Friday, February 18, 2011

My Neighbor Totoro

The stunning animation and storytelling of Hayao Miyazaki in My Neighbor Totoro. The Bus Stop scene is one of those great, classic, cinematic moments.

"Hayao Miyazaki's greatest work, and hence probably the best anime ever made." - Jonathan Clements & Helen McCarthy

Rule: Fans of anime are always fans of Hayao Miyazaki. Fans of Hayao Miyazaki [and other Studio Ghibli productions] are not always fans of anime.

Yes, ho hum another Hayao Miyazaki masterpiece of cinema for all the world to adore. It could certainly appear that way. The quality of the work appears effortless. The man is a machine of animating genius and works pure, unadulterated animation magic into every thoughtful story. As filmmakers know, it’s certainly no easy task to come up with one masterpiece, let alone one after another and continue to produce at Miyazaki’s level, but Miyazaki does it every single time. He is one of those rare, elite filmmaking talents that is able to out-Disney Disney itself. In fact, My Neighbor Totoro [Tonari No Totoro in Japan] [1988] may be his most Disney-esque picture, but they all have a kind of magic that lends itself to those comparisons. When you get right down to it, Miyazaki films are uniquely Miyazaki. And thankfully Disney found the good sense to import his special brand of animation that even Disney can't quite replicate. He is special indeed. His pre-Princess Mononoke [and Mononoke included] films contain the elaborate, skilled, hand drawn beauty and majesty often associated with the pictures of Disney. My Neighbor Totoro may be the odds-on sentimental favorite that gets you weak in the knees akin to something like Bambi.

Like Kiki’s Delivery Service, My Neighbor Totoro soars with enchantment and the wide-eyed discovery of a child seeing an animated classic for the first time. Walt Disney would agree by striking a licensing deal with Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli for distribution of each and every one of his works stateside along with other studio productions by the likes of Directors Isao Takahata [Grave Of The Fireflies, Only Yesterday, Pom Poko and My Neighbors The Yamadas] and Yoshifumi Kondo [Whisper Of The Heart].

A tip of the cap certainly goes to Mickey for the move! That said it makes you wonder how a major studio/ company like Walt Disney couldn't have been aware of other anime classics that allegedly may have influenced other Walt Disney productions. The late Director Osamu Tezuka's Kimba The White Lion [19650-1966] was believed to be the uncredited inspiration for Disney's The Lion King [1994]. Nadia The Secret Of Blue Water by Studio Gainax and Director Hideaki Anno bore some significant resemblances to Disney's Atlantis: The Lost Empire. Certainly much has been made of the similarities between these productions, but those are stories for another day.

Disney was wise to recognize one of Japan's greats in Miyazaki by bringing his feature films to the shores of America. Each of these Studio Ghibli productions are given professional voice dubbing treatments and a healthy dose of extras. My Neighbor Totoro is a family gem, pure and simple, because it is a work that timelessly reaches across generations with its wholesome innocence. It is powerfully moving in its understated, simple joys and like all of Miyazaki's work it is loaded with heart. It is considered one of his finest moments. Truth be told, a case for his best film could easily be argued and endlessly debated for each and every one of his cinematic treasures.

Not anime, but rather the classic, simple drawing of a child. You gotta love that!
My Neighbor Totoro centers on the daily discovery of the natural world by two young sisters, Satsuki and Mei, who move to the country with their father while their mother remains in a nearby rural hospital. The adorably likable, irresistible kids are led into a kind of Alice In Wonderland-like spirit world where joy-filled freedoms, lead to all sorts of unearthings with a wide-eyed wanderlust. The two protagonists or shojos [a Japanese term for young, cute, independent girl] are often the focal point for Miyazaki's films. Author Susan J. Napier makes a terrific point regarding Miyazaki's films playing against a cultural type in Japan in her book Anime From Akira To Howl's Moving Castle. In the male-dominated culture of heroes, Miyazaki's female heroines are a unique take and the male director knows how to work these wonderful characters despite the gender difference. He understands his characters and they are written with a greater depth and realism than most characters, male or female.

