The discovery of a new world may be the key motif of fantasy fiction, whether it's a Wonderland, a Middle Earth, or a Galaxy Far, Far Away. But there are few occasions in an ordinary child's life fraught with more excitement and dread than moving into a new home, itself a pint-sized new world to explore. Just look at the number of fantasy stories built around the idea: A Little Princess, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Pan's Labyrinth, Coraline. Unlike these, though, which still adhere to Manichaean good vs. evil conventions and feature terrifying villains, Hayao Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro shuns an archplot almost entirely, and is all the greater for it. An almost perfect merging of fantasy with everyday domesticity, Totoro strips the "moving to a new home" conceit to its barest essentials.
Satsuki and Mei are moving to a house in the countryside with their doting father, an archaeology professor. Their mother is confined to a hospital because of an unspecified illness. The two girls explore their unfamiliar surroundings and meet new friends, like an elderly rice planter they affectionately call "Granny," a shy boy who's too scared around girls to even speak, and, above all, a gentle forest spirit named Totoro. Throughout it all, there's never a villain raining contrived terror upon these characters' lives or any scenes of artificial peril whatsoever. There are no witches, sorcerers, dragons, or, worst of all, evil stepsisters. Totoro himself, while large, imposing, and frequently belting out a fearsome roar, is never presented as anything short of affectionate. Even the classic children's fantasy story paradigm, of an endangered parent, in this case Satsuki and Mei's ailing mother, is an opportunity for Miyazaki to explore the powerful love that binds this family together. The closest thing to a conventional "goal" Satsuki and Mei have is to give their mother an ear of corn from Granny's garden, which they believe will cure her.
Aside from the fantastical appearances from Totoro and a giant cat who turns into a bus, Totoro is essentially the animated equivalent of a Yasujiro Ozu film. Like Ozu, Miyazaki shows his characters performing routine tasks: hanging laundry, chopping vegetables, taking baths. His animation style is also appropriately restrained. Although he later uses CGI in Spirited Away to simulate complex tracking shots, here Miyazaki focuses on composition within a static frame, making each "shot" look like a bucolic painting. And like Ozu, he often frames his characters according to the eye level of someone sitting on a tatami mat. Although one may associate Japanese anime with bright colors and relatively low contrast between light and dark tones, Miyazaki enhances the painterly effect of Totoro by simulating strong key lighting, especially during the wondrous scene where Satsuki and Mei first meet Totoro under a streetlamp in the rain.
It's here where he parts with Ozu, because in Totoro and many of his other films, Miyazaki has proven himself to be one of the cinema's premiere landscape artists, alongside Ford, Kurosawa, and Tarkovsky. In Totoro, he animates wind and rain with an earthy kineticism, just as he does the churning seas in Ponyo or the dense forests in Spirited Away. No wonder ecological awareness is a recurring theme in his work, and he sums up his appreciation for the natural world so poetically when Satsuki, Mei, and their father bow before a giant camphor tree near their home and say to it, "Thank you for watching over Mei and making us feel so welcome here. Please continue to look after us." Far be it for us to indulge in the kind of kneejerk binary distinctions that would automatically elevate Miyazaki over our own stateside tradition of animation, but really, when's the last time you've seen a moment like that in any American animated film?
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Disney has truly outdone itself with this DVD transfer of My Neighbor Totoro, released simultaneously with Castle in the Sky, Kiki's Delivery Service, and Ponyo. They've included both the original Japanese-language track and a new English-language dub featuring the voice talents of Tim Daly, Dakota Fanning, Elle Fanning, and Lea Salonga. The soundtrack of any Miyazaki film is every bit as important as its images, as it creates a sense of the continuity of his worlds beyond the edge of the frame, and the Dolby sound transfer captures every last footstep, raindrop, gust of wind, and intake of breath. Totoro's powerful, rumbling snore has never sounded quite this resonant before. The image transfer suits both the brightly animated out-of-doors daytime scenes and the darker scenes at twilight and during a thunderstorm. Miyazaki's high-contrast, contextual lighting effects hold up without any artifacting whatsoever.
Unfortunately, this disc doesn't feature an introduction by Disney Animation head John Lasseter, who previously filmed an intro to Spirited Away and has fought the hardest for Disney to distribute Miyazaki's films in America. The most notable standout among the extras here is a feature-length presentation of Miyazaki's original Totoro storyboards, accompanied to the complete English-language soundtrack. It's useful for animation aficionados, especially those interested in exactly how much of the film Miyazaki animated himself, but wouldn't appeal much to the casual fan. A number of relatively uninformative two-to-three-minute featurettes explore Miyazaki's initial vision of Totoro as a children's book before deciding to turn it into a film, the inspiration for the characters, the film's success on Japanese television after flopping in theaters, the creation of Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki's long-running collaboration with composer Joe Hisaishi, and the hiring of English-speaking voice actors for the American DVD release. And following in the footsteps of previous Disney DVD releases, there's a "What Character Are You?" game in which I happily learned I most closely resemble the Cat Bus.
Miyazaki's cinematic magic is so enchanting that even a slew of unremarkable extra features won't take the smile off your face.