Reviews, Studio Ghibli, Studios

Studio Ghibli Countdown: ‘My Neighbor Totoro’

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My Neighbor Totoro, or となりのトトロ, Tonari no Totoro, is the heartwarming story of two sisters, a new home, and a forest spirit.

Released April 1988, My Neighbor Totoro follows the story of two sisters, Satsuki and Mei, and their father, a professor, as they move to a new town to be closer to their mother, who is currently ill in the hospital. The move takes them to a rural home, brimming with mystical and whimsical energy and featuring a particularly majestic tree. In addition to discovering fuzzy little soot sprites, on Satsuki’s first day at school, Mei finds a small acorn-hoarding creature under the house and decides to follow it into the forest, leading her and her sister into a world of charming imagination.

The film is unusual; it stands as one of the only Miyazaki films without war or major conflict. Instead, moving away from darker and larger stories, Miyazaki expands a small, everyday kind of story about a family working to make it through a mother’s illness. Even then, the protagonists’ goals stay simple: the sisters just want their mother home for a weekend. The simplicity and reality of such a story stand as testament to Miyazaki’s storytelling mastery; his ability to portray such a personal story only proves that, while explosive battles and country-altering wars can provide important stories, a situation seemingly so small gives a story that is equally important. The audience here finds a film of deeper personal emotions of the less public conflicts in life.

Totoro had two dubs, one from Streamline in 1993 and one from Disney in 2005 (which was released to TV and DVD in 2006). Miyazaki had a firm hand with Totoro’s dubs, insisting no scenes were edited out, all names remained the same (though Catbus was an exception), the translation be as close to the original Japanese as possible, and nothing of the world was changed to be more agreeable or understandable for the English audience; most specifically, the origin of the name “Totoro” must be explained exactly the same.

Totoro is a forest spirit, also referred to as a troll. As “king of the forest,” he lives in the largest majestic tree, likes naps, travels by spinning top on the wind or via Catbus, and is especially grateful when Satsuki lends him an umbrella for the rain. His design is both adorable and powerful, similar to a large squirrel with a lion’s roar, with such a furry design that the entire audience envied Mei’s nap on his belly. He became an icon for Studio Ghibli, and the film became the most well-known of the studio’s films.

With the film’s growing popularity, it also stands as one of the only Studio Ghibli films to receive a sequel in 2003. Mei and the Kittenbus, or めいとこねこバス Mei to Konekobasu, is a thirteen-minute sequel featuring the offspring of the Catbus and a few other feline vehicles. The short sequel, which featured voice work by Hayao Miyazaki himself as Totoro and Granny Cat, the short film is regularly shown at the Ghibli Museum but has yet to be released on home video. Mei and the Kittenbus was briefly shown in the US in 2006 to coincide with the release of Spirited Away.

Following the Disney release, starring such voices as the Fanning sisters, Pat Carroll, and Lea Salonga, the film found acclaim from critics and international audiences alike, something the Streamline dub didn’t quite achieve. Roger Ebert, noting Miyazaki’s departure from darker themes, wrote, “My Neighbor Totoro is based on experience, situation and exploration—not on conflict and threat.” The result was a truly family-friendly film, tame and pleasant, and a welcoming gateway to the many worlds of Studio Ghibli.

Have you seen My Neighbor Totoro?

Edited by: Kelly Conley

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About Kajsa Rain Forden

Kajsa is a writer from San Francisco, with a BA in English Literature, and a recent Cast Member at the Disney Store in San Francisco. She spends most of her time writing, binge-watching animated movies, and working in social media. With a soft spot for stop-motion, her favorite films are Coraline, Castle In The Sky, and The Thief and the Cobbler (Recobbled). You can find her on Twitter, or Tumblr (and most other social media) @TheKajsaRain, or at Disneyland.

  • Manuel Orozco

    I’ve seen the Disney dub version where the two sisters are voiced by Dakota and Elle Fanning. Totoro has a rare combination of stunning animation, quirky fun and deeply felt splendor!

