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"My Neighbor Totoro" – A True Masterpiece from a True Master

by on March 5, 2010

I will fight anyone to the death who challenges my assertions in this first paragraph. Seriously.The real problem in attempting to write a review of Hayao Miayzaki’s My Neighbor Totoro is the nagging fear that the English language doesn’t contain enough superlatives to properly convey how truly wonderful the movie is. I do not exaggerate when I say that I believe My Neighbor Totoro is one of the best movies ever made, right up there with works like The Seven Samurai, Casablanca, and The Godfather.

At the start of the movie, the 11-year old Satsuki and her 4-year old sister Mei are moving to the countryside with their father, getting an old house ready for their mother, who is at a nearby hospital recovering from an unnamed ailment. Mei soon discovers that the gigantic camphor tree in their backyard happens to be the home of a gigantic furry forest spirit that she names Totoro, with Satsuki making his acquaintance shortly afterwards while waiting for her father at a bus stop in the rain. The rest of the movie splits between a keenly observed slice of life of children growing up in rural Japan in the days before television, and their delightful, magical encounters with Totoro.

One major reason why My Neighbor Totoro is such an excellent movie is its tremendous technical skill. The movie was released in 1988, only one year before the first Disney renaissance of The Little Mermaid, but strictly as a piece of animation, it is more than capable of standing toe-to-toe with the best that Disney can offer. The Japanese countryside is rendered in beautiful watercolor tones, with some subtle multi-plane camera shots giving a palpable sense of depth. The movie also beautifully uses the smallest gradations of color to convey many different kinds of light that one gets in the countryside, from the bright glow of a summer afternoon to the murkier shades that come with dusk to the hard, incandescent glow produced by electric light bulbs during a rainstorm.

It works better in motion, but you can still see the difference in the stillsThat same keen sense of observation is applied equally to creating the movie’s cast of human characters. Satsuki and Mei are a delight to see in motion, scampering around their new house with the boundless energy of the young. My Neighbor Totoro beautifully captures the way young children move, making subtle but observable distinctions between the older Satsuki and her younger sister Mei, to say nothing of their father or the shuffle of their old neighbor Granny. My Neighbor Totoro is also one of the rare kids’ films that doesn’t turn its child characters into small adults. Satsuki and Mei act like entirely believable children in both physical and mental aspects, and their sense of innocence and wide-eyed curiosity is utterly charming and completely disarming, aided greatly by splendid voice acting portrayals in both the original Japanese and in the English dub soundtrack. This entirely believable characterization extends to everyone else in the movie, from their father who is equally absent- and open-minded, to Granny and her shy grandson Kanta, who is at a point when it seems the only way he can interact with girls his age is to annoy them.

All these individual pieces and more are assembled to produce a spectacular piece of cinema. Miyazaki places and moves the camera perfectly to achieve exactly the effect he desires in the audience, running from large-scale, awe-inspiring landscapes to intimate close-ups that convey every thought in a character’s head. My Neighbor Totoro also has a delightfully quirky sense of pacing, unhurried for the most part (excepting the minor crisis that drives the last third of the movie) but no less compelling for being so gentle. The jaunty, catchy music by Joe Hisashi is especially noteworthy in My Neighbor Totoro, managing to subtly underscore everything happening on screen and conveying joy, mystery, or a wide-eyed sense of fun in every scene. The movie can even quietly create a sense of suspense or menace simply by making that soundtrack vanish at key points of the movie. My Neighbor Totoro is the sort of film where even the silences have meaning and real cinematic value.

You wait all your life for a magical creature, and then all of a sudden three of them show up at once.Keep a close eye on the opening scenes of the movie to see exactly how all these elements combine to produce a powerful sense of place and subtly manipulate your perceptions, teasing out just enough information as it goes to ensure you can be aware of what is happening while still being mystified by what you are seeing. The scenes when Mei and Satsuki discover small soot sprites living in their home are marvels of efficiency, alternating between fast and slow movement, manipulating light and dark, and using sound, music, and silence to convey a wonderful, palpable sense of mystery and discovery that isn’t entirely sanitized for the audience. The way the soot sprites scurry into cracks and crevices remind us of cockroaches or insects, lending just the slightest sense of menace and the unknown to the strange but oddly endearing creatures. That same sense of wildness is extended to the magical Totoro as well, who doesn’t actually appear until almost halfway through the movie. No Disney creature would be depicted with such enormous, sharp claws or a mouth large enough to swallow Mei whole, nor would he be such a clearly wild animal. To paraphrase Mr. Beaver from C.S. Lewis’ first Narnia book, Totoro isn’t a tame beast in any way, and while his actions have clear purpose and intelligence behind them, My Neighbor Totoro also manages to ensure that neither is truly comprehensible to us. Totoro may be friendly, but we never really get the sense that he’s completely safe.

I would have used this scene for the re-release disc art, myself.I could continue singing the praises of My Neighbor Totoro in this vein for pages and pages (and probably spoil the movie’s many surprises in the process), but the simplest way to summarize is that My Neighbor Totoro is a movie that truly makes you believe in magic. Miyazaki’s real trick is that his immensely keen sense of observation that makes characters like Satsuki and Mei so believable is applied equally to its more fantastic elements. Other animated or fantasy fare can create fantastical otherworldly settings, but even if they succeed in making us believe in their fundamental reality, it is a something of a letdown when they are over and we must return to our more mundane real-life existence. It is a disappointment when the end credits roll and we must leave the worlds of Middle-Earth, the magical kingdoms of Oz or Agribah, the comically skewed city of Monstropolis, the final frontier where no one has gone before, or that galaxy far, far away. My Neighbor Totoro is the exceptionally rare film that shows us the magic all around us in this world – OUR world – if we only have the capacity of imagination to see it. We don’t leave the world of My Neighbor Totoro because we’re already there. Several generations of Japanese schoolchildren have grown up seeing Totoro in the trees as a result.

Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment have re-issued My Neighbor Totoro as part of a repackaging of their Studio Ghibli releases, initiated by the release of Miyazaki’s latest (and almost equally delightful) Ponyo. The repackaging gives the entire line more visual consistency in the packaging, although Disney made the puzzling decision to use an older piece of artwork for the cover of My Neighbor Totoro. Like their original release, My Neighbor Totoro comes with two discs, with the first disc dominated by the feature and the second disc dominated by the entire movie presented in storyboards. The transfer on this new release appears identical to the old one, although I must confess that I did not have time to do a full comparison between the English and Japanese soundtracks on both releases (although if time allowed, I could easily watch the movie four times consecutively within the span of a day or two, plus twice more for the storyboards). The only difference between them I noticed is that some of the signs are no longer translated through subtitles. The old transfer was excellent, presenting the movie in a beautiful anamorphic widescreen, so it’s no criticism to point out that there have been no changes for the new release. The only real improvement that can be done now to it now would be a high-definition transfer. The soundtrack is in 2.0 Dolby stereo in both the original Japanese and the English dub commissioned by Disney, and I find I like them both in equal measure. Both manage to cast their parts with wonderful actors, and while Dakota and Elle Fanning have the chemistry of real sisters, the original actors of Noriko Hidaka and Chika Sakamoto still feel marginally more authentic. I do love Shigesato Itoi and Tim Daly equally in their portrayals of their gentle and understanding father, however. The only other noteworthy change in the movie disc is that the DVD menus on the new release are significantly less animated than the older one, making it non-trivially faster to navigate the DVD.

I love the cartoony eyes of Satsuki in this storyboard panel.The movie presented in storyboards is a more important bonus than it might appear at first, since Starting Point reveals a few ways that the storyboard is even more important in Studio Ghibli’s production process than in other animated productions. I must also confess that I haven’t watched the entire storyboard from the previous release, which tempers my statement that the one on the new release seems to be identical. However, this re-issue has substantially more bonus features that the original release. A “Behind the Studio” look collects 7 new featurettes, while recycling the older “Behind the Microphone” feature about making the English dub. New interviews with Hayao Miyazaki and his longtime producer Toshio Suzuki compose most of these featurettes, and while a lot of the information has been revealed in other sources (such as Helen McCarthy’s excellent book on Miyazaki’s films, the English-language Ghibli supersite Nausicaa.net, or in Starting Point), it’s nice to hear them from the Man himself. One featurette, “Scoring Miyazaki,” focuses on the marvelous music of Joe Hisashi; the only criticism one can muster for it is that it’s too short and also seems to have been recycled for all four of the newest Ghibli DVD releases and the Ponyo Blu-ray. The best featurette by far is “The Locations of Totoro,” a nearly half-hour excerpt from a Japanese documentary that took viewers to the real-world locations that inspired Miyazaki’s films. American viewers who have never been to Japan (and, for that matter, even urban Japanese viewers who have never been to the countryside) may be surprised to see exactly how accurate My Neighbor Totoro was in re-creating the hills, forests, rice paddies, and villages of the Sayama Hills just an hour’s drive away from Tokyo. The setting of My Neighbor Totoro always felt authentic, so it really shouldn’t be as surprising as it is to see as many places that look like they were simply picked up and dropped into the movie. The full excerpt probably runs a little longer than it really needs to, but it is exactly the kind of substantial bonus feature that Ghibli’s overseas fans have been clamoring for in the past. Finally, there are also single bonus features lifted from the Ponyo, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and Castle in the Sky releases to plug those other films, as well as Totoro‘s original Japanese trailer.

The other bonus on the second disc is “Enter the Lands,” which is little more than a collection of video clips and marginally interactive elements for the newly re-released movies and Ponyo, even though many of Ghibli’s other movies are recognizable as well. It seems to substitute for the DVD games that usually appear on children’s movies, and the same feature appears on all of the new releases as well. The only truly noteworthy thing about “Enter the Lands” is that it includes imagery for Princess Mononoke, suggesting that the title will move from the Miramax label onto the Studio Ghibli collection despite is more adult tenor, and possibly getting a deluxe home video release in the bargain. One hopes. The very last bonus is a lithograph of the DVD box art.

Even after watching the movie multiple times over the years, My Neighbor Totoro has lost absolutely none of its power to surprise and delight me. If you don’t already own the movie, what are you waiting for? (OK, all you people with Blu-ray players, put your hands down.) It is a true classic of cinema history, more than capable of standing up next to the usual suspects. In hindsight, it is hard to believe that Miyazaki was only allowed to make the movie if it were part of a double-bill with Grave of the Fireflies because his backers believed the movie would be a commercial flop on its own. If you own the last Disney DVD release, I am hard-pressed to say that the new bonuses warrant a re-purchase except for the most hardcore fans of the movie or of Miyazaki himself. However, Disney is still to be commended for improving on an already good DVD release for this splendid movie.

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