My Neighbor Totoro aka Tonari no Totoro (1988; version viewed 2005) Voice Acting: Tim Daly, Dakota Fanning, Elle Fanning, Lea Salonga, Frank Welker. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Screenplay by Hayao Miyazaki. Produced by Toru Hara. Color. Japan. Animated, Fantasy, Foreign
Hayao Miyazaki is one of the great Japanese anime film directors of all-time, reaching International acclaim with films like Spirted Away (2001), Howl's Moving Castle (2004) and The Wind Rises (2013). A gifted storyteller, Miyazaki got his start as an in-between artist at Toei Animation in 1963 working on the theatrical feature anime Watchdog Bow Wow (1963) and the TV anime Wolf Boy Ken.
By 1968, Miyazaki was the chief animator on Hols: Prince of the Sun, though the film was directed by Isao Takahata. This would begin a collaboration between the two filmmakers that would eventually lead to their founding Studio Ghibli in 1985. It is at this studio where Miyazaki would direct his best-known films.
One of the studio’s early films was My Neighbor Totoro, released on the same day in 1988 as Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies. The production was influenced greatly by the Art Director, Kazuo Oga, who had previously worked on such films as Barefoot Gen (1983) and Wicked City (1987). My Neighbor Totoro would take his career to a new level and would begin his continued relationship with Studio Ghibli.
The film was originally released in Japan with Noriko Hidaka as Satsuki Kusakabe, Chika Sakamoto as Mei Kusakabe, Shigesato Itoi as Tatsuo Kusakabe and Sumi Shimamoto voicing Yasuko Kusakabe. The film’s U.S. release came via Fox home video, which released the film on home video in 1993 under the title My Friend Totoro. Miyazaki, who had previously been disappointed in how his films were transitioned into English, would not allow Fox to make any edits and they had to stay as close to the original screenplay as possible.
This release dubbed the film into English with Lisa Michelson voicing Satsuki Kusakabe, Cheryl Chase as Mei Kusakabe, Greg Snegoff as Tatsuo Kusakabe and Alexandra Kenworthy as Yasuko Kusakabe. If the first American cast doesn’t sound familiar, you are not alone.
When Fox’s rights lapsed, Disney picked them up. Why not, they have practically everything else? For their home video release, they re-cast the dubbed voices, bringing more recognizable actors to the lead roles. For Satsuki, they cast Dakota Fanning, at the time all of 11, but already an acclaimed actress. For the younger sister, they kept it in the family, casting Dakota’s younger sister Elle. The role of the father went to Tim Daly, who at the time was best known for his long-running role on TV’s Wings series.
While Lea Salonga, who was cast as the mother, might not be a household name in the US, the Filipina singer’s voice had already been used in Disney’s Mulan (1998) and its direct-to-video follow-up Mulan II (2005). The voice cast also featured Pat Carroll, Ursula from The Little Mermaid (1989), and the great Frank Welker, who has voiced just about everything but may be best known in some circles for his work on the Transformers franchise.
|Satsuki (Dakota Fanning) and Mei (Elle Fanning) are excited about their new home in the country.|
The film takes place in rural Japan and at a time that feels like the late 1950s. By then, a lot of wounds from World War II had healed or were healing. University professor Tatsuo Kusakabe (Tim Daly) and this two daughters, Satsuki (Dakota Fanning) and Mei (Elle Fanning), are moving out to the country. We don’t know from where, but judging by everyone’s reaction to their new surroundings, it must have been from a city.
|Granny (Pat Carroll) has been the caretaker of their house and watches after the girls as well.|
Their closest neighbors run a rice farm and have a boy about the girls’ age, Kanta (Paul Butcher). The matriarch of the family, whom everyone calls Granny (Pat Carroll), has also been the caretaker of the Kusakabe’s house. She comes by soon after they move in.
|The girls' father, Tatsuo Kusakabe (Tim Daly), bathes with them and their laughter rids the house of soot spirits.|
But almost immediately, as the sisters explore the house, they become aware of dust creatures called susuwatari. They are for the most part harmless, but their presence sort of bothers the girls. That is until one evening while bathing with their father, they laugh so hard that the soot spirits leave the house, drifting in the wind looking for a new empty house to call home.
|Tatsuo takes his girls on a bike ride to visit their mother in the hospital.|
The three go to the hospital to visit the mother, Yasuko (Lea Salonga), who is still recuperating from some unknown malady.
|The girls' mother, Yasuko (Lea Salonga), is happy to see them.|
One day, Satsuki goes to school and father has some work to do. This leaves Mei on her own. While playing, she sees two rabbit-like ears in the tall grass and follows them. Under the house, she discovers two of the creatures and they lead her through a briar patch and into the hollow under a large camphor tree.
