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My Neighbor Totoro


My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

I am the father of an all most two year old boy who loves watching The Mickey Mouse Clubhouse on Disney Jr. I’m constantly trying to find new things for him to watch and get excited about just so I don’t have to watch more Mickey Mouse. And it’s not as if that show is particularly bad or anything, it’s just made for young kids and isn’t supposed to be stimulating for adult viewers. I’ve had some success getting him to watch Looney Tunes and even The Simpsons. He’ll rarely ask for either like he will with Mickey, but he’ll let me have them on the television with minimal fuss. The only show he really, actively, watches though is still Mickey, and that’s probably because of his enthusiasm for it and because the show is interactive with the characters constantly addressing the viewer. When he watches something like The Simpsons with me, it’s mostly in silence and he’ll occasionally point at an object in the show and tell me what it is.

For the first time in his short life, my son actively watched a movie. Often to get him to watch something non-Mickey, I’ll get it started on the TV before getting him up from his nap, which is what I did this past weekend with My Neighbor Totoro. I have been somewhat excitedly waiting for a time to introduce my son to this movie because it’s one I have a lot of affection for. A stuffed Totoro was even the first toy I ever bought for him before he was born. I’ve always been pretty certain that he would like Totoro, to a point, but I honestly felt like we were still a few years away from that day. To my surprise, I got him up from his nap and put him in our big recliner with a cup of juice without him even mentioning Mickey. He hadn’t been feeling well so I wasn’t sure what version of my son I would get, but he didn’t object to what was on the television and I went into the kitchen to finish up some dishes I had started before his nap ended. As I was busying myself, I could hear him laughing. I stopped and watched and he was smiling at the television. He would giggle when he was supposed to, he’d point to things on the screen, and bob his head to the music. What seems like a small, insignificant, moment is amazing through the eyes of a parent who is observing their child do something for the first time. He was engaging with a film, and it was beautiful. I chalk it up to the magic of Studio Ghibli and it’s extremely talented director and co-founder, Hayao Miyazaki.


No wonder why my kid liked this one, who wouldn’t want friends like these?

My Neighbor Totoro is a charming tale about two young girls, Satsuki and Mei. They have just recently moved to an old home in the countryside with their father while their mother is recovering from an illness at a nearby hospital. The precocious youngsters are intensely curious about their surroundings and new home and take to the country with intense optimism. This is a film devoid of any kind of cynicism. Satsuki is the older sister and helps out her dad around the house and also by looking after Mei, who I would guess is around 3 or 4. When Satsuki is in school and her father at work, a local old woman affectionately called Grannie looks after Mei.


A little house in the country side.

Very early in the film the girls take-note of strange creatures in their new home. These soot spirits and their existence are not challenged by the adults in the story, and we see their father encourages his girls to think like children by doing so himself. The girls seem a little afraid at first, but their dad tells them laughter is the best cure for fear, and their laughter drives the little soot spirits away. When Satsuki is away at school though, Mei happens upon the dwellers of the forrest and the massive, cuddly, Totoro who resides there. When she tells her sister about the Totoro, Satsuki is skeptical, but once again their dad is encouraging and has the girls thank the forrest for allowing them to live with it. It’s hard not to imagine that Miyazaki, a noted environmentalist, didn’t see himself in the father character present here.


Mei in hot pursuit of two little forrest spirits.

The film follows the two girls closely and unfolds at a brisk pace. It’s an interesting tale in that there is very little conflict, danger, or suspense. There’s some implied with the film’s climax, but it’s never deceptive. My Neighbor Totoro takes your hand from the start to guide you through its story and we trust it implicitly. Perhaps more interesting, is that it all works so well. Someone who has never seen the picture would probably interpret my description of it as dull, but the film is so charming and positive that watching it is like a relaxing soak in a hot tub; it’s simple, obvious, but oh so good.

