjamin Cox