Sweet family moments like this one would be sadly considered politically incorrect by today's standards.
Napier writes noting Miyazaki's trademark style, "Miyazaki is perhaps best known for two particular elements in his works, his richly realized fantasy worlds and his female characters are always recognizable Miyazaki creations. His intensely colored animated worldscapes filled with his trademark images of flying machines, soaring clouds, and supernatural creatures take on a breathtaking life of their own while his brave, inquisitive, and risk taking young female characters are far removed from the identity confusion that characterizes many shojo [young girl] characters." This is expertly put by Napier describing these distinctive constants in Miyazaki's characters as "often quite assertive and independent." My Neighbor Totoro is no exception.

It wouldn't be anime without the ever beautiful shot of powerlines. Miyazaki accentuates his message of man and the natural world by offering the juxtaposition of the two in shots like this one.
Mei and Satsuki discover cute, but dirty little soot sprites in their new home. The creatures appear as a kind of natural protector and extension of the forest. Their wise, older neighbor they call Granny smiles upon their innocent delights. She also knows only through a child’s eyes of wonder can these creatures really be seen. Totoro and company play out like fantastical imaginary friends. Mei is the link to a world of fantasy and Satsuki too, both open to the possibilities. It is their first encounter with the forest spirits and the introduction of Miyazaki’s tender theme of harmony within the natural world between man and nature, the past and present; he so eloquently merges into his tales time and again. The sweet adventure begins.

Do you remember the joy of catching tadpoles?
The theme of Forest spirits and the spiritual world are often stunningly represented in Miyazaki’s fantasies [Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke] as a reminder of our living Earth. Through his fearless, young protagonists, the audience is awakened to the ancient past and our precious natural history. Miyazaki allegorically sprinkles Buddhist temples and shrines across his landscape symbolizing his attempts at reconciling the beauty of past tradition with modern culture. Miyazaki’s colorfully painted forest characters represent the children’s mental connection to the natural treasures to be discovered in the physical world.

The fictional world is slowly revealed as Little Mei spots and follows two small mini-Totoro creatures down a proverbial rabbit-hole straight out of Lewis Carroll’s literary classic, Alice In Wonderland, except Miyazaki’s homage is visualized through a rooted grove of bushes tunneling under brush that leads to an incredibly muscular and fantastic Camphor tree. Through a hollowed chute Mei stumbles down inside the tree and is greeted by a warm cavity. It is there Mei discovers nestled and slumbering one gigantic and fluffy Totoro, an almost updated version of Miyazaki's own Panda from Panda! Go, Panda! [1972]. Totoro is a wonderfully over-stuffed beast, a simple but spectacular looking thing. The images in the film are unforgettable and this moment is no exception.

Miyazaki’s further Alice In Wonderland-styled deference comes by way of an immense, orange, magically-propelled, 12-legged, grinning cat bus that looks eerily like the infamous Cheshire cat from Carroll’s story or to some extent the one from the Walt Disney film version. It's a beauty.

As an aside, in 2003, Miyazaki created a film short for the Studio Ghibli Museum called Mei To Konekobasu or Mei And The Kitten Bus exclusively for visitors at the museum along with eight other exclusive shorts. More reasons why I must go to Japan.

Totoro may be one of the most endearing and lovable animals ever imagined for the screen. The furry, plump giant with striking, thick claws is a goofy, strange beast. Overcome with her great discovery, Mei proceeds to grab the massive, cuddly, bear-like Totoro with innocent, eye-popping wonder and ever-trusting zeal. The innocence of a child as they say. When Totoro’s big eyes meet Mei’s big, sweet smile, it’s not only love at first sight for them but for us too. They bond instantly. Totoro bellows and flashes a wide-toothed grin as only a forest god welcoming pure goodness could. This scene is a classic in the annals of anime moments. The scene leaves you smiling from ear to ear and there are many other moments like this.