The art direction is wonderful, and the character designs for the forrest spirits are delightfully simple. Totoro and his little buddies are a bit rabbit-like in appearance, though cat-like in behavior. They’re cute, and it’s obvious why stuffed dolls of them exist in the first place. The Catbus, which appeared about halfway through the film, is pretty wild to take-in, but so much fun. It adds a little absurdity to the film that fits right in with the sometimes silly tone. That tone is mostly captured through Mei, who is perhaps the most authentic young person I’ve ever seen brought to life in an animated movie. Her movements, facial expressions, and behavior feel so spot-on and really add life to her character. I’m honestly a little sad whenever she’s absent from a scene, and it’s her character that lead to the biggest reactions from my own little guy as we watched.


Just two kids riding in a cat bus.

The forrest scenery is lush and dominated by shades of green. I love this countryside as presented here because there’s just so much nature. This is the kind of film that makes me think I’d be okay with a more relaxed lifestyle that isn’t so plugged-in. My copy of the film is on DVD, and Disney finally released a high definition version a couple of years ago, but I haven’t upgraded yet. The film is gorgeous, though I notice a little grain at times and I wonder if that would be present on the Blu Ray. Normally, I enjoy a little film grain and would prefer to watch a movie on actual film than digital, but this picture is so vibrant that I find myself longing for as clean and pristine an image as possible. The film’s score is done by Joe Hisaishi, and it’s effectively whimsical and beautifully composed. Hisaishi and Miyazaki have such an amazing ability to complement one another with music and picture and this rather simple score might be my favorite of the Ghibli movies. The closing title song is adorably sweet and poppy. It probably will appeal to children more than adults, but I find it undeniably charming.


Mei’s first encounter with Totoro.

This being a Walt Disney localized release, the english dub is of high quality and well done. Sisters Dakota and Elle Fanning play Satsuki and Mei. Tim Daly and Lea Solonga play the parents, and Hollywood’s go-to man for animal sounds, Frank Welker, plays Totoro. The cast is probably light on star power in comparison with other dubs of Ghibli films, but the actors are more than capable and make watching the english version of the film a real delight.

The film, at its heart, is also probably one that appeals more to children than adults, which makes it unique among Studio Ghibli films which don’t obviously focus on children the way Disney does. At least, my head tells me that My Neighbor Totoro is indeed a children’s movie, but I am so moved and delighted by it every time I view it that my heart has all but convinced me that this is a film anyone can enjoy and fall in love with. That doesn’t mean it’s a film for everybody, my own wife finds it criminally boring and weird, but it’s not a film confined by demographic. My Neighbor Totoro is a wonderfully charming story beautifully accented by gorgeous visuals and a moving score. It’s fantasy, but understated fantasy, and the movie effortlessly compels the viewer to buy into everything that’s on screen. It’s in some ways a perfect film, without obvious flaws, and I wouldn’t change a thing about it.

The Wind Rises

Kaze_Tachinu_poster“The wind is rising!  We must try to live!” – Paul Valéry

The above quote opens the latest release from Studio Ghibli and director Hayao Miyazaki; The Wind Rises.  It’s a quote that is suitable for the film as it implies that change is coming, but we must carry on.  The Wind Rises is to be the last directorial effort from Miyazaki, Japan’s most celebrated director of animated films, and it is an appropriate piece for him to go out on.  The Wind Rises tells the tale of Jiro Horikoshi and his dream to design what he calls beautiful airplanes.  Jiro is based on the airplane designer of the same name who is famous for creating Japan’s Mitsubishi A5M and A6M Zero and the basis for the film was derived from a quote he once gave:  “All I wanted to do was make something beautiful.”  The film has two sides to it with one being a mostly faithful account of Horikoshi’s challenge in developing his first successful airplane and the entirely fictional account of his personal life.  The end result is a tale of hope, triumph, love and life and is perhaps Miyazaki’s finest piece since My Neighbor Totoro.

The film opens with a young Jiro dreaming of flying a plane.  The opening sequence is perhaps the most fun for the animators as Jiro’s dreams are filled with nightmare creatures seemingly stemming from his despondence over his imperfect vision.  The character admits early on to himself that he will never fly because of his eyes, but in a dream meets with Italian airplane designer Giovanni Caprone, who will be a recurring visitor amongst Jiro’s dreams throughout the film offering him guidance on how to be a great engineer.  It’s these dreams that inspire Jiro to be an airplane engineer and the film advances time to show us his journey to become an engineer.

