“Actually our work depends on how much we can appropriate from other people’s work! Painting, music, films, literature … it’s all grist for the mill. We think of our work not as individual creativity but like a lifelong baton relay. Your work passes through your body and your life; you transform it into something, and then you pass it on to the next generation.” Hiyao Miyazaki interviewed by Roger Ebert for The Chicago Sun Times, October 1999
My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Written by Hayao Miyazaki
Produced by Toru Hara
Picking a film produced by Studio Ghibli is like tasting sushi when you’ve been raised on a diet of meat and potatoes animation from Walt Disney or Hanna-Barbera your whole life. The world of Hayao Miyazaki is one without heroes to cheer, villains to hiss at or talking animals to cue laughter. There are families and houses. Children learn to deal with change and to assume greater responsibility. In addition, the unseen surrounds them. As the story begins, there’s a slight feeling of unease, as well as fascination as the invisible world reveals itself. No film from Miyazaki exemplifies these sublime characteristics like the first to bring him an international audience, My Neighbor Totoro. 10-year-old Satsuki Kusakabe and her bratty 4-year-old sister Mei settle into life in the countryside, where their professor father has moved them to be closer to their mother, who recuperates from a long illness at a local hospital.
The Kusakabes are both excited and disquieted to discover their new house is inhabited by soot sprites, harmless creatures which scatter from light and whisper in the rafters. While Satsuki attends school, Mei explores the yard. There, Mei encounters two forest spirits, overstuffed rabbits which lead her into a magnificent camphor tree where the girl finds an even bigger forest spirit snoozing. Offering the name “Totoro”, the spirit vanishes before Satsuzki can meet him. She gets her chance while waiting for her father’s bus in a downpour and makes an impression on Totoro by introducing him to an umbrella. The spirits return the generosity of the Kusakabes by sprouting their garden to enormous heights. The spirits are unable to heal the girls’ mother and after losing her temper with her sister, Satsuki blames herself when Mei disappears. When search efforts by the townspeople falter, Totoro and his friends step in.
For his fourth feature film, animator Hayao Miyazaki sought a return to his childhood in Sayama Hills, which was farmland in the 1950s before it became suburban Tokyo. Miyazaki’s mother spent many years under bed rest with spinal tuberculosis, a detail that worked its way into the story. Executives at Tokuma Shoten Publishing Co. didn’t feel that sketches of Miyazaki’s nature spirits looked promising, so producer Toshio Suzuki proposed that Totoro be made in tandem with an adaptation of the novel Grave of the Fireflies and released as a double feature. A modest box office success in Japan, Miyazaki’s output began attracting comparisons to Walt Disney. Reaching an agreement with Tokuma for worldwide video distribution of Miyazaki’s films, The Walt Disney Company produced an English language dub of My Neighbor Totoro in 2005 featuring the voices of Dakota Fanning, Elle Fanning and Tim Daly as the Kusakabes.
Miyazaki’s compositions have fantastic depth of field, basking light on the old farmhouses, lush forests and rice fields the characters move past. To those who grew up on Josie and the Pussycats, the novelty of My Neighbor Totoro isn’t just the animation, but its spiritual depth. Respect for the natural world and an open mind toward the unseen course through the story, not as teaching points, but as an alternative to the lifestyle the Kusakabes are retreating from. My Neighbor Totoro is a bounty of both joy and imagination, as if Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are had been adapted for an Eastern audience. The girls are stricken early on with a giddiness that doesn’t cross over very well, something Miyazaki would change with his Oscar winning Spirited Away in 2001, but the pure enjoyment of the film is how different it is. Instead of catering to what the we expect, this magic carpet takes us somewhere different.
Rotten Tomatoes “Tomatometer” average among 75,711 users: 94% for My Neighbor Totoro
Metacritic “Metascore” average among leading critics: N/A
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