Movie Review: My Neighbor Totoro

“What? You hadn’t watched My Neighbor Totoro?”

For a long time I’d known that the “my” and the “neighbor” weren’t really proper in the translation of the real title, 「となりのトトロ」. But today I learned that “Totoro” isn’t really even correct—or if it is, it’s only because of the movie’s success. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

My Neighbor Totoro1 is a kids’ movie about two sisters moving into a house in the country with their dad. While exploring, they meet some curious sprites, from the soot-creatures that appear later in Spirited Away to the now world-famous totoro. I watched it with my brother (who’s seen it before) and dad (who hadn’t), and partly due to my insistence, we watched it in Japanese, with English subtitles.

When I say it’s a kids’ movie, I mean it. It has next to no plot, everything is spelled out in fairly simple terms, and there is almost never a sense of danger, even when the younger sister, Mei, goes wandering through the forest.

I really shouldn’t have liked it: I’ve gotten cynical enough that many kids’ movies just make me shrug or even grimace. (See my apathetic reaction to Beauty and the Beast.) Satsuki and Mei, the two sisters, were screaming the whole time.2 There’s not that much depth. And to be honest, I’ve never liked the way Totoro looks.

I could try to defend myself by saying Totoro’s more “character-based” than “plot-based”, something I greatly respect. In this case, I mean that rather than pinning the story to a clearly recognizable rise-and-fall plot, Miyazaki sets up a backstory and an environment, then turns Mei and Satsuki loose. And just watches their lives unfold. Sure, there are deliberate moments to introduce tension, and it’s not like the characters feel so real or anything. But maybe this is why I didn’t mind that the movie wasn’t really going anywhere.

But in the end, it’s really that it’s a Studio Ghibli movie, with brilliant paintings behind the animation and great music by Joe Hisaishi. Most of you have probably seen at least one Studio Ghibli (“ji-bli”) movie: Nausicaä, Castle in the Sky, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, Ponyo…so you know what I’m talking about. All of the Studio Ghibli movies have an aspect of the beauty of nature in them to some extent, but I’d say Totoro has a more than average amount. In a good way.

So I liked it. I actually liked it a lot. Thinking about it, I think a lot of it was just having fun with being able to understand the Japanese, and the usual comparison of translated English subtitles to original Japanese lines. (The translation of「おばあさん」as “Nanny”, which I’ve also seen as “Granny” or “Nana” when used this way, is fairly appropriate, but of course in Japanese it’s more of a title like “madam” than a proper name. It literally means “grandmother”.) But a fair portion was also just the non-American-ness of it. A couple things just had different cultural assumptions than I’m used to, and that was fun.

I will note that we watched a few minutes of the Disney English dub3 and it didn’t seem nearly as fun: kids are more annoying with American accents, and the slowed-down, spelled-out characteristics of kids’ movies were more evident.

But that said, if you still watch kids’ movies at all, Totoro is a good one. Despite the lack of plot, it does capture some magic and some beauty of nature in its story, artwork, and music. And, hey, it’s only 90 minutes.

Oh, and “totoro” is apparently created from Mei mispronouncing トロール, or “troll”. So my translation of となりのトトロ would be “The Totoro Next Door”. (“What’s a totoro?” “I don’t know, guess we’ll find out!”) In case you were curious.4

Separately, I need to watch「火垂るの墓」(Grave of the Fireflies).

SPOILERFUL EXTRAS

“Huh? It’s a kids’ movie with no plot. Why do you care about spoilers?” Actually, it’s precisely because it’s a kids’ movie with very little plot that I care about spoilers—I knew a bit about the film coming in, but I think the magic works better the less you know, both concerning the magical creatures and the family’s relationships. Kind of like the appearance of Yoda, or the secret revealed on Cloud City, in The Empire Strikes Back. (I never got the full impact of either one, but if you’ve seen the movie you know what I’m talking about.) So if you haven’t seen Totoro, turn back now.

Still here? All right then…

I’m not sure how much of this is “kids’ movie”, how much is “rural”, how much is “Japan”, and how much is “Miyazaki”, but the idea that the father would just let Mei and Satsuki out to play is somewhat foreign to me. You can’t do that today in real life, but moreover in most (okay, “many”) Western stories it’s usually a bad thing when children wander off. Occasionally they discover a trapped animal who they can rescue, and who will then grant them a wish, but usually it’s the Big Bad Wolf or the cunning witch, from whom the children narrowly escape in the end.

The Japanese attitude towards spirits and magical creatures is also very different from the Western attitude: translations of “ghost” and “monster” don’t really fit おばけ. I would put this down to Shintō vs. medieval superstitions; the European faerie world is much less friendly than the Japanese one.

At the beginning of the movie you don’t know what’s up with the girl’s mother. After a while you find out she’s in the hospital, and the family goes and visits her. It’s clear she’s been there for a long time. A few weeks later (?), the sisters get a telegram saying she’s gotten sicker again, and won’t be able to come home as planned. This sets off the final climax of the movie, and all that. (If you watched the credits, you’ll notice they show the mother finally returning home.)

What if she died? What if the sisters have to deal with this? What if Totoro has to deal with this? …Not that he wouldn’t have dealt with death before, but he might not have experienced it with/through human child friends. I think playing out this story would have been very interesting.

Finally, my brother made this. (Yes, I consider that a spoiler too.)

  1. I’ll try to stick to English for most of this post. ↩︎

  2. My mom was in the same room but not watching the movie, and without subtitles it was just 90 minutes of kids screaming. “It was horrible.” “Yeah, I expected you to leave,” responded my brother. ↩︎

  3. Totoro was imported to the US twice and dubbed twice: first by Streamline Pictures in 1993 under the name My Friend Totoro, then again by Disney in 2006. My brother actually saw the other English dub first and says it’s better, but the Disney dub has Dakota and Elle Fanning playing Satsuki and Mei. Having just seen Super 8, that was at least a little bit fun. ↩︎

  4. And in case you were wondering why I’ve been putting “totoro” in lowercase, it’s because (in the Japanese version, anyway) all three of the forest creatures Mei and Satsuki meet are known as “totoro”: 大トトロ、中トトロ、小トトロ、or “big totoro”, “medium totoro”, and “small totoro”. It’s the big one, however, that people usually mean when they say “Totoro”, both in and out of the movie world. ↩︎

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