The rainy bus stop sequence featuring a clever and memorable interplay between Totoro and Satsuki holding umbrellas is another remarkable one. That moment is frozen in time. Fortunately for Satsuki she remains young enough that these forest spirits speak to her as much as they speak to Mei, and thus, unlike adults can see Totoro. In other words, Satsuki has not been damaged by man and society. She remains open, but that change is coming. The coming-of-age often brings with it a loss of wonder and that reality closes us to the possibilities, the possibilities that clearly still exist for Satsuki.

The girls’ playful childhood existence is made all the more magical by chasing down golden acorns, growing trees with Totoro, mini-Totoro and itty, bitty wee Totoro and gliding through the sky winds above the beauty of the forest. They learn to enjoy and respect their new surroundings with their new found friends. This is the stuff of dreams as a child and Miyazaki brings these feelings to life.

The film’s only restlessness and unease comes when Mei disappears in an attempt to visit her ailing mother. Totoro and the cat bus become Mei and Satsuki’s saviors. The film gradually unfolds and offers us a window into the lives of Satsuki and Mei. The message is clear, but it never intrudes on the simple fact that My Neighbor Totoro is a lovely, vibrant picture that entertains over and over again. It is a mostly sweet, meandering tale. It has a laid back quality that never fails to engage with its many colorful characters. When it's over you’ll be wishing the world were filled with neighbors like Totoro, Granny, Mei or Satsuki. My Neighbor Totoro is all heart.

Miyazaki places many subtle messages throughout his work combining quality film entertainment with important thematic elements. The strong bonds between Satsuki, Mei, their father and mother will make you laugh and illustrates Miyazaki’s important message of respect and love for one another and for our environs. The message is subtle, but it resonates profoundly. When Mei reaches out to her father to express to him what she has seen in the forest, he listens to her rather than discarding her pleas as nothing more than the rants of a young child. The girls, led by their father as teacher, stand before the great camphor tree and pray. “Magnificent tree, it’s been around since long ago, back in the time when trees and people used to be friends. When I saw this tree I knew this would be a good place for our family to live… so let’s give this tree a nice greeting… thank you for watching over Mei and making us feel so welcome here. Please continue to look after us.”

Further, Mei and Satsuki's mother is bed-ridden in the hospital and it isn't clear whether she will die or not, but Miyazaki could be gently reminding us here that we all leave this Earth behind for the next generation's care. We need to remember these things.

The film reminds us of those moments from our own spirited upbringings. It captures the feeling of those liberating early years running unhampered through the yard or field with overactive imaginations and only the wonderment of boundless discovery. He manages to create storybook films that not only entertain, but enlighten. Miyazaki demonstrates a deep respect for heritage and reverence for the land and harmony within it. His experiences easily translate universally, which is why so many connect with his films.

Miyazaki’s enchanting tales also execute an acute sense of place given his strong adherence to Japanese tradition. Each and every one of his films has a refreshing Japanese flavor alongside his many original and fanciful ideas some with European influence. It’s just refreshing to experience actual location shots from another part of the world and see a director remain true to his vision. Of all his films, My Neighbor Totoro feels the most definitively Japanese.

Napier alludes to the messages incorporated in Miyazaki's films, in essence, treasuring the natural world before it is "lost." She writes referring to "what is lost," as "a world in which nature is not yet dominated by humanity and exists as a powerful force in itself, strong in its identity as the nonhuman Other." Look no further than Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Wind, Princess Mononoke and My Neighbor Totoro as evidence of "Miyazaki's privileging of forests and trees."

The Pixar-favored filmgoer may need a little coaxing, but there's nothing more beautiful than the hand drawn 2D animation of Hayao Miyazaki. Like the earlier Disney animation, these Studio Ghibli pictures are inspired works that are sure to broaden the horizons of any cinephile. This is the beauty of film isn’t it? The gift to bring the world to your home when you can’t take your children there.

