Movie Review: My Neighbor Totoro

We’re still (slowly) making our way through the movie list I made for Daniela back in the early days of the pandemic. (Though come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve seen the actual piece of paper kicking around anywhere. I wonder if she’s still got it.) MC noticed that some of them were cartoons, and so she’s been campaigning to watch those for the last while. We watched Howl’s Moving Castle, followed by Spirited Away, and last night we finally watched My Neighbor Totoro. This is my first time watching these Miyazaki movies, and it’s been an interesting experience.

First of all, it’s been fun to see what fantasy looks like from a foreign perspective. I am not well-versed in Japanese culture and lore, so it’s certainly possible Miyazaki is drawing on well-known tropes for his films, but I’ve found them all to be unique and interesting. Totoro is no exception. Even describing the plot comes across as different and foreign. Two sisters move into a mysterious new house with their father. They meed the neighbors, both human and fantastical. Adventures ensue.

What I mean is the plot doesn’t really follow any pattern you’d find in a typical American-made movie. That’s not a complaint, mind you, but it does mean you need to watch the film with an open mind and not get impatient. The pacing is different. The approach to conflict is different. To me, that all adds to the appeal of the movie. The way it portrays a culture and worldview so different to what I’m used to. It’s especially good for fantasy, since it made me realize how often I assume the tropes I’m familiar with are the ones other cultures would use. Fantasy supposedly lets us see what other place and peoples are like, but almost all of those places and peoples and creatures and whatnot end up coincidentally following the same tropes Americans have been using for years.

(Case in point that’s more immediate to me: back when I was researching Vodnik, I was surprised how often Denisa would describe what things were like in her folktales in Slovakia, and they just made no sense to me at all. Vodniks are water spirits that are friendly, but they also will drown you and store your soul in a teacup. It feels like a dissonance to me, simply because I didn’t grow up with that story baked into my upbringing, if that makes sense.)

My Neighbor Totoro is a beautiful movie. The animation is fantastic, as with all of Miyazaki’s films. The soundtrack is a blast. What was not so good was the dubbing. We were watching this on HBO Max, and I didn’t realize until after we’d already finished the movie that it was possible to watch it in the original Japanese, so we saw the whole thing with the 2006 Disney dubbing version. It left a whole lot to be desired for me. The song lyrics felt really clunky, the dialogue stilted, and I think that all added up to the whole film feeling off. When I went back and turned on the original Japanese and watched some scenes, they worked much, much better. The voices fit the characters more completely. It was as if someone was over-describing the movie to me the whole time, filling in every little blank for me. I like it more when I can fill my own blanks in instead, thanks very much. Lesson most definitely learned.

(For example, there’s a scene in the movie where the sisters are at their new house. The father tells them to go inside, and then adds “don’t forget to take off your shoes.” The sisters leave their shoes on, but walk through the house on their knees instead, never letting their feet touch the floor. In the non-dubbed version, the father doesn’t say anything about taking off their shoes. They just know that’s what they’re supposed to do, and so they use their knee-walking as a natural way to get around it. The dubbed in extra line explains things for people who need everything spoon fed to them, but do that again and again over the whole movie, and it can mess the entire thing up.)

Overall, the whole family enjoyed the movie. It’s rated G, and it was intriguing from beginning to end. I imagine it would be better on a second or third viewing, once the unfamiliar storytelling conventions are more expected. Overall, I gave it an 8/10, which is probably lower than it deserves, and also likely lower than I would have given it had I watched the whole thing in Japanese. Those translation issues can really throw a wrench in the works . . .


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