CAPSULE: MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO (1988)

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FEATURING, (Disney dubbed version)

PLOT: Two young girls befriend a forest spirit who lives in a tree near their new country house.

Still from My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: My Neighbor Totoro is somewhat strange, like being dropped into the unfiltered imagination of a six-year old girl. Its kidlike oddness is not sustained enough to thrill adult weirdophiles, however.

COMMENTS: In My Neighbor Totoro, Hayao Miyazaki takes yōkai, Japanese traditional folk monsters, and literalizes them in the only way possible: by making them into real spiritual phenomenon that are only visible to children. None of the adults in the movie, even Satsuki and Mei’s university professor father, doubt the real existence of the yōkai; a grandmotherly character confesses that she could see them when she was young, but lost the ability with age. This strategy creates a pleasant truce between kids and adults as to the reality of these fairy creatures. Grownups can’t see or interact with Totoro or his friends, but they don’t denigrate or patronize kids for believing in them. The girls’ first encounter with the mythical creatures is in the form of “soot sprites” who huddle in the dark corners of the long-vacant country home. Later, Mei, the younger of the girls, will encounter a couple of miniature troll-creatures (these mini-Totoro’s are never explained); following them leads her inside a hollow camphor tree, where she finds the massive plush Totoro slumbering, and immediately befriends him. Later, at a rainy bus stop, Satsuki meets Totoro, too. Impressed by her offer of an umbrella, he introduces her to the film’s strangest invention, the Catbus: literally, a fuzzy bus with a tail and a Cheshire cat grin. Catbus is a fusion of the organic and the mechanical, a newfangled yōkai for the 20th century. Although there are magical nights when the girls soar above the treetops with Totoro and friends, not a lot of the movie’s running time is actually devoted to fantastical encounters with yōkai. Most of the time, we are engaged in the girls’ domestic life with their doting dad, and in observing the bucolic vistas of a Japanese country village. There is a distant stressor in the girls’ sick mom, but for the most part their days are spent happily, exploring the countryside and doing cartwheels among the flowers. Although some adults may find the lack of expected tension and conflict in the story perplexing and unfamiliar, Miyazaki’s technique strikes a chord with young children across cultures. What four- to eight-year-old girl wouldn’t want to have a huge, friendly, protective teddy bear like Totoro as a friend to recline and rely on? Totoro doesn’t have bad guys or moments of serious jeopardy because its ultimate message to kids is that they don’t have to be scared by life’s challenges and changes; the unknown isn’t a threat, it’s an opportunity.

Although Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli has long been intimately associated with its current distributor, Walt Disney, in the English speaking world, the fact is that Totoro‘s first American distributor was none other than the low-budget exploitationeers . The scant negative reviews for the film that can be found almost all relate to the Troma theatrical release. It’s not clear whether this is because Troma’s dub job detracted from Miyazaki’s magic, or whether Disney’s seal of approval predisposed critics to approve of the effort. Disney acquired the rights to this early feature in 2006 and re-dubbed the film with a better-known vocal cast. Meanwhile, Totoro himself became so popular that he was incorporated into Studio Ghibli’s logo, becoming Japan’s equivalent of Mickey Mouse.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the film evinces a disorienting combination of cultures that produces a nowhere land more confused than fascinating.”–Leonard Klady, Variety (Troma theatrical version)

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