REVIEW: Ghibli Fest 2023, Screening One – My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

A Film directed by Hayao Miyazaki

This past weekend, I had the immense pleasure of attending a showing of Studio Ghibli’s masterpiece of children’s cinema, My Neighbor Totoro, as part of their yearly Ghibli Fest series of theatrical re-releases through Fathom Events. I am not certain which theater chains carry Fathom Events programming, but the AMC Theaters in my area definitely do. I was astonished to see that there were MULTIPLE DAYS I could choose for showings versus the typical single showing at 6:00 o’clock on a Thursday evening that my area usually gets. I mean, I work Monday through Friday, and hate taking off just to see a movie, so a lot of these special showings end up being missed unfortunately. I was able to see the film on a quiet Sunday afternoon with my son, which was pretty awesome. It was important for me to take my son to this film as well as I wanted to share with him a film that I consider very near and dear to myself. My Neighbor Totoro is one of my favorite animated films of all time, if not one of my outright favorite films of all time. Considering that he has now watched the movie three times since Sunday at our house, it appears that he enjoyed it a lot. Unfortunately, as I am posting this, there is only one more day left to see the film, but with any luck most fans already know about this.

“Critically acclaimed as one of the most delightful and charming family films ever, MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO is a stunning animated treat full of magical adventure from Hayao Miyazaki. Follow the adventures of Satsuki and her four-year-old sister Mei when they move into a new home in the countryside. To their delight, they discover that their new neighbor is a mysterious forest spirit called Totoro, who can be seen only through the eyes of a child. Totoro introduces them to extraordinary characters — including a cat that doubles as a bus! — and takes them on an incredible journey. MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO is a magical experience for the whole family!”

Ghibli Fest is going to be running approximately one showing a month for what appears to be the next ten months, with the big draw this year being a stage production of the Oscar award-winning Hayao Miyazaki film Spirited Away. This year, it appears that they are concentrating on the works of Hayao Miyazaki and are showing most of his big theatrical productions with the exception being his Lupin III film The Castle of Cagliostro not being shown for the obvious reason that it was made prior to the formation of Studio Ghibli. For someone wanting to experience why Hayao Miyazaki Is such a well-regarded filmmaker, this series would be an excellent way to enjoy his films on a large screen. Come to think of it, I think the only one of his films I actually was able to see first-run was his 2009 take on the classic Little Mermaid story, Ponyo. I was able to see one more Studio Ghibli film, Arrietty, in the theater, but for one day only something like six months past its original release date. Throughout this year, stay tuned for more articles on this series because if scheduling and health permits, I plan to attend every single one of these showings. Sure, I could easily jump over to HBO Max and play every single one of these back-to-back (minus the stage play) or play my numerous DVDs that I already own, but there’s just something about seeing them in a movie theater that I feel trumps any home theater experience I could have.

“For decades Studio Ghibli has created breathtakingly beautiful movies that have captivated and inspired audiences for generations through masterful storytelling and stunning visuals. Join GKIDS and Fathom Events for the annual Studio Ghibli Fest to experience the wonder of these groundbreaking, beloved animated films.”

For more information on this series of showings CLICK HERE

This is going to be somewhat of an atypical review because I feel that rather than just review the film My Neighbor Totoro, I am going to talk about both the film and the experience I had with the special showing. This includes attendance and any sort of special features included in the showing. A long time ago I did something similiar with a review of the Doctor Who 50th anniversary special, and wanted to kind of do that again. Most of the time when films are brought over in this manner, they include some sort of special message to fans or a snippet of documentary footage that helps make the film somewhat special. Apparently, they have chopped up a 2020 documentary called 10 Years with Hayao Miyazaki Into little snippets that they plan to air after each showing. This was pretty interesting, and as I will discuss later, showed where the director was coming from when he made My Neighbor Totoro specifically as well as his “origin story” of sorts. It’s a lot more positive than other documentaries where Miyazaki sadly acts like a bitter curmudgeon the entire time, but that is a topic for a different day! One could tell that the documentary footage was created with a television viewer in mind and the aspect ratio being “off” resulted in some of the subtitles being chopped off. I hope this is taken into account for later showings.

In my opinion the 1988 film My Neighbor Totoro is the perfect children’s movie. You can immediately tell that it is designed and created for a younger audience, but has a timelessness that makes the film watchable by someone of pretty much any age. There was a broad mix of all age groups in the theater during the showing that I attended, with the large majority of the audience being adults that I fully assume had seen the movie in the past and jumped on this showing as a way to finally get to see it in a theater or share it with their families as I was doing. There aren’t too many films like this to which any person of any age can truly enjoy it the same way and Miyazaki is a master of creating films such as this.

My Neighbor Totoro is set sometime in the mid to late 1950s, and somehow is able to imbue a sense of nostalgia for a time period that I was not alive in, in a setting that I live thousands of miles from. Miyazaki sets a lot of his films in this rural post-war Japan time period, So one can definitely tell that he himself uses his own and nostalgia for his childhood as a backdrop for the majority of his artistic works. I draw the distinction between how this movie is presented and paced with how most modern western films are done in that your typical children’s movie made for mass consumption in America or Europe are commercial character-based comedies that lose relevance very quickly due to the film being full of music and jokes that are generally based on the pop culture references relevant at the time of the film’s production. Even a popular film such as Shrek is chocked-full of dated references to movies such as The Matrix that will go right over the heads of children that were not alive at that time.

I’m aware that the same could be said about Looney Tunes Cartoons that were crammed full of political and pop cultural references to golden era Hollywood that I definitely did not understand when I watched them, but there has to be something said about a film so simplistic and devoid of any of that that it can be enjoyed at any time by any person.