Jiro leading one of his designs to the testing grounds.

Jiro leading one of his designs to the testing grounds.

Jiro is portrayed as a sweet and good-natured man.  He is willing to help those in need, and a chance encounter with a young woman and her maid on a train plays a pivotal role in the film later on.  During the train ride the great earthquake of 1923 strikes and Jiro carries the maid to safety after she breaks a leg.  He seeks nothing in return and doesn’t even share his name with the women before departing.

Jiro lands a job out of school and his employment takes him to Germany where he is introduced to pre World War 2 Germany’s policies.  Being Japanese, he is not trusted by the soldiers as he seeks to learn about Germany’s engineering when it comes to aeronautical design.  Despite this, he is able to learn some techniques and apply them to a new aircraft, which unfortunately crashes during the test run.  To clear his head, his company sends him on a retreat for some rest and relaxation which is where he encounters the young woman he met years earlier on the train, Naoko.  The two fall in love, and though it seems predictable, their scenes are handled with such tenderness and care that the audience is left to root for them, even if it seems as if they’re destined to fall for each other.  Jiro learns there is a dark side to his budding romance as Naoko is afflicted with tuberculosis.  This forces them to move quickly with their life together.  Naoko insists on getting better before discussing marriage, but in time relents once Jiro has to leave for work.

Jiro must deal with failure throughout the film.

Jiro must deal with failure throughout the film.

The last act of the movie involves Jiro and his attempt to finally build a worthy aircraft that his company can sell to the Japanese military, while Naoko wages a silent battle at their home with her illness.  I don’t want to get into too much detail about the film’s plot, but suffice to say it’s a bittersweet tale that includes ups and downs with the story refusing to linger on anything for too long.  In that, it mirrors life which is a constant push and pull.  There are many themes the film likes to go back to.  Early on a supporting character mentions the importance of having a family to go home to, crediting it with helping a man work harder at the office, which is shown later in the film once Jiro is married.  In his dreams, Caproni asks Jiro if he prefers to live in a world with pyramids, or with no pyramids, using this as an explanation for why he would design airplanes that will eventually be used for war.  And all throughout the film, the wind acts as a character itself playing a pivotal role in one of the film’s final scenes.

As this is a work from Studio Ghibli, it hardly needs stating but deserves to be anyways, that this film is gorgeous.  The animation is predominantly hand-drawn, but some computer generated imagery is used for some of the film’s effects.  The film has a bright palette though Jiro is often garbed in white, gray, or a very light lavender, which serves to isolate him from his surroundings.  This suits the character as he is often oblivious to his surroundings, so consumed in his work and willing to overlook the fact that his designs are made for war.  The country-side settings are sure to evoke memories of Totoro, and the film’s whimsical feel and care-free pace further serves to draw comparisons to Miyazaki’s old masterpiece.

The wind is a character of its own, its actions often directly influencing the lives of the human characters in the film.

The wind is a character of its own, its actions often directly influencing the lives of the human characters in the film.

The sound design is excellent, with great use of natural sounding effects and an excellent score from Joe Hisaishi.  The english dub was handled by Disney and the film distributed in North America on their Touschstone label.  The dub is the usual high quality that viewers have come to expect from Disney as the company has handled the majority of Studio Ghibli’s dubs.  Serving as Jiro is Joseph Gordon-Levitt with supporting roles from the likes of Emily Blunt, John Krasinski, and Martin Short, the latter serving as the scene-stealing character Kurokawa, Jiro’s boss throughout the film.

The Wind Rises may be an animated movie, but it’s not for children.  The film’s pace is too slow and plot is too mature to entertain most children.  The film is best described as a drama and should appeal to older fans of Miyazaki’s works.  That said, it’s a wonderful piece of film with fantastic visuals, a compelling plot, and terrific performances.  Hayao Miyazaki may never get the recognition he deserves from international audiences, but anyone involved with film appreciates and respects the work he does.  It’s both wonderful and sad that this movie exists, knowing it is to be the last written and directed by Miyazaki, but in that sense it mirrors the film superbly.  What a truly awesome way to cap off a career!

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