My Neighbor Totoro (1988) *available with English dub

Posted by on Dec 12, 2011 in Foreign | 0 comments


Disclaimer: Extremely wholesome, but perhaps a bit startling.

Hayao Miyazaki’s films, perhaps even more than Walt Disney’s (if you can believe it), are the epitome of this book’s title. Miyazaki brings us to worlds that are strange, beautiful, enchanting, wondrous, and awe-inspiring. Ebert hailed Totoro (pronounced Toto-Row), specifically, in his Great Films series as one of the greatest animated films of all time. “Here is a children’s film made for the world we should live in, rather than the one we occupy. A film with no villains. No fight scenes. No evil adults. No fighting between two kids. No scary monsters. No darkness before dawn. A world that is benign. A world where if you meet a strange towering creature in the forest, you curl up on its tummy and have a nap.”

With Totoro, Miyazaki introduces Totoro2two sisters named Mei, 4, and Satsuki, 8 (voiced by real-life sisters Dakota and Elle Fanning). With their father (Timothy Daly), they travel to a new home near a dense forest. In a partially autobiographical move, Miyazaki scripts their mother as hospitalized with a serious illness (Miyazaki’s mother had spinal tuberculosis for nine years). And this element of sadness and uncertaintly, though earning minor screen time, perfectly balances the characters and story.

The home, as the children soon find, is haunted by delightful and harmless little soot sprites that live in abandoned homes (the sprites are also featured in Spirited Away). Shortly after that little surprise, Mei discovers a baby totoro (roughly meaning troll in Japanese, but essentially resembling a really cuddly hamster). She scrambles to follow it through tunnels in the forest, ultimately discovering a gigantic version of the creature fast asleep.

What follows is a fascinatingTotoro3 acquaintanceship featuring a series of interactions, though none as memorable as waiting for “the bus” (you’ll see why …). All of which, however, will capture your imagination and make the most miserable of people feel a glimmer of warmth inside. Perfect for a rainy day. Miyazaki, who here acts as writer, director, producer, and even animator, famously refuses to watch television and movies saying, “The only images I watch regularly come from the weather report,” and it shows.

His films come as breaths of fresh air because, unlike traditional American animated flicks, his are based on personal experiences as a child – exploring mystery and imagining adventure. Though there are few moments of “realism” in his films, they feel real because of the actions and perspectives of the child protagonists – even down to the smallest of mannerisms (the most immediate example that comes to mind is Spirited Away’s Chihiro putting on her shoes, standing up, and, with toes pointed at the floor, kicks her feet more comfortably into them before running off).

As Ebert continued, “It is a little sad, a little scary, a little surprising, and a little informative, just like life itself. … Every time I watch it, I just smile, and smile, and smile.”

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