Miyazaki's best film, I think. It's less powerful than Nausicaa and there's nothing epic about it, unlike Princess Mononoke
or Spirited Away
, but in my opinion it's the most successful at pulling off its Miyazakiness. It's also the hundred-pound gorilla of Studio Ghibli movies when it comes to merchandising, with Japan still heaving with Totoro merchandise even more than twenty years after the film came out. It must be the studio's biggest money-spinner by a country mile, although I know that's not a particular concern of Miyazaki's.
As with pretty much the entire Japanese anime industry when it comes to full-length movies, Miyazaki isn't renowned for his plotting. However the difference between him and everyone else is that his strengths are so dazzling that this mostly doesn't matter. I can watch Princess Mononoke
and forgive it for being almost completely structureless, because there's so much more to enjoy in this film from one of the world's all-time greatest fantasists. However the key point is that this is something I'm having to forgive. It's a flaw. You could improve the film by fixing it, or at least that's my opinion on the subject.
There are exceptions to this, of course. They tend to be in his early work. Castle of Cagliostro is a straightforward caper movie in the Lupin III
franchise, while Nausicaa's story holds up too. My Neighbour Totoro though is brilliant precisely because it doesn't have a story. Its protagonists don't have goals, enemies or obstacles in any way that could be understood in Hollywood. Instead we're following two sisters, four-year-old May and eight-year-old Satsuki, as they settle into their new home in a Japanese mountain village with their father. They chase small creatures, help clean the house, go to school and talk to their neighbours. That's almost the entire movie. Admittedly there's a bit at the end with one of the sisters having gone off on her own because they're worried about their mother who's in hospital, but everything until then has basically been children at play.
However it so happens that one of their neighbours is a magical bear-rabbit who's bigger than a couple of hippos. May calls him a Totoro, which is a mispronunciation of a Japanese-isation of the English word "troll". Satsuki's dialogue suggests that the girls have been reading The Three Billy Goats Gruff. King Totoro has since become one of Japan's most famous cultural icons, with cameos all over the place that include several later Studio Ghibli movies. He's awesome, basically. He has claws and huge teeth, but he's also cuddly and adorable and has friends who can disappear like the Cheshire Cat. Can he fly? Do you have to ask? He's become an international star and the mascot of Ghibli itself, but oddly enough the film doesn't need him.
What really powers the film is its children, May and Satsuki. (They could be said to have the same name, by the way. Satsuki is an old Japanese word for the month of May, while her sister's name is a straight transliteration.) These girls are the film. What they want, we want. However being small children, what they want is of course to run around, play in the woods and make friends with creepy-crawlies. It's the simple joy of being a savage and offhand I can't remember a more convincing movie portrayal of childhood than this film. Being four years old, naturally May makes no distinction between tadpoles, squirrels and Totoros. In her eyes, they're all wonderful. Personally I particularly appreciated this since the Japanese tend to adore all things cute and reject slimy, squiggly things with too many legs, which both Miyazaki and I seem to think is terrible. This film is in love with nature in all its forms, for instance including two throwaway shots of tadpoles in a pool that apparently took some insane amount of time and money to animate.
Miyazaki's great triumph in this film is to make May and Satsuki's lives compelling. They're just children. They want to have fun. Give most filmmakers this material and they wouldn't even know where to start. Of course he's got a massive audience hook in the form of the Totoros, the Cat-bus and the dust-bunnies (which he'd use again in Spirited Away
), but it's not as if the magical creatures are guaranteed to do anything. Check out the scene with King Totoro and the umbrella, or alternatively the Totoros' acorn-sprouting dance. Amazing stuff happens in the second half of both of those scenes, but their first halves aren't in any way treading water en route to the cool bit. It's just Miyazaki playing with his characters and having them be charming and unpredictable.
It helps that the film is the tiniest bit scary. It's only frightening in the way that childhood really is, but even so you've got tension with the dust bunnies and then later a storm after dark. There's no danger of course, but it adds some spice and keeps us interested. This is a much more realistic film than you'd expect given the subject matter, with a beautifully painted rendition of rural Japan that practically made me homesick. I swear I've stayed in that house. I've climbed that mountainside. It even sounds right, with the cicadas and then the frogs in the rice fields.
Then there's the story of Mei and Satsuki's mother, which is autobiographical from Miyazaki. His mother had spinal tuberculosis for nine years and was hospitalised for much of his childhood. Apparently he's said that the film would have been too painful for him to make if the protagonists had been boys instead of girls.
Oh, and the Cat-bus has testicles. For more Ghibli testicle action, check out the film whose main characters are racoons with magical scrotum powers.
If I'm being super-critical, there are two moments in the film which didn't ring true to me. One is when May falls down a slope and her eyes do a comedy roll in opposite directions. The other is when a toad croaks and I got the impression that they'd asked an actor to make a croaking sound rather than simply finding a toad, although maybe that particular species really does sound like that. Those are the only flaws I can find in this film.
I don't count the English dubs and subtitles in that, though. Astonishingly this film first reached the West courtesy of a Troma dub in 1993. Troma. Unbelievable. Did they think Miyazaki's films were secretly about mutant zombie strippers or something? This was released by Fox Video, but this version's rights expired in 2004 and the one on sale these days is a different dub from Disney. Personally I have no objection to the existence of dubs as long as I'm not forced to listen to them, but annoyingly the English subtitles appear to be a transcription of the dub script. I hate it when that happens. In this case it's noticeably chattier than the original, often providing dialogue when the characters on screen aren't saying a word and occasionally even imparting information too early. There's one boy in particular, the anti-social Kanta, for whom it's actually a character point that he doesn't like speaking and so making him talkative kills quite a good joke. In addition the subtitles claim that May's five years old when the Japanese dialogue says four. Eh? Why?
This film has a couple of production oddities. Apparently it was released as a double-bill with Grave of the Fireflies
, which is almost as incredible to me as the Troma thing. I can see the similarities, both films being about two Japanese children in a similar historical period, but Totoro is adorable children's fare which Fireflies is a harrowing gut-punch. Apparently Totoro didn't do well at the box office at first, not breaking even until two years later when the stuffed toys came out. Gee, I wonder why. Genius marketing there, Ghibli. This film also has a little-known sequel, a thirteen-minute short which has never been released on DVD but can only be seen by visitors to the Ghibli Museum. It's called Mei and the Kittenbus (although as you'll have seen, I prefer May as a transliteration).
This is a lovely film. It's the kind of film that makes you nostalgic about your non-existent childhood in rural Japan in the 1950s, when bad news came by telegram and you had to run to the next house to be able to use a phone. May and Satsuki are adorable and they even have the perfect father, a university professor who believes May when she comes in raving about Totoros and chose this house because it has a big tree. He likes trees. He gets a little Miyazaki environmentalist speech saying so. The film's funny, enthralling, moving and has adventures with cool magical monsters. Frankly it's pretty much perfect.