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.