|Left on her own, Mei follows after two rabbit-like creatures.|
Under the tree, she discovers a much larger version of the same kind of magical spirit, which she identifies as “Totoro” based on the sounds it makes. Even though she falls asleep on the large Totoro’s belly, Satsuki finds her on the ground in a briar clearing. Try as she might, Mei can never find the hollow part of the trunk to show her family. But her father seems to already know about the Totoro, telling Mei that he is the keeper of the forest and only reveals himself when he wants to.
|Mei meets Totoro, a large magical creature.|
One rainy night, the girls go to wait for their father’s bus because they realize he’s forgotten his umbrella. But the bus is late and the girls grow worried when he’s not on the one they’re expecting him to be on. While they wait, Mei falls asleep, so Satsuki carries her sister on her back. Soon after, the Totoro appears, the first time Satsuki has been allowed to see him. Because he only has a leaf to use to shelter him from the rain, Satsuki offers him the umbrella they’d brought for their father.
|Totoro shows up while the girls wait for their father's bus.|
The creature enjoys not only the shelter the umbrella provides but also the sound of the raindrops hitting it. To show his appreciation, he gives Satsuki a bag with nuts and seeds inside. Not long after, a Catbus (Frank Welker) shows up and the Totoro boards, taking the umbrella with him. Soon afterward, the bus with their father arrives. He apologizes for being late and they leave.
The girls plant the seeds. A few days later, they awaken at midnight to find Totoro and his two miniature colleagues engaged in a ceremonial dance around the planted nuts and seeds. The girls join in, whereupon the seeds sprout, and then grow, eventually combining into a single enormous tree. Totoro, along with his colleagues, take the girls for a ride on a magical flying top. In the morning, the giant tree is gone, but the seeds have indeed sprouted.
|The girls help perform a ceremony to get the seeds to grow.|
A planned visit by their mother gets postponed because of an undisclosed setback with her health. Disappointed, Satsuki tells Mei the bad news, but Mei does not take the news well. The two sisters get into an argument, ending with Satsuki storming off. Mei decides to take her mom some fresh corn and decides to walk to the hospital by herself.
|Mei runs away to give her mother fresh corn.|
Satsuki and the neighbors search for Mei, but to no avail. Desperate, Satsuki goes to the camphor tree and asks for Totoro’s help. Totoro is delighted to be asked and summons the Catbus, which takes Satsuki to where Mei is. After the sisters are reunited, the Catbus takes them to the hospital where their father is visiting their mother.
|The girls take the Catbus (Frank Welker) to visit their mother.|
Sitting perched in the tree, the sisters eavesdrop on their parents’ conversation and hear their mother had been kept from visiting them by a minor cold, rather than something worse like they had feared. Their parents hear something outside her hospital room, but all they find is the ear of corn that Mei had brought for her mother. Meanwhile, the girls are taken back home by the Catbus, which disappears from sight as soon as they get off.
|The parents find the ear of corn Mei left, but don't see the girls.|
During the end credits, Yasuko returns home and the sisters are shown playing with other children. Totoro and his friends are shown as unseen observers.
This is a gentle film and I mean that in more ways than one. The story is more a slice of life for the Kusakabe family. Mom is in the hospital and the father and the children move to be closer to her. The big difference between their life and anyone else’s is that the Kusakabes lives in a forest with a giant magical spirit.
There does not seem to be much going on in the film. The biggest event in the film is really Mei running away from home, but she’s only gone for a matter of hours and she’s found safe and sound. The Totoro serves more like a Deus Ex Machina, sort of lying around waiting to be called upon to do good and give the story a happy ending.
There’s nothing wrong with that, but if you’re looking for something along the lines of American animated films, where there has to be some sense of the characters in danger, then you need to look elsewhere. Mei is really never in harm’s way and how bad can a situation be if a Catbus is what saves you?
While the film wasn’t colored with these, I came away thinking of it more like water colors than the computerized CGI that dominates modern animation. The color palette is nice, but the colors are never too vivid or wild, which seems to suit the story very well.
Obviously, the story takes place in Japan, but the characters are drawn with a certain universality that defies racial categorization. There are no ceremonial robes or “native” dress in the film, as there are no cultural roadblocks that might separate us from them. While I have a limited exposure to Japanese animation, this sort of style seems to permeate throughout what I have seen.
My Neighbor Totoro was very accessible and rather easy to watch. While I doubt very much that this is Miyazaki’s best work, it does seem to have many of the characteristics that have made him an Internationally acclaimed story-teller. While I’m not sure if these films stand up to repeated viewings, the way some of the best Walt Disney and Pixar films do, I would definitely recommend this film to anyone interested in or, like me, was interested in Hayao Miyazaki’s work.