Thursday, June 30, 2016

My Neighbor Totoro (1988)


No one sets out to make an iconic character, or at least those that do usually don’t accomplish this. These characters are just connect with an audience and grow into a phenomenon. If you are an anime fan, you know who Totoro is, you can’t escape his fuzzy presence. If you don’t know who Totoro is, then go watch My Neighbor Totoro as soon as you can, because he is an iconic character, not just in Japan, but around the world.


Satsuki (Noriko Hidaka) and Mei (Chika Sakamoto) are moving to the country with their father (Shigesato Itoi). We soon discover that the girl’s mother (Sumi Shimamoto) is sick and hopefully the country air will help her get well. But mother has to stay in a local hospital until she is well enough to join the three at the new place. After they arrive the girls think mysterious Dust Bunnies may haunt the new home. Satsuiki and Mei explore the house and discover clues to supernatural inhabitants.

In the meantime the girls help their dad around the house and make new friends like Kanata (Toshiyuki Amagas) a young boy who thinks Satsuki is cute, but doesn’t know what to do about it. They also befriend kindly old Granny (Tanie Kitbayashi) who tells them about the forest spirits that live nearby. That is when Mei encounters the Totoro, a huge furry creature living in a huge camphor tree near the house. Totoro and his tiny friends befriend the girls and take them on all kinds of adventures including flying through the air, taking a ride on a Cat Bus and entering an enchanted tree. But when mother takes a turn for the worse is there anything Totoro can do to help the girls in there hour of need?

Good Points:

  • Miyazaki creates a wonderful sense of place and wonder in the animation
  • Totoro and all the supernatural creations are a joy to behold
  • You grow to like all the characters in the film

Bad Points:

  • There isn’t really an overall story, more like a series of vignettes
  • Looking for an antagonist to boo? Not going to find one here.
  • Some may find the movie too simple or too childish (I don’t agree, but I’ve heard that argument before)


This is a wonderful example of family entertainment. Young children will connect with the protagonists and fall in love with Totoro and his pals. Adults will find a nostalgic quality to the film that is so appealing. The movie puts you into the world of a child and does it so effectively. All the pieces come together to make a film that is entertaining and soothing all at once. It isn’t hard to see why this became a big hit and remains a classic in Miyazaki’s filmography ever since.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 5
Sound: 4
Acting: 4
Script: 4
Music: 4
Direction: 5
Entertainment: 5
Total:  4

In Depth Review
The big Totoro lets out a giant Yawp!
I think that one of the toughest genres to create in movies is the family film. Most end up too dumbed down for adults to enjoy. Others end up a little too snarky and meta to be anything more than a mild amusement that is soon forgotten. It is rare that you actually see a family film that is whimsical, positive and entertaining all at once. My Neighbor Totoro should be required viewing for anyone attempting to create family entertainment and do it the right way.

I often hear Hayao Miyazaki called the Japanese Walt Disney, and I think his work on My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service is where that idea comes from. I appreciate the comparison, but it doesn’t quite fit. Both men are more then just comparison points to each other. As I mentioned above, you could compare Totoro to Mickey Mouse when it comes to a popular icon created from family entertainment. Totoro is inescapable in Japan. And if you have any stores near you that sell merchandise or pop culture from Japan (especially anime or manga) odd are you’ve seen Totoro there too.

Why the lasting appeal? Why the accolades? Why the huge amount of success that allowed Miyazaki to continue with his dream of making animated films into 2013? Let’s take a look at all the different elements and see how they work together.

The pastoral and old fashioned setting.
For the first time in a Miyazaki directed feature film we have a setting in Japan. Because we aren’t in the post apocalyptic world of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind or the steam punk fantasy of Castle in the Sky, the design has a more down to earth feel. The film is a period piece, set in 1958. This gives the clothing, automobiles and town surrounding our protagonists an old fashioned but homey feel to it.

The country setting allows Miyazaki to show off nature in the form of the giant camphor tree, the rolling hills surrounding the village and waving open fields of grass. My Neighbor Totoro feels much more open and airy compared to Castle in the Sky. The setting adds to the nostalgic atmosphere that wraps the whole film in a comfy familiar blanket, even for non-Japanese audiences.

