Original release: April 16th, case 1988
Running time: 86 minutes
Country of origin: Japan
Original language: Japanese
Writer and director: Hayao Miyazaki
Cast: Dakota Fanning, Elle Fanning, Tim Daly, Lea Salonga
When I was a kid, epic stories played out in my mind constantly. I’d cast my favourite toys; they were heroes, villains and many supporting characters. The stories were divided into episodes and I would endlessly replay my favourite ones, occasionally making small adjustments and even recasting certain roles – especially so when getting a brand new toy. What’s most interesting in retrospect is the way reality made its way into these tales.
When we moved (which we did a number of times when I was young), the new place wouldn’t really be explored by me, I would merely accompany my toys measuring up the new territory, getting ready for a new chapter in my childhood. A majestic tree in our new garden might just be the setting for the next adventure I’m about to embark on – where my toys and I can meet new characters, friends and foes along the way.
The imagination of children is remarkable in that it exists for its own sake; as a grown-up, I mostly imagine things I want to do or want to have, and then I start to work toward the goal of experiencing these ideas in real life – and that’s true even for my creative endeavours. Looking back at the wonders my younger self used to imagine makes Hayao Miyazaki’s classic animated tale My Neighbor Totoro far more realistic than it might seem on the face of it.
One of the most famous works of the well-known animator, My Neighbor Totoro probably needs no introduction – even if you haven’t seen the film, you’ll recognise the trademark image of the giant creature Totoro standing in the rain with two girls at a bus stop. You can’t possibly live on this planet without having seen that picture at some point in your life.
I did an interesting exercise after my most recent watching of the film, which was to look at the story without the fantastical elements that take place with the two girls, Satsuki (Dakota Fanning) and her younger sister Mei (Elle Fanning). Without seeing this world through the eyes of the children, the story is as minimalist as a story can get. There’s hardly anything of interest at all really; just two sisters waiting for their mother (Lea Salonga) to come home from hospital. Miyazaki turning this very simple setting into a magical adventure made me appreciate the feature even more; he created and beautifully visualised a new reality that exists in the minds of children.
When the girls move into a new house with their father (Tim Daly), their eyes can see mysterious spirits and creatures that live nearby. They soon befriend the big but loveable Totoro, the “keeper of the forest”, whose ceremonial dance around planted seeds make them sprout – hosting a familiar Miyazaki theme of a relationship between benevolent spirits and nature. Totoro and his magical friends teach the girls about life around their new home and even help them find that far-away place that’s the hospital when they think their mother is in need of healthy vegetables.
If you’ve only seen the film with its original dubbing or perhaps only with subtitles before, a great excuse to see it again can be the new dubbing that came about after Disney acquired the distribution rights in 2005. Real life sisters Dakota and Elle Fanning did a fantastic job breathing life into Satsuki and Mei, respectively. We can hear and feel the emotions of these superbly animated characters through their voices; the excitement of exploring the new house they just moved into, when they worry about their mother and the joy of overcoming obstacles with the help of Totoro.
While youthful imagination accompanies much of Miyazaki’s work, it’s My Neighbor Totoro that really makes the concept its true protagonist. The film tells a story that’s very much in the domain of social realism, but removes the filter of adult rationalism and reveals a wondrous world that should be familiar to all of us. While their father can only see Satsuki and Mei playing in the garden, they actually learn to fly through a friendly spirit, freely exploring amongst the clouds. Just like we did when we were kids.
Arpad is a Film Studies graduate and passionate photographer (he picked up the camera and started taking stills just as he began his studies of moving pictures). He admires directors that can tell a story first of all in images. More or less inevitably, Brian De Palma has become Aprad’s favourite filmmaker.
Then there’s Arpad’s interest in anime. He was just a boy when he saw Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind on an old VHS and was hypnotised by the story of friendship, devotion and sacrifice. He still marvels at the uncompromising and courageous storytelling in Japanese anime, and wonders about the western audience with its ever growing appetite for “Japanemation”.