My Neighbor Totoro was never on my radar at all, yet it was one of the finest animated family pictures I've ever seen. The script is beautifully written and never insults its audience with the kind of potty humor associated with many of the animated American films including Toy Story. That formula is tiresome and entirely unnecessary and it’s just not funny. My Neighbor Totoro took us all by surprise. We were blown away. It easily rivaled Kiki’s Delivery Service, another favorite with the Girl Wonder. It may have something to do with appealing to the inner child and the child-like wonder that permeates every cel of this film. It amplifies every thing great about being a kid and the explosive joy to explore bursting from every fiber of their being. Kiki’s coming-of-age adventure is equally inviting to youngsters. Totoro is for those who still remain the child at heart. It’s timeless animated perfection.

The animation is warm and the pastoral scenery is filled with lush, rolling green hills, bushy trees and blue skies. It’s like a watercolor canvas come to life. Miyazaki’s gorgeous, hand-painted backdrops always take the breath away like staring out at the vast sea or a mountains skyline. The details are astounding from tree roots to bugs on a plant stem. Key animation contributions apart from Studio Ghibli came by way of upstart Madhouse in the day. Madhouse Inc. is the studio behind the works of the late Satoshi Kon on Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers and Paprika, as well as The Girl Who Leapt Through Time [2006]. The company also collaborated with Studio Ghibli on Spirited Away [2001], Howl's Moving Castle [2004], Ocean Waves [1993] and Gedo Senki [Tales From Earthsea] [2006]. Walt Disney lovingly transfers the color palette to its rightful splendor.

The concept of voice dubbing Japanese animation is a particularly tricky proposition for fans. Most true fans often love the original Japanese audio tracks. There are exceptions where the English dub somehow manages to work better than the original. I'm a fan of listening to both. There are nuances and differences in tone and sometimes even content that make the translations interesting. The dubs provided for the Studio Ghibli films are really top shelf with solid casting by mostly professional actors. Personally I love voice actors that work in the business whereby voice acting is their stock and trade. Tiffany Grant comes to mind, the voice of Asuka in Neon Genesis Evangelion [1995]. Actors and actresses like Grant are a pleasure to hear. In the case of My Neighbor Totoro the English dub is splendidly cast by selecting sisters Dakota and Elle Fanning to play the parts of Satsuki and Mei respectively. I'm afraid I have not heard the Japanese audio track though I suspect it is very good. The Fannings offer genuine, natural chemistry to the two sibling protagonists' banter. It's another reason these Disney releases spared no expense.

As far as composers of choice for directors, Mamoru Oshii often turns to Kenji Kawai [Patlabor, Ghost In The Shell], Hideaki Anno to Shiro Sagisu [Evangelion, His And Her Circumstances], while Miyazaki turns to mainstay confidant Joe Hisaishi [Spirited Away, Ponyo, etc.]. He pumps up the jubilation factor with a wonderful score and two bouncy, breezy numbers compliments of effervescent country pop singer Sonya Isaacs [not sounding 'a little bit country' here]. These songs are the English translations of their Japanese counterparts. Unfortunately, these gorgeous Disney-sponsored Studio Ghibli theme songs are unavailable for purchase anywhere, and the film lacks a 5.1 Dolby track. It would have been terrific to hear the rain falling, the cicadas singing or Totoro bellowing those enormous growls in a booming, layered, punctuated surround sound environment.

Trust me, even without children, you'll enjoy spending time and smiling with My Neighbor Totoro. Remember, when those winds blow against your face and through your fingers, give pause to those friendly forest spirits that surround you.

