It was nearly 2pm on a cool Monday afternoon in January, 2020. I prepared my daughter’s standard movie contraband supply (small bag of candy, diluted lemonade cup) and we headed off to pick her up early from school. This was the first time my wife and I had taken her out of school for a completely ridiculous reason. No doctor’s appointment for this little lady. It was the final day of the Durham-based Carolina Theatre’s Anime Magic film festival. I prefer subtitles in my anime and almost all of the films on the docket had them, except one. Hayao Miyazaki’s gentle and quietly moving My Neighbor Totoro (1988) would be playing in both a subtitled and dubbed version. I’m against dubbing unless it’s for a Godzilla movie or a film that becomes hilarious thanks to the poor voice dubs. My daughter was too young to handle the onslaught of words that would be flying at her, so the dubbed version it was. We got our delicious popcorn and headed into the cavernous and nearly empty Fletcher Hall. This was a Monday afternoon, after all, and a foreign film to boot. Don’t worry, I attended a one-night only screening of Bubba Ho-Tep (2002) there and they literally sold out all of the one thousand plus seats. To make it clear, my daughter loves movies, but her attention span can be short, so the trick is to hold off on giving her treats until she starts getting antsy or bored by the movie. The candy keeps her going and more importantly, in her seat. For the first time ever, we had leftover candy when the credits rolled. That’s the power of My Neighbor Totoro and Miyazaki’s work in general. The sense of wonder that he imbues in all of his work is mesmerizing and Totoro, though not a box office success, is often regarded as his international breakthrough.
The simplicity and delicacy of the film can’t be understated. It somehow finds a balance between sturdiness and an effervescent touch. Roger Ebert pointed out the film is unique in that it contains no villains. It’s a film of exploration, rather than conflict. The story of two sisters, Satsuki Kusakabe and her little sister, Mei, arriving in a new town with their professor father while their mother convalesces in a hospital is straightforward and to the point. By the way, it’s admirable that the dub at least retains the Japanese names. Imagine if Satsuki introduced herself as “Mary Sue Jefferson.” Although John Lasseter isn’t credited for the 2006 re-dub of the film, it’s likely his fanboy worship of Miyazaki’s oeuvre helped in the superior work by an impressive American voice cast. I’ll be discussing the 2006 English-dub since that’s the one I experienced with my daughter, although that’s not meant to take away from the excellent performances of the original Japanese voice cast. I had read about Lasseter’s involvement in the dubbing for Miyazaki’s masterpiece, Spirited Away (2001). The dub had been carefully orchestrated to match the character’s lip movements as much as possible. The same care seems to have been taken here as it’s very rare to notice the character’s dialogue not quite matching up with their mouth movements.
After the oddly surreal but bouncy opening credits, we see a heavily-loaded moving truck making its way along the countryside through farmland. Miyazaki’s style is painterly, like watercolors. A recurring motif in much of Miyazaki’s work involves a young protagonist, often a girl, journeying to a new place. Such examples include Spirited Away, whose many familiar touches indicate that it’s a spiritual sequel to Totoro, but also Kiki’s Delivery Service, where a young witch-in-training must go it alone in an unfamiliar town. As the girls arrive at their new and pretty run-down home, they remark that it’s creepy and possibly haunted. What’s refreshing is they absolutely love that aspect of the house. Other films would have taken a more cautious approach, having the girls reluctantly agreeing to stay despite their misgivings. There are so many well-observed moments between the siblings, including their constant yelling at peculiar forces to establish a dominance that’s essentially missing from a child’s personality. Opening a back door, a mass of tiny black creatures, who will later be referred to as both soot gremlins and soot spirits immediately scramble, admittedly like roaches, upon being exposed to light. They’d show up years later as Kamaji's servants in Spirited Away. They tell their father about the little creatures, who explains them away as those dots of light one can see when quickly going from light to darkness, and vice versa. Their father is a kind and wise man, who indulges in the girls’ flights of fancy rather than begrudging them.
