June 25, 2009

My Neighbour Totoro

Posted in Hayao Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli at 12:10 pm by j128

Disney version; avail. on DVD My Neighbour Totoro is a 1988 film directed by Hayao Miyazaki of Studio Ghibli and the title “Tototo” is the Studio Ghibli mascot, which features in the opening titles of all their anime films. This was one of my first Studio Ghibli films that I saw, the other being Kiki’s Delivery Service, and both are heartwarming and enjoyable children/family films. Saying that, it is important to note that unlike many Western children/family films, Studio Ghibli films are unique in that despite being animated, they are enjoyed by audiences of all ages and can be seen again and again without the usual feeling of resentment or that “not again!” feeling that can happen from a too-much-viewed film.

History of My Neighbour Totoro

Totoro was released in North America alongside Hayao Miyazaki’s mentor Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies, a strategy that is believed that was done for two reasons: 1) Totoro, at the time, wasn’t believed to be successful, and 2) while I haven’t seen it, many who have seen Grave of the Fireflies say it is an extremely depressing and tearful film, and so Totoro would act as a lighter film that would balance out Fireflies.

On that second note, some reviews that I have read have made a distinctive parallel between Totoro and Fireflies, being that these two films star two young siblings who have a bond with each other, but at the same time their relationships are ironic in that one is a happy, bright relationship, while the other is miserable and tragic relationship.

Originally, Mr. Miyazaki had planned on the story centering on an only child and her childhood wonderland, but later this only child diverged into two sisters, being Satsuki and Mei, their names both translating as “May”, being the fifth month of the Gregorian calendar. Their names stem from the said fact of the original only child. This is the reason why there are promotional posters with a single girl and Totoro, having been released before the character change.

For more information about the film, I’d recommend reading The Art of My Neighbour Totoro, it contains tons of original art, character development and design, etc. It can be found at Amazon.com.

Summary

Set in the 1950’s, in the Japan countryside, the protagonists Satsuki and her sister Mei have moved into an old house with their father. They moved to the countryside so as to be nearer to the hospital their mother is recovering in from tuberculosis (confirmed by Mr. Miyazaki, whose mother suffered from this disease when he was a boy). Within the short opening of the story, they meet some of the locals, including an old lady known as Nanny and a young boy named Kanta, who develops an ambivalent relationship with Satsuki, and she with him. The sisters also discover mysterious black, puffball-shaped creatures variously translated into English as “dust bunnies”, “soot sprites”, etc.

Despite only being eleven, Satsuki is shown being quite able of making her family breakfast and bento lunches (obento). While she’s in school, their father studies (he’s a professor of archeology and anthropology), and Mei plays outside where she comes across a small white creature, and she follows it into a brier-like thicket – reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland – and falls through a hole onto a larger version of the strange creature, which Mei learns is a “totoro”, or a kind of troll. (See the Wikipedia link for more details.) Mei soundly falls asleep on top Totoro and is found by Satsuki and their father in the thicket when she wakes up. Mei tells them about Totoro and they go to the Camphor Tree, where Totoro lives, and they make a prayer, full of gratitude and thankfulness.

One day Satsuki, Mei, and their father travel by bicycle to the hospital. They arrive and the girls are naturally happy to see their mother, as their mother also is to see her daughters. They tell her excitedly about the dust bunnies and the big Totoro and the little totoros. On the way back home, they discuss the anticipated visit from their mother when she is able and well enough to go.

The rest of the movie follows the girls’ course of adventures with Totoro, including the bus stop episode where Totoro gladly takes their father’s umbrella, after Satsuki offered it to him, and in return he gave them a small leaf-wrapped package of magic nuts and seeds, which seem to grow into a huge forest overnight and the girls fly over the countryside holding onto the giant Totoro.

While their father is at the university, Satsuki and Mei are looked after by Nanny, and after harvesting some vegetables, Kanta comes running with a telegram from the doctor. Satsuki uses Kanta’s family’s telephone to contact her father and tell him. Later Satsuki and Mei find out that their mother can’t come yet as she caught a cold, and will come next week. Mei and Satsuki have a terrible argument, leaving Mei crying.

Satsuki and Mei are sensitive girls who care for their mother, and Satsuki also breaks down – both are scared and don’t want their mother to die. Mei overhears Satsuki and runs off. Later, it is apparent that Mei ran away and Satsuki is insightful enough to realize that Mei has gone to the hospital! A search begins for Mei and Satsuki runs all over the countryside to find her sister.

As a last resort, Satsuki calls for the help of Totoro and she takes a ride on the Catbus and they find Mei. Soon after the sisters’ happy reunion, they go to the hospital where their mother is, and while they don’t visit her, they see their father visiting their mother in the hospital and before they go back home, Mei leaves the ear of corn on the window sill, with the following inscribed: “For mother.” It is possible that their mother saw Satsuki and Mei in the trees.

As the credits roll, Satsuki and Mei are taken home, and the Catbus disappears into the night sky. Nanny and Kanta soon meet them and they walk home. Their mother comes home, has baths with them, and reads stories to them in bed while Totoro and the small totoros are in the background, until they aren’t even noticed by the girls. As indicated through the closing song, Totoro can only be seen in childhood.

My Neigbhour Totoro opening

I couldn’t find a Totoro trailer that satisfied me, so I chose the opening from the Fox Video version and the Japanese version with English subtitles. Both the opening and closing songs are sweet and they are very sing-along songs. The English and Japanese versions slightly differ from each other in translation.

English opening (Fox Video)

Japanese opening, with English subtitles

Recommended Editions of Totoro and Recommended Reading

The Art of My Neighbour Totoro (published by Studio Ghibli), available on Amazon.com and other stores, online and walk-in stores.

As with all foreign films, watching them in their original language is best and with subtitles. This goes for anime, too, and I wholeheartedly recommend watching Totoro in Japanese, with English subtitles, a thing made possible for viewing in North America thanks to Disney.

But of course, some may wish to view this film in English, so I would recommend watching the Fox Video version because in my opinion it’s a better dubbing than Disney – many people praise the Fanning sisters (Dakota and Ella) with their dubbing but personally I think that Disney overdoes dubbing of little kids in Studio Ghibli films – Satsuki and Mei sounded way too high-pitched and simplified for my liking. I know they’re just little girls (Mei and Satsuki) but in the Japanese version and even in the Fox Video version, they have more dimension in their characters than their Disney counterparts. Anyway, that’s enough from me, how about I just let people go watch this movie and see which version they like better? I’ll make one final note, however: the Fox Video and Disney versions are not the same – the opening and closing songs are the same but it was sung by someone else and the tune was not favourable for my liking (I prefer the Fox Video version) and the scripts are somewhat different.

Links

My Neighbour Totoro at Wikipedia, see note about the word “totoro”

The Camphor Tree – A fan’s website dedicated to My Neighbour Totoro

My Neighbour Totoro at IMDB

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