My Neighbor Totoro: A
Writer: Hayao Miyazaki
Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Additional commentary on My Neighbor Totoro: When the initial pitch was made for My Neighbor Totoro it was actually rejected by Studio Ghibli's financiers. The second pitch was accepted. This second pitch included the double bill with Studio Ghibli’s Grave Of The Fireflies by Director Isao Takahata. Producer Toshio Suzuki was desperate to get backing. Two different publishing houses supported the films. Both films needed resources. There were two production teams and two promotional campaigns. Both films miraculously competed despite their dramatically different tones and both were immensely successful. They pushed the envelope of artistic boundaries and expectations set previously within the industry. Grave Of The Fireflies is a harrowing, hardcore depiction of two children starving in Japan as a result of a shortage in the food supply during World War II and those responsible turning their backs on them. You don't get a much starker contrast to My Neighbor Totoro. Roger Ebert was a fervent advocate of Grave Of The Fireflies, but also praised My Neighbor Totoro as “one of the most beloved of all family films.” Nevertheless, they are two masterstrokes of animation. Despite their differences, the films offered an interesting juxtaposition painting powerful portraits of life in the Japanese countryside based upon a significantly dissimilar set of variables. One thing is sure, two classics were born.

The following two images while strikingly similar in their presentation of a boy and young girl inhabit worlds in stark contrast. Takahata's Grave Of The Fireflies and Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro, respectively here, played on a double bill. The strength is in the storytelling of these distinct pictures.
Writers Jonathan Clement and Helen McCarthy called My Neighbor Totoro Miyazaki's "greatest work and hence probably the best anime ever" in their book The Anime Encyclopedia. That is a bold statement given all of the wonderful competition surrounding the film not to mention the variety of presentations whether it be film, OVA or TV series [the three Japanese formats]. There's certainly a case to be made for it as much as there are case to be made for others utilizing similar statements. Given all of Miyazaki's work this statement could easily prompt debate among fans of Miyazaki alone. With all of the wonderful works to choose from some would hardly consider My Neighbor Totoro his best. I suspect it would be unfair to denounce My Neighbor Totoro as a mere children's film. There's so much going on in the film and there is so much detail and heart that one simply cannot reduce My Neighbor Totoro's qualities given its widespread appeal to children. It would be easy to place Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke ahead of this work, but My Neighbor Totoro is equal parts substance immersed in beauty. It is a subtle, strong film that should not be discounted by its delicious surface aesthetics, though they are immmense. Clements and McCarthy aren't wrong.

The writers note this is a personal film for Miyazaki in his love for the Japanese countryside and the history of a land that permeates it. The feel good strenth of the film may not appeal to those preferring a darker edge, but the fact of the matter is My Neighbor Totoro is a hopeful, spirited picture. Clements and McCarthy nail the film's jubilant spirit by noting the film is told "through the unquestioning, uncritical, undaunted eyes of a child." And honestly, what's wrong with that?

Director footnote: Hayao Miyazaki [1941-present]: Director/ Screenwriter/ Animator/ Artist/ Character Designer Miyazaki is legend. He founded Studio Ghibli. His works are many and these are some of his best: Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Wind [1984], Laputa: Castle In The Sky [1986], Kiki's Delivery Service [1989], Porco Rosso [1992], Princess Mononoke [1997], Spirited Away [2001], Howl's Moving Castle [2004] and Ponyo [2008]. His hand can also be felt on a number of other Studio Ghibli productions including Whisper Of The Heart [1995] and Isao Takahata's Pom Poko [1994] and Only Yesterday [1991].
*For all your anime needs be sure to check out Robert's Anime Corner Store.


J.D. said...

Another top notch, comprehensive reviews! Wow... you really outdid yourself on on this one. Of course, I'm coming from the view that this is my fave Miyazaki of all-time.

Miyazaki’s films have the ability to put one back into that innocent mindset when you were a child and that is what I think makes them so superior to the current crop of meager Disney fare. His films are filled with beauty and wonder and this one definitely evokes those endless summer days when you were a child and would spend hours playing outside, losing all track of time.

The film captures perfectly how little kids amuse themselves with the games that they invent. In a nice touch, instead of scoffing at Mei’s admittedly fantastic story, her father encourages her to pay respect to the tree and the denizens of the forest.

TOTORO is a great example of magic realism with beans sprouting suddenly into a huge tree and a large flying cat transporting the two girls across the night sky. In a way, this fantasy world is how Satsuki and Mei deal with their mother being sick as they are forced to face the real possibility that she might die – something that a lot of children don’t confront in these kinds of films.

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

WOW! High praise from my respected friend J.D.!