An elderly woman, who cleans the house and enjoys being called Granny, says she too used to see the soot sprites when she was very young, lending to the credence that what Satsuki and Mei see is based on a child’s belief in the unknown and magical, a trait which fades with the transition into adulthood. While Satsuki is a thoughtful and caring older sister, Mei is a little four-year-old spitfire. Amazingly, her occasionally obstinate and difficult behavior never veers into the bratty territory. She’s merely a little girl who has trouble reconciling the new and complex emotions she’s feeling.
In the only odd scene, the girls and their dad share a bath. Culturally, I’m certain there is absolutely nothing strange about this part and it’s really not a big deal. It just feels a little surprising and the way it’s drawn and animated, although it never reveals any nudity, is still pretty realistic, and therefore, slightly off-putting. The next morning, there’s a knowing shot where Satsuki and her dad are sleeping comfortably under their sheets, while Mei is twisted around, half exposed from under her blankets. It’s a very normal occurrence that I’m sure many fellow parents nodded at in approval.
Satsuki prepares an impressive, Bento box-style lunch for Mei and her dad, then heads off for school. While their dad works on some papers, Mei wanders around, playing. Again, very well-observed moments here. She picks some flowers and puts them on his desk, informing him that he’ll be the flower shop. I’ll often be working and my daughter will do something similar, not bothering me, per se, just letting me know I’m part of her playtime in some small way. The girls have been seeing acorns throughout the house and then she spies two small wood spirits carrying a sack of them. She gives chase and follows them through a wooded tunnel, where she tumbles down a hole and into the dwelling of the titular Totoro.
Totoro is a massive creature. My daughter refers to him as a giant rabbit. I’d go farther and say he also has the characteristics of a cat, a dog, and maybe even an owl and a raccoon. In a hilarious, nearly dialogue-free scene, Mei interacts with the sleepy Totoro, who welcomes his new visitor with a slightly puzzled but ultimately accepting attitude. A particularly funny bit is when Mei attempts to match Totoro’s mighty roar, which shocks him. When Satsuki arrives home and finds Mei is missing, she discovers her asleep in the middle of the woods below the gigantic camphor tree which borders their yard. Mei attempts to show her sister and father her new friends, but can’t seem to find them despite running around in circles. Their father explains that they must be Spirits of the Forest and they’ll only be seen if they want to be, hence the two smaller spirits’ translucent abilities. There’s a subtlety to their father’s description of a mystical time when people and trees were friends and they bow down to the giant tree, showing their respect.
While their dad is at work, Satsuki is unexpectedly visited by Mei, who won’t behave for Granny. It’s a classic example of a small child wanting what she wants and absolutely dead set on getting it. The school teacher allows Mei to sit with Satsuki for the remainder of the lesson, where she draws pictures of Totoro. The students adore Mei while Satsuki is slightly embarrassed. As they walk home, they get caught in the rain without an umbrella. Granny’s grandson, Kanta, who is a hard worker but extremely shy around girls, gives them his umbrella, then runs off. They realize their father left his umbrella at home and decide to wait at the bus stop to give it to him. This leads into my favorite scene and a stunning work of sight, sound, and zero words.
As they wait at the station, Totoro unexpectedly arrives. Satsuki hasn’t seen him up until this point, and his reveal is glorious, as we only see his feet from under Satsuki’s umbrella. He has a large leaf on his head, so Satsuki offers him their father’s umbrella. He doesn’t quite get the concept, but then he understands. As large droplets of rain tap the top of the umbrella, the noise pleases him to no end. He leaps into the air and a deluge of droplets crash down, to his delight. The girls think their dad’s bus is coming, but instead, it’s a catbus. No, no, no. Not a CAT bus. A bus...that’s a cat. Resembling the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland, it has twelve legs and a soft, fuzzy body. Mice act as headlights and its interior has furry benches for Totoro to sit on. He takes the umbrella, thanking Satsuki with a gift of nuts and seeds, and the catbus rushes off. In one of the film’s biggest laughs, the camera pans back to the girls, who stare, mouths agape.