What mysteries await in the new house?
The character design follows Miyazaki’s normal style. They are variants on what we’ve seen in the past. The Totoros look related to the Panda family from Panda Go Panda and Satsuki could be Nausicaa’s little sister. Old Granny could be a stand in for Yubaba in Spirited Away. But this movie actually establishes more designs that Miyazaki will use in future films.

Like the previous films, some of the visual highlights include moments when characters take flight. Totoro uses a magic top to take to the air with Mei and Satsuki. Later in the movie, the flying Cat Bus hurtles across the countryside and leaps high into the air, providing a thrilling ride for those inside. It just wouldn’t be a Miyazaki film without those moments.

Who ya gonna call? Dust Bunny Busters!
But I also like some of the creepy scenes early in the film, when the girls explore their new house.  The home has plenty of darkened passages and closed doors that could open to anything: even a group of Dust Bunnies! Miyazaki does a good job creating an eerie atmosphere of mystery. It’s not too scary (like elements we’d see in Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke). But it creates a few moments of the uncanny as the two girls come in contact with the spirits that inhabit the house and surrounding forest.

Sound work follows suit for the film. Most of what we hear is typical sound effects for the pastoral setting and vintage cars. When some magic is needed for the Totoros and the Cat Bus then some interesting sound design is used. It is all creative and immersive.

Mei befriends the giant Totoro.
When it came to the music for My Neighbor Totoro Miyazaki once again turned to his composer of choice, Joe HIsaishi. Hisaishi creates three main melodies for the film, and they are all used to flesh out songs used in the film and on the soundtrack album. The opening title theme Hey Lets Go! gets things off to a cheery start. It is also used when the family goes to visit their sick mother in the local hospital. The end title track, is the theme for the Totoros, and actually features a chorus singing their name several times. It’s a jaunty tune and is used several times in the film. The other theme is one used when Mei gets lost. We only hear it a couple times at the end of the film, but Hisaishi uses the melody for a song called The Lost Child on the album. Hisashi creates a set of other memorable motifs for the Dust Bunnies, Cat Bus and the girl’s mother. The music is all light, melodic and fits the film so well. Much of the emotion and nostalgia comes from Hisaishi’s score. While it is primarily orchestral, there is some use of 80s synthesizers in nearly every track to supplement the music. It may be one of Hisaisihi’s most cheerful and uplifting scores for a Miyazaki film – and that is saying something.

Even the Cat Bus is pleased that Mei and Satsuki find
each other.
When it comes to the vocal cast, it is important that the two main girls are able to convey the mixture of innocence and wonder that makes the film work. In Japanese you have Noriko Hidaka as Satsuki and Chika Sakamoto as Mei. Both girls do a fine job. Sakamoto makes Mei just cute enough that you don’t want to strangle her when she gets bratty. Hidaka also does a great job combining the affection and annoyance of having a younger sibling to take care of. Their interaction with each other and the other characters goes a long way to making the whole thing work. There have been two English dubs for this film one done in 1993 for Fox and one in 2005 for Disney. Both English dubs work well, with Dakota and Elle Fanning appearing in the Disney version with Lea Salonga (of Aladdin fame) as their mother.  I usually like to watch this one in Japanese, because of the very Japanese setting, but both English dubs work just fine and allow English speaking viewers a chance to enjoy the animation.

Mei in hot pursuit of the white rabbit... I mean
little and medium Totoros!
If there is one criticism you can level at My Neighbor Totoro it is that the film doesn’t have a traditional narrative. The movie plays out more like a series of vignettes about the girls moving into the new home with their father and how they adapt to the changes and the fact that their mother is still very ill. There is a story arc of sorts, as both girls grow up a bit over the course of the movie. But there is no antagonist to challenge the girls, or grand goal or objective at the heart of the film, at least not one that is obvious. As a writer I really admire how Miyazaki and his crew are able to make this approach work. We connect immediately with the girls, most of us have moved to a new home and had to deal with all the strange things we encounter. I love how Satsuki and Mei have this mixture of excitement, fear and daring in the first portion of the film as they explore the “haunted house” and meet the dust bunnies. Even the scenes where the girls meet Totoro are an interesting mixture of suspense and wonder. All these moments keep us interested in the girls and what they are going to encounter next.

