It’s the late 1950s and Kurosawa family has just moved in to a rural farm community near Tokyo called Tokorozawa, the mother has to be treated to a nearby hospital. The two daughters, four year old Mei and eleven year old Setsuki, slowly start to notice that the forest they live next to is not all what it seems. Upon finding the large creature of the forest, calling it Totoro, and as well as other bizarre and mystical creatures, turns Mei’s and Satsuki’s simple move into the countryside into an experience they’ll never forget.
As mentioned in my review on Grave of the Fireflies, the ideas behind this film was treated as Miyazaki’s next big film. When it was initially rejected by Tokuma, possibly because it was a completely original idea but mostly due to it being set in the post-war period, it was then green-lighted along with Grave of the Fireflies as a double feature. Miyazaki wrote and directed, Toru Hara produced, and Joe Hisaishi composed the soundtrack.
An interesting thing to add is that sections of this story are almost accurately based on a part of Miyazaki’s childhood. His mother was diagnosed with Spinal Tuburculosis in 1947, and his family had to move frequently so she could be treated until 1955. He also does live in Tokorozawa City and has admitted that during production, the film was supposed to be set in 1955, but the team didn’t really put effort into research.
One huge change in the film was that Mei and Satsuki was meant to be one young girl in early concepts, which even got onto the original film poster. The film was later released in cinemas in 1988.
The film’s art style focuses more on nature, even more than Nausicaa, with a large variety of greens and light browns. Nature is also taken to a lot of detail in the animation, with almost no scene being entirely still.
Another point about the animation and art style is that the film was definitely made for young kids in mind, since it shows brighter environments than Grave of the Fireflies, but uses fewer frames since it doesn’t go into over detail and realism. It isn’t really a step down since it still has the greatly high animation standard, which is impressive since this was Studio Ghibli in the 1980s, and since they were making a double feature, they possibly had half the normal amount of animators working on each film. Even with this, there is a lot of movement in Totoro while still keeping a sense of realism.
If there is one thing you should definitely re-watch this film for, it is the soundtrack. While I have credited Laputa’s brilliant soundtrack, I think this is Joe Hisaishi’s best score, whether that can be debatable or not. It’s very light hearted, entertaining, mystical and extremely memorable, so memorable that you’ll end up humming the main theme whenever Hayao Miyazaki or Studio Ghibli will be brought up.
This was also the first Studio Ghibli film to have vocals in their songs; both the opening and ending themes were sung by Azumi Inoue (Sonya Isaacs in Disney’s English Dub) and composed by Joe Hisaishi. Versions of the songs are evenly good, the songs are uplifting and memorable, and the singers put energy into their vocals, so you really can choose either and it doesn’t matter.
Whenever I see this film I almost always watch it in the original Japanese dub, but sadly I can’t really place a reason myself, the cast is really good and Shigesato Itoi (creator of the Earthbound series) as the father is always a fact that sticks in my head. Streamline first created an English dub back in 1993, and from what I’ve heard, it’s OK but it’s not worth searching for unless you are really curious. The dub produced by Disney is far better, mainly due to the casting decisions, like having real life sisters Elle and Dakota Fanning as Mei and Satsuki. Other actors such as Timothy Daly as the father and Lea Salonga as the mother put a lot of effort into their characters.
One criticism I rarely hear about the story is that for a film called My Neighbour Totoro, Totoro doesn’t appear much in it, and isn’t the focus of the plot. Unfortunately that is true, but the upside is that every scene Totoro is in isn’t a waste. The film also tries to add drama which does work, it’s not overly depressing drama so it can transition with the uplifting scenes, because remember, this was made for kids in mind, and they don’t need Disney’s method of kids material all the time.
My Neighbour Totoro is available from Disney and Optimum Releasing. The Streamline dub was available from 20th Century Fox, but since losing the license to Walt Disney in 2004, it’s out of print. A novelization written by Tsugiko Kubo which explains some of the back story in greater detail has not been released in English.