Thank you!

Great additional comments. I completely agree. The fantasy world of children is indeed many things, but there's no question it is a coping mechanism for their sick mom.

It's funny how the whole mom illness is very vague. I believe, if I'm not mistaken, it reflects to some extent Miyazaki's own life at the time. But I always got the feeling the mom was going to be okay. Still, parents, and these are good ones indeed, always try to make their children feel safe and secure and if that means putting a smiley face on a bad situation for their young girls that may be just what they're doing.

Anyway I'm with you J.D.- I believe My Neighbor Totoro is my very favorite Miyazaki film of all. I've seen them all and they are all indeed very special, but this is my favorite for the very reasons you stated in your second paragraph.

I think your point about Disney is a telling one too. Some of the issues and emotional currents in Japanese anime are more mature and more powerful than much of the Disney fare and this is one of the aspects that draws me into its world.

Your point about kids dealing with tough issues in an animation film are spot on. Grave Of The Fireflies, by Director Isao Takahata, Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli partner, is downright heartbreaking and painful. It's not just sentimental, but that film takes you into some dark territory all the more unsettling as the two main characters are essentially Mei and Satsuki's age. It's beautiful but tough going.

Finally, my Miyazaki second place might be Nausicaa, Castle, Kiki or Princess. Tough call. They are all so good.

Thanks so much my friend. You really got me inspired again.

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

By the way J.D, in a kind of homage to all of your wonderful film critique and analysis over at Radiator Heaven I must share with you a few points regarding My Neighbor Totoro being a fellow lover of the film.

To my astonishment there were many who were not kind to the film back in the day.

Leonard Klady of Variety dubbed the film "adequate television technical craft." OUCH. Hardly. What was he smoking? He adds, "the film evinces a disorienting combination of cultures that produces a nowhere land more confused than fascinating." Wow. What, not sure if we were watching the same film there Leonard. It was pretty clealry Japan to me.

It must have been those English looking characters of anime that everyone harped on for years never quite getting passed it.

Stephen Holden of The New York Times said, "Too much of the film... is taken up with stiff, mechanical, chitchat." Could that be farther from the truth? What a load of hogwash. It's warm, sincere and genuine dialogue that real people actually speak. Oh that's right, it's The New York Times, land of the elites. They don't speak that way. Honestly, The New York Times generally sucks! It's a vacuum of self-importance. Is my dislike for that paper obvious.

Matthew Leyland of Sight & Sound was fairly positive. Our man Roger Ebert was extremely positive, but then Roger Ebert is a huuuuge Anime proponent. He always has been. He even provides a remarkable audio commentary to Isao Takahata's Grave Of The Firefies.

I thought you would enjoy this addendum to the post. Take care. SFF

J.D. said...

That critical reaction was very interesting indeed. I wonder if maybe there was a cultural barrier for some critics... or maybe some critics still don't take anime seriously, lumping it in with other childish animation, which is too bad.

Not surprised that Ebert loved it. As you say, he's a big supporter of anime. I also like that he support comic book films as well - one of the few mainstream critics to do so.

As for other Miyazaki films... SPIRITED AWAY maybe my second fave of his... altho, KIKI'S DELIVERY SERVICE is a lot of fun. And I also have a soft spot for the CASTLE OF CALIGSTRO as it was the first Miyazaki film I ever saw... plus it always reminds me of that laser disc video game from the 1980s, CLIFF HANGER which lifted a lot of its sequences from that film.

le0pard13 said...

I'm with J.D. on how top notch and comprehensive this post was, SFF. This is one of Miyazaki’s films that I've missed. I have to move it up in the old Netflix queue after reading this! One fine read, my friend. Thanks for this.

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

Thanks L13. Trust me, and I agree with J.D., its one of the best from Miyazaki. I love its focus on characters that are grounded in a kind of rural present day reality unlike many of his pictures. They are all amazing, but this one, apart from Mei and Satsuki's connection to the fantastical, is the most grounded and sweet. Sweet is good now and again.