Some movies are huge, gaudy spectacles of sound and fury that signify nothing more than our ability as humans to be entertained by empty flashes of lights. Some movies completely eschew the idea of anything visual and become an exercise in watching boring people talk to each other till you’re sick of it. The best movies find that balance point between those points, that perfect spot where the visuals meet the story and the characters meet plot in perfect synchronization. My Neighbor Totoro is definitely one of the best.
The setup is deceivingly simple. A family is moving out to the countryside in the late 1950’s so they can be closer to the hospital that the mother is in, having contracted tuberculosis or some other type of long-term illness. While moving in one of the neighborhood kids tries to scare the two young daughters, 11 year old Satsuki and 4 year old Mei, yelling across the yard that the house is haunted. As it turns out he’s not exactly wrong, but it’s not vengeful spirits haunting the house, it’s dust motes…and a couple of large, fluffy woodland critters by the name of Totoro in the forest behind the house, anchored by a gigantic old camphor tree.
There’s no grand adventure ala your average Disney movie here. Satsuki and Mei live quite ordinary lives apart from the forest spirits. Satsuki goes to school, Mei causes various small ruckuses around the house, and their father works for a university down the train line in Tokyo proper. And the Totoros show up on occasion when it suits them, mostly to help out in odd ways, or be just plain odd. And they have a catbus with rats for warning lights. Did I mention My Neighbor Totoro is rather whimsical? That fine balance between the whimsy of the Totoros and the crushing seriousness of the real life surrounding them is true heart of the movie. Satsuki and Mei have to deal with unfamiliar if comforting surroundings and the uncertainty of their mother’s illness. The fear you hear in their voices, in both the English and Japanese tracks, and see in their reactions feels piercingly real in a way very few real life people can ever seem to express, much less an animated movie. I should probably add that the timing of this review is a little on the nose as I lost a extended family member recently, so both the fear and the joy of Totoro cut pretty close right now.
I know it’s a hideous cliche to say that “the setting is just as much a character as the characters”, but it’s 100% true here so I’m not sure there’s any other way to say it. There’s a warmth to the land that Satsuki, Mei, their father any everyone else lives in. Even on a dark night when it’s pouring rain, it still feels warm and inviting when most movies would make a scene like that cold and foreboding. The animation may not be quite as spectacular as some of Ghibli’s later productions like Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away, but all the same it’s still quite spectacular to see the kind of little details, that the Ghibli animators and their cohorts put into it, like bits of road trash and the twitching of the Catbus’s ears during on pivotal moment. It’s a slightly idealized look, but it suits the story perfectly. The same goes for the characters, both in how they are at the start of the movie and how they are and the end. Every moment feels 100% natural and earned. There’s no narrative shortcuts or leaps of logic or any of the other garbage that infests a lot of other works. You never have a “wow, that doesn’t feel right” moment with My Neighbor Totoro.
The package I received for this review has both the Blu-ray and DVD discs in it, and both contain the movie and multiple language tracks. Both the Japanese track and the English track (featuring real life sisters Dakota and Elle Fanning as Satsuki and Mei) are superlative, so you’ll do fine either way. The Blu-ray disc also houses the surprisingly extensive extras collection. The primary one is a guided tour of a satoyama, or Japanese farming area, with one of the voice actresses. While it’s obviously a commercial puff piece for the folks who run the various Totoro Forests that are a part of Satoyama Forest, a partially preserved area of Tokyo that was the inspiration for the setting of My Neighbor Totoro, it’s still a fascinating look at a place few of us over here will ever get to see with our own eyes. There are also some trailers for the film and several interviews with members of the production staff as they reflect back on the making of Totoro some time after it’s initial release. Oddly enough the initial release was somewhat of a flop, though that may have something to do with Totoro being paired up with Studio Ghibli’s other major release at the time: Grave of the Fireflies aka “The Most Depressing Movie Ever Made Ever Ever EVER!” If you consider yourself to be a fan of animation at all in any way, you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy of My Neighbor Totoro and let yourself be swept away by it, and this Blu-ray is by far the way to go. Beautiful art deserves the best possible viewing experience, and this set is as good as it gets.