I know some will say that My Neighbor Totoro is somewhat overrated in America versus some of Miyazaki’s other films. I think people that have this viewpoint could be saying this because they are not necessarily the target audience for the film or that they enjoy his more action heavy films, But I think you would be hard pressed to find someone that completely slags this off in any way whatsoever. It’s a film that has become so synonymous with the Studio Ghibli style that it is even the basis for the company’s own logo.

My Neighbor Totoro tells the story of two young sisters, Satsuki (voice of Dakota Fanning in the dubbed version) and Mei (voice of Ellie Fanning), as they travel with their father (voice of Tim Daly), an archaeology professor, to stay in an old house in rural Japan. Sayama Hills in western Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture is considered to be the inspiration for the setting, which is now called “Totoro’s Forest” and sports some tourist attractions based on the film. The father is torn between his work as a college professor and raising his children while his wife is in the hospital more than three hours away. The plot dances between a low-key “slice of life” story of this family, and the more fantastical elements of the forest including a large forest guardian named Totoro and his fellow nature spirits. There are many instances where the viewer is challenged as to whether the children’s interactions with the spirits are even happening, but in the end it is revealed with almost no uncertainty that not everything in nature in explainable. Totoro helps the girls keep their minds off of the plight of their mother, who both fear could never come home, through wonderful adventures, and saves the day in the end when Mei, the youngest daughter, attempts to walk to the hospital in a misguided effort to save her mother. While there is a bit of drama and emotional scenes, My Neighbor Totoro is generally very light and whimsical.

I was somewhat surprised by the video and sound quality of the film, but the nature of this being a digital transfer I’m sure this was basically the same data that would be on streaming services like HBO Max. I’ve seen older films that look quite bad in re-release due to the age of the film and a lack of any sort of upscaling, but My Neighbor Totoro almost looks like it could be brand new save the telltale signs of being hand-painted with cel animation.

As stated before, I watched the dubbed version and thankfully it was the largely decent 2006 dub produced by Disney rather than the older Streamline dub from the VHS era. My Neighbor Totoro doesn’t really have tons flowery language or wordplay to work around, so any dub would be a slam dunk assuming that the voice cast was good, and this was easily one of the better Disney Ghibli dubs. I can only think of one spot of a sketchy translation, wherein Mei relays to her sister her discover of Totoro and his magical hideaway in the forest, and Satsuki seems dumbfounded by the name. “Totoro? You mean the troll in our book?” she asks, because the japanese word for “troll” is “Totoru”, thus making Totoro nothing more than a childish mis-pronunciation. The nuance of this flies right over the heads of any English speaker and the line seems clunky and out of place with no context. That said, I’m glad they didn’t fix it by calling him “Trolly” or something, as most dub houses would sometimes do in the past.

I alluded to the fact that one of the more important parts of the film, the illness of the mother, is partially autobiographical, a fact learned in the “special features” documentary after the film. When Hayao Miyazaki and his brothers were children, his mother suffered from a debilitating case of spinal tuberculosis and spent much of her time hospitalized. It is implied, however never revealed, that Satsuki and Mei’s mother also suffers from tuberculosis as she is shown with similar symptoms. The girls’ powerlessness and hopelessness in the face of the situation appear to mirror Miyazaki’s own as it is said he once broke down after asking his bed-ridden mother for a piggy-back ride that she had to refuse. He craved his mother’s love as Mei does in the film with her mother and was largely separated from her throughout his life. It’s a sad story that likely made him the man he was, in that he is somewhat bitter and wants to keep to himself, despite making wonderful films to make others happy.

So the question is: why do I get emotional from watching the film, and why is it so important to me? I first watched this film in college in a time I would almost consider one of my more happier moments – when I started going to anime club meetings and largely didn’t have too many cares in the world aside from studies. I suffer from depression at times, and have lost my own mother, so My Neighbor Totoro does a double whammy of making me think of a great time in my past as well as reminding me about my mother’s illness and subsequent death. Yeah, it’s a kids film, but there are not too many films that touch me in the way it does. I’m not going to lie, I teared up watching this and won’t even try to hide it.

So, the question stands, is it worth seeing this as a Fathom Events feature? For me, yes as seeing it in a theater is a special event and well worth the price, but for others possibly not due to the fact that the special features can be easily watched in their full-length documentary form and a technical issue resulted in them not being easy to see in my showing. The film did have perks of us not having to sit through endless previews or anything so that was a plus. So it really comes down to how much you want the theater experience.

Overall, I was over the moon seeing Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro in the theater. It’s an amazing film, and should be seen by any anime fan. Words cannot describe how happy this showing made me, and how happy I was to see my son so excited. As I said, it’s basically a perfect children’s film, and basically outclasses any big budget kid’s film today for many reasons. I can’t wait to continue watching these releases every month, and am so glad they are available at my local theaters! If you are reading this before 3-29-23, there is still ONE DAY to attend a screening, so do yourself a favor and check it out.

Up next is Spirited Away: Live on Stage

“Hayao Miyazaki’s Academy Award-winning animated feature film comes to life in this first-ever stage adaptation, full of dazzling sets, captivating musical numbers, and wondrous puppets of beloved characters. Filmed during its acclaimed 2022 run at Tokyo’s historic Imperial Theatre, adapted and directed by Tony Award-winner John Caird (Les Misérables), features Kanna Hashimoto as Chihiro on April 23 and Mone Kamishiraishi as Chihiro April 27, and is screened for the first time in America as part of Studio Ghibli Fest 2023.”



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