Monday, May 14, 2012

My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

Japanese animation, or anime, is, in my opinion, the greatest form of animation ever. Anime is much more detailed, vivid, creative, and even, at times, edgier than traditional American animation. It entraces me every time I watch it. In my opinion, the best example of entrancing anime (although, this statement is subject to change if I watch more anime) is the whimsical, gentle, and delightful 1988 film, My Neighbor Totoro.

The story revolves around two joyful and enthusiastic little girls, Satsuke and Mei, who move to a new house with their father, while their mother is in the hospital. However, it turns out that this is no ordinary house as they find little magical dust balls called soot sprites inhabiting inside. Eventually, the girls discover that this house is in a magical forest that is inhabited by mystical creatures called Totoros. The main Totoro the girls befriend is O Totoro, who is the king of the forest, who leads them on a series of wonderments.

I was surprised how intelligent the story was. It is way more so than any other Disney-Pixar film. What I love about the story is when the kids tell their dad about these strange sightings. He goes to check on them and they are nowhere to be found. In American films, the parent would laugh it off and the kids would desperately try to convince him throughout the film, until the dad cracks and sees in great astonishment that his kids were right. In this movie, he is already convinced and encourages his kids.

Another situation they handle well in this movie is how a boy named Kanta begins to develop feelings for Satsuke. Of course, like in any movie, they tease each other. However, in an American film, the boy would be trying to flirt with her or be all goofy or he’d be blushing, to where in the end, he would either be going out with her or it would be suggested that he would be going out with her. In this film, the fear and desperation is really captured. He sees her and runs away (usually, women run away from me just because). They eventually become closer, but it is never stated that if they ever start dating. As far as we know, they could be living a Revolutionary Road-type marriage. This clearly shows now only the intelligence of the filmmakers, but also the fact that they tried hard to make a film that doesn’t patronize kids or doesn’t just pander to them without any actual depth inside.

The movie is whimsical, right down to the score, which is childish, but yet has elegance in it. I even liked the closing song which combines Chinese melodies with 80s pop. Also, for a movie with such surreal creatures, the movie is surprisingly subtle. All of these creatures are in the movie, but they are never shoved in your face. They kind of enter and establish their place in the story, instead of suffocating it. Because of this, there is actually a lot of build-up for certain things to happen, which I find refreshing. 

I, also, like the way the movie combines surreal images, quiet, atmospheric scenes, and even some moments of gentle, human comedy. I, also, love that this movie is all about bewilderment and has very little conflict. There is barely any drama until after the first hour or so. Some may find it boring, but I find it ingenious. Sometimes, life is all about whimsy and happiness.

The characters in the film are great. Satsuke and Mei are two of the most lovable child leads in all of cinema. They look at the world with intense excitement and curiosity. I favor towards Mei. Not just because she is so damn adorable, but her character, for a five-year-old, is surprisingly brave, kind of like a female Tommy Pickles from Rugrats. She approaches any situation with humor and courage. Also, a character that caught me off guard as in how much I genuinely loved him was the father. In American children’s films, fathers are usually the workers, the fuddy-duddies. Here, the father shares the same bewilderment as his children. He’s joyful and enthusiastic, to the point where we share his enthusiasm.

I saw the English dub version of this. I’m pretty sure it’s the 1993 dub. I am aware that another dub of the film was released in 2005. Either way, the voices are dubbed perfectly. I, actually, am 85% sure it’s the 1993 dub, because it says that Cheryl Chase voiced Mei and echoes of her Angelica Pickles character (my last Rugrats reference, I promise) was heard in Mei. 

However, the real star of the film is the animation. I think everything I said about anime in general pertains here, too. I am just astonished, though, in how detailed and alive the animation is. I, also, love the creativity in the animation. Not just of Totoro, but of other creatures, especially the Catbus. The film was directed by Hayao Miyazaki, the man responsible for nearly half of the anime in the world, who really has a specific vision and must really push his animators for his vision to be shown as flawless as it is. I love his audacity, his inventiveness, and his ability to think outside of the box while pushing the envelope. Seriously, who would ever think of a Catbus?

Also, the main reason why I love this film more than past anime films I’ve seen, such as Howl’s Moving Castle and Castle in the Sky, is because while this introduced a technical achievement as those two films I mentioned did as well, Totoro has emotion and we feel a deeper connection with him than a castle. In fact, this whole movie has a gigantic heart, so much so that I could actually pay attention to the story and characters, more so than the animation. However, maybe it’s my perverse, gutter-stained mind, but my only gripe with the film is a scene where the father and daughters are bathing in a tub together. Maybe it’s just me, but I found that moment unsettling and a little creepy. However, that’s barely a complaint because everything else towers over that.

On a scale of zero to four stars, My Neighbor Totoro gets four stars! If you are a fan of anime, definitely seek this film out. If you’re not a fan of anime, don’t read my reviews anymore.

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