My Neighbor Totoro

Japan Movie Reviews: My Neighbor Totoro

My Neighbor Totoro

by Hemanth Kissoon, August 2007

My Neighbor Totoro,Studio Ghibli.

Virtually every time I see a film directed by Hayao Miyazaki he manages to exceed my expectations. I think he has astounded me as far as he can, and then he astounds me further. My Neighbor Totoro, released in 1988, is extraordinary - a magical film which enchants and delights (for all ages).

Like E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial and Elliott flying across the sky became the logo for Steven Spielberg's production company, Amblin, the character Totoro, in this film, is a symbol of Studio Ghibli - Japan 's animation power-house that has won, rightly so, a worldwide fan base.

Totoro is a furry troll that lives in a forest in the Japanese countryside, a bus and train ride from Tokyo. The detail of the depiction of the countryside is beautiful and luxuriant. When you see the fields, sunflowers and trees, it shows how grand two-dimensional cartoons can be - it is such a shame that 3D computer generated images have appeared to almost completely replace this traditional form at the multiplexes.

Miyazaki invests the ordinary with a richness that is amazing. The film opens with the Kusakabe family moving to Matsugo in the country, probably from Tokyo, where the father teaches archaeology at the university. With him, and the focus of My Neighbor Totoro, are his two daughters: the elder Satsuki (voiced by Dakota Fanning, in the English language version) and Mei (voiced by Ella Fanning). They are free-spirited, energetic and fearless children. Mei, the four year old is especially inquisitive.

The way the kids react to the new house suggests that country living can be more beneficial than the city; and greater at feeding the imagination. While exploring their home they discover moth-like Soot Spirits. A neighbour, called Granny by everyone, explains that they live in old country houses and run all over the place covering everything in dirt. With new owners they decide if you are nice people and if so move out. Mei likes them and does not want them to leave. The magical and spiritual nature of their new home has now started to reveal itself. The house maybe haunted but that is not seen as a bad thing. The abandoned houses mentioned, perhaps hint at the modern exodus from Japan's countryside to the cities.

One day when Satsuki is at school, Mei, while playing, discovers a couple of mini furry trolls who look like little rabbits, one is white and the other blue. The trolls collect acorns and one carries a bag with them in. She chases after them and follows them into the massive camphor tree at the back of their huge garden. There, she discovers eight-foot Totoro, who becomes a friend to the sisters.

The innocence, however, is tinged with sadness as we discover why they have moved. There is a meeting in My Neighbor Totoro of the dreamlike and reality. The visuals and story that are conjured are typically imaginative and surreal from the film-maker's mind, like Totoro waiting in the rain under an umbrella or a giant twelve legged cat-bus. This is complimented by Joe Hisashi's lively and evocative score. The pre- and post-credit sequences are as usual a treat.

This film feels like a celebration of the wonders of the natural world. Writer-director Miyazaki explores themes of the environment, health, growth, innocent curiosity (rather than nosiness), family and understanding. What could have been scary is actually fantastical.

Japanese Cinema Reviews by Hemanth Kissoon

Black Rain
Castle in the Sky
The Castle of Cagliostro
Cyber City Oedo 808
Grave of the Fireflies
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind
Porco Rosso
Tales From Earthsea
Tokyo Godfathers
Throne of Blood

Books on Japanese Cinema