Later, the girls plant the seeds but they won’t grow. During the night, Totoro and his friends arrive and pantomime the act of pulling the plants out of the soil. Satsuki and Mei join them and a huge tree bursts forth from the ground. Totoro pulls out a large spinner and hops on it. The girls grab hold and fly through the air with him, another frequent Miyazaki motif. The next morning, the girls see that the small garden has sprouted tiny seedlings. What’s hugely important here is it’s never clear whether this is really happening or if it’s all a dream. It’s not a question of real or unreal, or even whether this is magical realism. It’s a mystery that’s never solved nor should it be.
A telegram arrives, informing them that their ailing mother, who it’s been deduced by historians is suffering from tuberculosis much like Miyazaki’s own mother did, isn’t doing well. They need to contact their father. Mei, who carries a fresh ear of corn which she was hoping to give her mother, gets extremely tired and cranky from all of the running around, and she has a massive fight with Satsuki. Her older sister, always the calm one, shouts at the little girl, asking if she wants their mother to die. It’s an intense and deeply sad scene where you sympathize with both of them for the tragedy that’s befallen their family. The film, which up until this point has remained light and bright, takes a very sad turn, which makes the fear and anxiety of what happens next all the more suspenseful.
Mei wanders off while Satsuki sullenly broods. Unable to find Mei, she goes looking for her, eventually roping the entire town into the search. At one point, they find a single shoe in the pond. For one terrifying moment, Granny believes the little girl has drowned. As the sun goes down, Satsuki is getting more and more desperate. Genius composer Joe Hisaishi, who has written the music for nearly all of Miyazaki’s films, provides the wonderful score. Throughout the film, the music has accentuated the excitement the girls feel about all of their new experiences. Here, the score nearly drops out completely, a clever and jarring choice which causes the search for Mei to be full of tension and even a little scary.
Out of ideas, Satsuki asks for help from the Spirits of the Forest and she finds Totoro within the woods. He takes her up to the top of the camphor tree and lets out a massive roar. The catbus arrives and Mei’s name appears on its destination sign. Satsuki hangs on tight as it rushes through the countryside, unseen by anyone else. It finds Mei and, after giving it a little kiss on the nose, takes them to the hospital, where they see their father with their mother, who is doing a little better. For a moment she sees the two girls in the tree, but she assumes it was her imagination. And yet, right on her windowsill, they find Mei’s corncob with “For Mommy” carved into the leaf. Wow, is this sweet or what? Granny gives Mei a huge hug and Satsuki and Kanta engage in real conversation, at last. Still frame end credits show their mother returning home and the girls enjoying their new lives in this magical place.
Dakota and Elle Fanning voice Satsuki and Mei, respectively. There are adorable pictures of them recording their scenes together and their rapport and chemistry are a large reason the English-dub works so well here. Tim Daly, who is Glenn Quagmire’s favorite actor “I love Wings!” brings just the right level of kindness and humor to his role as Mei and Satsuki’s father. Legendary Tony winner Lea Salonga has a gentility that’s just right for the mother role. Granny, a name which will also reappear in Spirited Away, is voiced by the brilliant Pat Carroll, whom most audiences know as the evil Ursula in The Little Mermaid (1989), but let’s not forget her spectacular work on two Garfield specials. “Stand back, Garfield! This, is WAR!” and “I’m eatin’ for two now, dear.”
My Neighbor Totoro is heartwarming and one of the rare films that can truly evoke a sense of childlike wonder in the viewer. The immaculate artwork and flawless storytelling are so deceptively simple that one doesn’t even realize how emotionally complex these characters are. Thanks to Hayao Miyazaki’s deft touch, there’s never a sense of pandering or a forced emotional response. It feels real because, though animated, it is real. Even the fantastical elements are, in their own way, real.