|My Neighbor Totoro|
|Written by Tara O'Shea|
|Tuesday, 07 March 2006|
In the early 1950s, 11-year-old Satsuki and four-year-old Mei have moved with their father to a new house in the countryside, close to the hospital where their mother is recovering from tuberculosis.
Mr Kusakabe is a teacher at a university in Tokyo and, while he commutes to work, Mei is looked after by Granny, the grandmother of a neighboring family. In the days leading up to summer holidays, Mei and Satsuki explore their new home and discover their house is "haunted" by tiny soot spirits who, according to Granny, spread ash and dust in old houses. Then Mei discovers the nest of a local forest spirits who lives in a giant camphor tree nearby. She calls them "Totoro" (which is a mispronunciation of "tororu," the Japanese word for troll), after an illustration in her "Three Billy Goats Gruff" picture book. The giant Totoro is a huge fuzzy creature like a cross between a tanuki, a cat and an owl, who communicates mainly through yawns and growls and delighted roars. However, despite the joy of encountering the forest spirits, having dreamlike adventures where they help an acorn grow into a giant camphor tree in their front yard and fly across the countryside on a magical spinning top while clinging to Totoro's fur like burs, the girls are still worried about their mother. When Mei tries to run away to visit her ailing mother in the hospital, it's up to Satsuki and Totoro to help find her.
The third animated feature from Hayao Miyazaki, "My Neighbor Totoro" was a massive hit when it was first released in Japan, not just because it is a charming and delightful film for both children and adults, but also because it celebrates a simpler time before televisions entered every home and the farmland outside Tokyo had not yet been converted into crowded suburbs. As with his earlier feature film "Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind," respect and reverence for nature is at the heart of this delightful family film. While the Totoro is not a specific figure from Japanese folklore, nature worship is a part of Shinto Buddhism, and the shrines and garland around the Totoros’ camphor tree are Shinto. The Totoro in the film are treated as the physical embodiment of the forest.
Part of “My Neighbor Totoro’s” charm comes from the portrayal of the sisters. The way they move and speak is a more realistic picture of children than you often find in American animated films, where the cuteness is stylized rather than grounded so closely in reality. The appeal of the film is due in large part to the faithful touches of realism combined with flights of fancy. Mei runs away after having an argument with Satsuki, who is trying to be strong and brave about their mother's illness, but she is still a young girl who is very afraid and finally cries in Granny's arms. The entire community helps search for Mei. They even begin to drag a local pond when Mei's sandal is found, and the audience is kept in the dark, fearing for Mei's safety along with Satsuki, Kanta and Granny. At the same time, the film shows an amazing light touch with humor, such as the scene where Satsuki first encounters the Giant Totoro at the bus stop. The Totoro's joy at the sound the falling rain makes on Satsuki's father's umbrella is a pure, childlike emotion that is transmitted straight to the audience.
In the new Disney dub, the relationship between the sisters comes across very clearly with the casting of Dakota Fanning as Satsuki and her younger sister Elle Fanning as Mei. Another way in which this charming family film differs from its American counterparts is the close relationship between the girls and their parents. Mr Kusakabe doesn't chide his daughters for believing in ghosts and spirits, but instead is loving and supportive, even though the film establishes early that only children can see the Little Soots and Totoro.
While fans of the 1993 Fox Home Entertainment dub might miss the Macek voice cast, the new Disney release features an excellent performance from an all-star cast, which includes the Fanning sisters, Tim Daly and Lea Salonga as Dad and Mom, and Pat Caroll as Granny. However, purists will no doubt prefer the original Japanese cast, led by Hidaka Noriko as Satsuki and Sakamoto Chika as Mei. Like the previous Disney Studio Ghibli releases, there are two sets of English language subtitles. The first is a close-captioned version of the English language dub (where the script is required to try to fit the characters’ mouth movements or "lip-flaps"), while the second is a closer translation of the Japanese script.
Visually, "My Neighbor Totoro" is the weakest of the Disney Studio Ghibli releases by far. Being nearly 20 years old, the print is still slight grainy, which can cause ringing due to edge-enhancement; some skin tones and light colors appear "dirty" due to artefacting. However, the Disney release is crisp and clean when compared to the 1993 Fox Home Entertainment transfer and, given the film's age, the transfer is still high quality. The background paintings in particular come through beautifully, even in the night and rain scenes. The print is clean, with no noticeable flaws, and the color palette, dominated by rich greens and blues, is pure and saturated, while the sunlit pastoral scenes are still able to take your breath away.
Unlike other recent Studio Ghibli releases, this two-disc set doesn't get remixed into 5.1 sound, but instead presents the original 2.0 surround. The English voice audio track is a bit more robust than the original Japanese (most likely because the audio engineers were able to experiment with the mix while integrating the English language tracks, while the original Japanese remains untouched). It is a pity that the Japanese language track couldn't receive the same attention to detail and care. However, the 2.0 sound mix is more than adequate, with the dialogue coming mainly from the center while sound effects and Jo Hisaishi's subtle and delicate score make good use of the front and rear speakers.
In terms of extras, the US release lacks most of the extras included on the Japanese Region 2 release. The second disc, labeled "bonus material," contains Miyazaki's storyboards (viewable with either the English or Japanese audio and your choice of subtitles) but nothing else. The main disc contains the usual "Behind the Microphone" featurette, which clocks in at six minutes long and concentrates mainly on the Fanning sisters, although it is nice to see Disney vet Salonga (singing voice of Jasmine and Mulan) finally cast in a speaking role. Alone among the cast members, she seems to appreciate the importance of "Totoro" as one of the best-loved animated films of all time. Original trailers and TV spots and a version of the opening and closing animation sans credits comprise the remaining "extras."
Missing from the Disney release are the 20-minute "Introduction to the Studio Ghibli Museum" and 15-minute "Making of" featurettes, which would have been a real treat for Studio Ghibli fans who have waited for "Totoro" to get the DVD release it deserved. While Disney is halfway there, it still seems to skimp on extras adults fans would cherish, which would actually justify the two-disc treatment. Instead, Disney focuses on mainstream attention to the "name actors" used in the English voice cast.
However, even with the disappointing extras and edge-enhancement issues, "My Neighbor Totoro" remains a must-own film, not just for animation enthusiasts, but also for families and children of all ages who appreciate genuine charm and storytelling.