Monday, August 18, 2014

Nick's Pick: My Neighbor Totoro

Film: Tonari no Totoro (My Neighbor Totoro)
Format: DVD from Byron Public Library through interlibrary loan on rockin’ flatscreen.

This is the eighth in a series of monthly reviews suggested by Nick Jobe at YourFace.

Nick really hates it when people say that they don’t like anime. I get that. Anime isn’t a genre any more than foreign is a genre, no matter what NetFlix has to say about that. However, I find that most anime passes over me without making much of a favorable impression. Even the critically acclaimed stuff like Akira leaves me cold. Sure, I’ve liked a few, but I generally feel like I’m missing something culturally, like there should be something I’m getting that I just don’t. So it was not with a little trepidation that I put Tonari no Totoro (My Neighbor Totoro) in the spinner. I was also interested in it; I’ve heard good things.

That being said, Nick’s given me something of a poser with this film in terms of writing up a review. Why? Because Tonari no Totoro doesn’t have a vast amount of plot to deal with, and dealing with plot is sort of my thing. I’ll do my best, but I’m guessing this might run a little short. For the purposes of this review, I watched the Disney release of this film rather than the original Studio Ghibli or the original English release.

In brief, since brief is really all we have here, Tatsuo Kusakabe (Tim Daly) and his two daughters, 10-ish Satsuki (Dakota Fanning) and 4-year-old Mei (Elle Fanning) have moved out to a house in the country in the belief that it will be better for wife and mother Yasuko (Lea Salonga) when she is released from a long hospital stay. They soon discover that the house is mildly haunted with nature spirits. Soon after this, both Mei and Satsuki begin encountering local forest spirits including one Mei dubs Totoro, a large grey and white creature that has some magical properties.

Essentially, the girls have a series of magical adventures with Totoro, two smaller versions of him, and a bus-like creature that is actually a magical 12-legged cat. Yes, that sounds strange. Just go with it. The only real conflict happens at the end of the film when the two discover that their mother will not be coming home as planned on a given weekend and Mei attempts to walk to the hospital on her own and gets lost. This happens in the last third of the film. The first hour, more or less, is setting up Satsuki and Mei’s relationship and their discovery of the forest spirits and the magical world around them.

And you know what? That’s okay. I’m perfectly fine with a film that doesn’t have a genuine conflict or at least an antagonist. That’s not what the film is about. Instead, the film really is about the family relationships and dealing with this world of magic and discovery. Hayao Miyazaki’s intent here, more than anything, is to present the world for us rather than create a tension between our world and this other one.

Where the film really shines is in its physical beauty and imagination. I am someone who has said “I don’t like anime” in the past. When I say that, what I typically mean is that I don’t love the style of animation, at least in part. But Tonari no Totoro is really pretty and imaginative. Without going into a great deal of detail, even the concept of the Catbus is freaking awesome. I still don’t love the cutesification of characters in the general artistic style of anime, and that does carry through for me here, but everything else is absolutely gorgeous. Totoro himself is unique without being bizarre. He’s a couple of basic shapes, and yet he’s something completely new. For what it’s worth, Mei looks a lot like the main character of the Harold and the Purple Crayon books, albeit with pigtails. Again, I can forgive the appearance of the human characters when there’s so much else to look at.

The other main objection I frequently have with anime is that I frequently feel lost. I often feel like there is something I should understand implicitly (because it’s not explained) that I never do. Totoro isn’t explained, but it’s also not too difficult to understand. It requires just a bit of going with what’s there and not overthinking it, which is exactly the problem I have with films like Akira.

Tonari no Totoro is pure fantasy and pure childhood magic. And that’s a wonderful thing. For the adults in the audience, watch for a story of innocence and joy. Kids will love it if only because it’s fun and the slight conflict that exists is so easy for them to understand. This really is, like much of the best Pixar and Disney films, a movie that can speak to anyone of any age group.

Good call, Nick. This one is an unreserved win. You’re 6.5 for 8.

Why to watch Tonari no Totoro: It’s pretty magical.
Why not to watch: Not much plot.


  1. Whoo! Glad you liked this one. It really is all about the magic and childlike wonderment and imagination here. And as for the plot, like I said before, it's all about the girls learning to cope with their mother being incredibly sick. Miyazaki's films don't tend to have a straight-up evil antagonist. There might be characters that act as obstacles, but none that are truly bad people/characters. (The only one that might go against this is Lupin the Third.) His films are (usually) more about the themes and the imagination and magic. And there's a reason Totoro is the Studio Ghibli mascot!

    1. Totoro is pretty awesome, but my heart belongs to Catbus.

  2. This is one of my favorite Miyazaki films. It skews a little younger than most of his others, but it is utterly charming. I love things like the little scene of the girls sitting in the tree outside the house with Totoro blowing on pipes to make the haunting wind sounds they had heard before they met Totoro. And yes, the catbus is great, but I also love the little scene at the bus stop in the rain.

    1. There's a lot to love here. Miyazaki isn't so much interested in conflict or even storytelling with this film. It's almost worldbuilding and allowing us to enjoy the world that he's created.

    2. ah, yeah... the bit at the bus stop with Totoro and the umbrella is my favorite scene in the movie. Just the sheer curiosity and joy he gets from the raindrops on the umbrella is freakin' priceless.