My Neighbor Totoro, while being one of Studio Ghibli's most important films, is also director Hayao Miyazaki's most universally iconic. Riding off the success of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984) and Castle in the Sky (1986), Miyazaki decided to take a leap of faith and do something that would hit a little closer to home for him. Studio Ghibli's two previous films had garnered their success by playing to the public desires of animation at the time; magic, fantasy and futuristic plots and themes were extremely popular in Japan, and it was thought that anything else would prove to be a failure. But My Neighbor Totoro proved to be everything but a failure, eventually becoming a globally recognized figure, and being adopted by Studio Ghibli as their logo/mascot.
Originally released in 1988, it actually took 10 years for Miyazaki to fully develop the story, while still making changes halfway through production. The idea for the film came during a time when Miyazaki was most unhappy about his career. He had just been offered to do a children's show on a Japanese television network, but he knew if he accepted, he would be giving up his own artistry and point of view. So, instead, he began writing what he thought would be a children's book, which ended up being a life-changing story.
Set in 1958 rural Japan, My Neighbor Totoro follows two sisters, Mei and Satsuki, who have just moved in to their new home along with their father Tatsuo in order to be closer to the hospital where their mother is recovering from a long term illness. Mei and Satsuki soon discover that their house, and the surrounding forest is inhabited by both soot sprites, and mysterious spirits. After everyone gets settled into the new house, Satsuki goes off to school, and Tatsuo stays home with the youngest daughter Mei. As Tatsuo buries his head in his books, hard at work, Mei discovers a little white, translucent creature that she follows into the forest. Soon, Mei meets a slightly larger creature, and then, the largest of them all: Totoro, the spirit of the forest.
The film itself, is an amazing work of art. Everything from the natural colour palate, to the distinct character designs read classic Studio Ghibli. Even the lay out of the story reads like most Studio Ghibli films; the story unfolds at an easy pace, setting up the type of adventure you are about to embark on. The first half of the film, lovingly focuses on the relationship of the two sisters, Mei and Satsuki. While it is evident that they have a mutual bond that most sisters can only dream of, and both share in the delights of discovery and play, they also share in their feelings of fear and anger due to their mother's illness. As they try to cope as best they can, it is the complexity of these emotions and situations that reel you in.
The most wonderful part of the story is Totoro's purpose. He is not simply a giant, fluffy, awesome creature that serves as a distraction. He actually serves the purpose of aiding the girls with their troubles emotionally, and by actively helping them find each other. Through simple acts of friendship and endearment, Totoro helps keep the girls hopeful, and enchanted with the simple things their surroundings have to offer. This is where the film is its strongest. While most animated features tend to keep their themes understated, My Neighbor Totoro chooses to keep them out and in the open. The film isn't simply a coming-of-age story, or a fantastical adventure, it is about the responsibility we have for each other, as well as our surroundings, and our environment.
The features, though limited, are pretty great. For the animation lover they have complete storyboards on the entire film, while they also have mini featurettes on the music (which is awesome) and the English dub process with Dakota Fanning and Elle Fanning. The best part for me was watching the featurette on how Studio Ghibli has continued to be a responsible film studio by contributing to positive environmental efforts in Japan.
The Blu-ray package itself is exactly the quality you would expect from Studio Ghibli. The audio quality is crisp and alive with all of the wonderful sound effects that add to the story, and the picture fills the screen with it's lovely mix of animation and color.
Though this is a wonderful film that should be experienced by all, it doesn't necessarily work on the small screen. It is truly a film that needs to be experienced in 35mm at a theatre, so that it may immerse you in it's innocent, fantastical nature. But I understand that is not possible for everyone as they only screen Studio Ghibli films on rare occasions in theatres. And for that reason, I definitely suggest if you can't get to a theatre, get the Blu-ray, or plan a trip to your nearest Studio Ghibli festival.
Picture Quality: 10/10
Sound Quality: 10/10
Bonus Features: 8/10
Overall Blu-ray Package: 9/10