Friday, August 7, 2009

"My Neighbor Totoro"

I know most everyone has already seen this 1988 film, but I just watched it for the first time and loved it!

I could not stand the dubbed over version I started out with - a very young Dakota Fanning and her sister (younger still?) with a sharp toned flat California way of saying "TOAD-aro"....switched to Japanese with subtitles: much better.

The story has a poignant realism rare for Disney subsidized projects (Disney bought the rights for American distribution and made the changes). A family in which the mother is seriously ill and in a convalescent home, the father is an absent-minded professor and kind but a bit distant, and the two girls are feeling the effects of a sudden move to the countryside & life without mom.

The house they are renting is dilapidated and full of 'soot sprites', odd little black asterisk looking supernatural beings who leave at once as soon as the family gives signs of happiness - laughing together.

Enter Totoro, whose name is the mispronounced Japanese word for 'troll', since the littlest daughter can barely talk yet - even though dad lets her wander around unsupervised all day and she gets badly lost twice during the film. She wanders off and meets Totoro asleep under a gigantic camphor tree.

She falls asleep on his big soft belly, and is not missed until her sister comes home from school and goes looking for her. Sis had made them all bento lunches that morning!

Totoro gradually becomes a friend to the family, at least to the two girls. In gratitude for the gift of an umbrella,

...Totoro gives the girls a small bag of seeds. There's a wonderful magic dream sequence in which Totoro dances and along with the girls, causes the seeds to grow into a giant oak tree overnight. When the dreaming daughter awakens, the seeds have indeed sprouted.

The countryside is beautiful in a truly dreamlike way. One night scene finds Totoro atop his camphor tree playing a strange round flute in the moonlight. Eerie and magical.

The younger daughter decides to walk to the hospital to visit mom, and becomes completely lost. Totoro to the rescue, and with the help of a strangely psychedelic giant cat bus, the girls are able to visit mother in the hospital and hope for the future is established.

The seriousness of the mother's illness is never questioned, and given the 1950's time setting I had to wonder if it was war-related. My husband was shocked beyond belief at one scene where dad and both daughters are in a soaking tub naked together. The dad is very sweet but he is really letting the girls take care of themselves; hard to say whether this is a cultural difference of the time or a peculiar fact about their individual family.

The movie has a lovely air about it, a soft touch of magic and sorrow and hope that I really liked. It is left open whether Totoro might just be a comforting fantasy; but his kindness is real enough and makes you know these two little girls are going to be all right no matter what.

It left me with a strong desire to learn some conversational Japanese; what a beautiful language it is.

ADDED NOTE: Since this movie is old and was popular you can watch it online at numerous sites. Here's one nice quality version with good sound, Japanese dialogue with English subtitles; enjoy!!!:


  1. HA HA HA HA!! NO WAY!!! We are going to turn you into an "otaku" yet! Shhhh, dont tell anyone... but I haven't seen Totoro yet! LOL! I didn't read your post because I didn't want the movie to be spoiled for me.

    LE SIGH!!! I need to buy it but I am saving my pennies at the moment.

  2. Avie: The whole entire movie is available in stream online, even the version with Japanese dialogue and english subtitles!

    Search for it at and one version is from a user named "Death to Dubbing!" and is pretty high quality.

  3. Avie, I couldn't paste the link to the actual film at in these comments so I added it at the end of my post.