The first time I watched My Neighbor Totoro was back in 1998.
It was recommended to me by a co-worker, a single mom with a daughter who was into Pokemon. She told me flat out it was a children’s film, but one with appeal for adults.
My affinity for Japanese indie rock aside, I’m not an anime geek. Fan, yes. Geek, nowhere close. So the name Miyazaki Hayao didn’t resonate with me back then, and it would be another five years before he became an Oscar winner.
I watched My Neighbor Totoro, and I agreed with my co-worker — it was a wonderful film. But like most anime released in the US back then, the English dubbing was seriously dumbed down for a children’s audience.
And that interfered with my enjoyment.
Fast forward to 2003.
Miyazaki’s Spirited Away is the first anime film to win an Academy Award. And it’s then that the connection between Miyazai and My Neighbor Totoro gets touted.
That got me curious — craving, in fact — to see My Neighbor Totoro again.
Despite the annoying English dub, something about My Neighbor Totoro came through, a fable-like quality to the storytelling that managed to cut through any loss in translation.
Disney had originally scheduled to release My Neighbor Totoro on DVD back in August 2005, but licensing conflicts with Fox Family Video — which released the earlier English dub — prevented it till March 2006.
This time, I watched it in Japanese with subtitles.
The story is told through the perspective of two young girls, and as such, the dialogue isn’t terribly complex. I thought I was reacting to the dialogue the first time I watched it in 1998, but if I think about it some more, it was the acting that bugged me.
The original English dub went too far in making the children sound like Hollywood children. In Japanese, the kids’ dialogue seems, well, natural.
It makes me curious to see how Dakota Fanning and her sister, Elle, handle the new English dub created for this DVD release.
My Neighbor Totoro doesn’t feature the rich, whimsical detail of Sprirted Away or Howl’s Moving Castle, but its mix of fantasy in real world still has a lot of charm.
Because, really — how cool is it to ride a bus that’s really a cat with 12 legs?
Totoro himself is an unsettling mix of imposition and fuzziness. His wide, mischievous grim houses a mighty roar. He’s cute as hell, but you wouldn’t want to piss him off either.
The plot of the film is unembelished. A father and two daughters move into a new country home while their mother is in the hospital treating an unspecified illness. I love the fact the illness is never specified — it forces the audience to see the world through the children’s eyes, where adults may not fill in all the blanks for them.
One day while playing in the forest by their house, Mei encounters Totoro. Although her father and older sister, Satsuki, are skeptical, they don’t dismiss Mei’s story. Instead, they frame the encounter in terms of local legend and leave it at that.
Until Totoro shows up at a bus stop where Satsuki and Mei wait for their dad. Satsuki, Mei and Totoro bond, of course.
Then a message from the hospital makes the girls upset, and Mei wanders off to visit her mother. Lost girl, magical creature — you can see where the story is headed.
The story is certainly simple enough to keep the attention of a children’s audience, but for adults, it’s refreshingly stripped of any heavy-handed drama.
Miyazaki tells the story through a child’s eyes so empathetically, it’s almost like stepping back in time.
My Neighbor Totoro is one of Miyazaki’s simplest but honest films. It doesn’t have the grandeur of Nausicaa or Spritied Away, and for that, it’s even more powerful.