  • Jeremiah

    Now for eveyrone to start talking about how much they hate this awful movie. *sarcasm* 🙂

    • Manuel Orozco

      I give it 4/5 stars to be honest

      • Jeremiah

        Absolutely with you. Though I might go up to 4.5.

        • Manuel Orozco

          Thanks and Totoro can’t be that awful. I wasn’t expecting better anyway. But it’s still likable enough.

          • Jeremiah

            Again, I was being sarcastic in saying it’s awful. Totoro’s great.

          • Manuel Orozco

            You couldn’t fool me that easily. To be fair, I’m not a big Studio Ghlibli fan but I’ve seen some of their movies. I’ve also seen Kiki’s Delivery Service, Spirited Away and Secret World of Arriety.

  • Ryan Prieto

    I adore Totoro, it is one of my favorite Ghibli films, and one of my favorite animated films of all time. I can’t tell you how many times I have watched this film, just to console my spirit in times of great turbulence. It is a film that is not aimed towards everyone, but carries with it such character and purpose, for those who are drawn to it will find a wealth of content. It always makes me relive those moments of prolonged childhood innocence, that once allowed us all to walk into unfamiliar places looking only for adventure, and magic. If you have yet to see this film give it a try, it is remarkable.

  • Rachel Wagner

    I love Totoro. I kind of think of it as Japan’s answer to Winnie the Pooh

  • I really like Totorro!! I knew I was going to like it just by the opening intro!! Also freaking adore the Totorro song and always seem to think of it when I see something cute lol!
    One of the cutest movies I’ve ever seen ^.^ (and perfect to watch during a lazy summer day 😀 )

    • Ryan Prieto

      So well put Haley. Would love to watch this during summer with an ‘Otter Pop’ in my hand.

  • Phoenix Wright

    This movie is absolutely perfect

  • Marielle

    I love so many scenes, like when they wait at the bus stop in the rain, it’s so funny and iconic, and everything with the cat bus is awesome too, but I sort of dislike the bigger storyline. I think it’s a pretty cheap trick to make us think that the little sister drowns and that the mom dies only to finish it off by revealing it was all fake false alarms.

  • Jon

    I have a problem with any person who has a problem with this movie.

  • Can we all just take a moment and think how this movie gave us one of the best dad’s depicted on the big screen?

  • Jackson Staninger

    I can’t get enough of this film.
    It has the economic and simplicity sophistication of Dumbo and the Iron Giant.
    And It perfectly embodies the thoguhts and perspectives of a child. I can’t think of another movie that does it in quite the same way

  • Jordan Briskin

    Somehow, the world in which the film takes place strikes me as a spiritual amalgam of Sesame Street and the Hundred Acre Wood, a place where everyone’s neighbors look out for each other, and one is always close to nature.

  • Powell Pressburger

    There is a very dark inspiration to this exquisite film: the “Sayama Incident” of 1963 when a young girl was kidnapped for ransom, and killed. He older sister seemed to be traumatised – she found the body – and when asked what she saw, she said “I met a large Tanuki” (looks like a raccoon) and “I saw a cat monster”. This was Sayama in the Saitama Prefecture in Japan. In the film, on the box in Japanese behind the box of crockery is written “Sayama Tea”. The murder happened in May. The youngest child in the movie is called Mei. The oldest sister is called Satsuki, which is another way of saying “the month of May”. The cat bus has as destination in Japanese, Grave Road.

    • Jordan Briskin

      Really?! I had no idea that the film was inspired by those events!

  • Sweetsirhiss

    ” The audience here finds a film of deeper personal emotions of the less public conflicts in life. ” That was so well put 🙂 What a great review!

  • Jon

    Just saw Totoro at my local cinema this past weekend during the first of a series of “Ghibli Fest” movies going on for the next several months. I really really love this movie. And it’s not even my favorite Miyazaki film (that goes to Nausicaa). Totoro is just a good, warm-hearted movie I would recommend to anyone of any age, religion, ethnicity, etc.