Satsuki is isolated in this frame, as she searches
for the lost Mei.
In many ways this film reminds me strongly of Alice in Wonderland as envisioned by Disney or the Jim Henson film Labyrinth. You get a series of encounters and adventures, but not a clear plot path. The story seems to meander at times as you take the journey with the characters. But by the time it is over, you realize that each moment played into the character’s growth in some way and by the end of the film they have learned something about themselves.

It takes a deft touch to make something like My Neighbor Totoro work. For me this is the first film where everything comes together just about perfectly for Miyazaki. His abilty to capture that childlike wonder, that thrill of discovery, the fear of the unknown and the dispair of losing someone so important to you – all these elements come into play in this simple story. But it is that simplicity that makes the film so endearing, entertaining and have that staying power. Pretty much anyone who sees My Neighbor Totoro will not forget it. Children connect with the girls and the cute and helpful Totoro. Adults will pick up on the nostalgia for a simpler time and the delightful visuals that capture the imagination. Miyazaki even manages to include a little ecological message about the Totoros being spirits of the forest and being attracted growing plants.

The leaf hat just isn't cutting it.
Of course some folks find the whole thing just too cute, or too slight. While I can understand that to a point, I think they don’t understand the core of the film. My Neighbor Totoro Isn’t going for the narrative scope of something like Princess Mononoke or even Castle of Cagliostro. It is about a family dealing with some serious issues, a sick mother, a big move to a very different place and meeting new neighbors. But it does it from the point of view of children, who see some of these things as games, fantasy or sometimes as confusing and scary events. That is the magic of the film. Miyazaki reaches younger viewers who feel like the film is speaking to them. It reaches older viewers because it reminds us of our childhood and some of the great and amazing things we experienced. My Neighbor Totoro is a must see for anyone who enjoys good entertainment. I can understand why it is many people’s favorite Miyazaki film, and while I rate a few other films a bit higher, it is the start of his winning streak.

The girls rush to find adventure in the "haunted house".
Time for a snack after the move.
The girls visit their sick mother.
She seeks him here, she seeks him there. She seeks
that rascal everywhere.

And then this happened... a cat bus appeared.

"Are you seeing this $%@&?" "Yeah, I totally see
a Cat Bus."

The girls and the Totoro's combine forces to make the
little acorns grow.

Mei is a child of the corn.

Hey Link, I think the Totoro has the Ocarina of Time.

This has to be one of my favorite scenes in the movie.


  1. There are films we loved as kids that are just embarrassing when revisited as adults: “I know I was just 6 (or 8, 10, 12, or what-have-you), but how could I have liked this tripe?” There are limits to how much of a child’s perspective we are able to recapture. The films that still hold up (for which one’s inner child isn’t scolded by one’s outer adult) are the great ones. They are the true family films and not just pure kids’ fare. It takes an artist – a bunch of them really – to get the mix right.

    I am aware of Totoro in the same way I’m aware of SpongeBob SquarePants. I can identify them while lacking the experience to judge the content. Thanks for the context on Totoro.

    1. Yeah it really does take skill to make a film for the whole family (and the young at heart). Miyazaki makes it look easy, but one of the key factors to his film is that he never talks down to the audience. The stories and characters are simple, but he never dumbs them down. I would say most kid targeted animation makes that mistake when Hollywood is involved. One of the exceptions is Pixar, and that is because they love Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli's works and used them as examples of how to make a good movie.

  2. Good review. It's not one of my favorite Miyazaki films, but I've only seen it once, and it just seemed too simple for me too. I loved the visuals, but the story seemed weak or something. Sometimes anime gets too saccharine or sweet for my taste too. That said though I should revisit this film and see if I just wasn't in the proper mood at the time. Sometimes I'll revisit a film and it will resonant differently with me.

    I had a friend when this came out on VHS and he told me his boys both loved the film. I can see that easily.

    1. Yeah this is probably the most simple and straight forward of Miyazaki's films. Even "Ponyo" has a more complex plot and themes. But I think the simplicity really works and allows you to focus on some of the excellent animation and mood of the film.

      But yeah, I can totally see why some folk just don't connect with it too much. Of all this kid friendly films, my favorite is probably "Kiki's Delivery Service". I think "Spirited Away" is a better film, but I can always throw on "Kiki" and have a great time.