UK Blu-ray Review: MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO Will Cuddle You And Make You Feel Warm Inside
(The quite possibly best film of all time, now quite possibly looks better than ever!)
Here at Twitch it's party time whenever Studio Ghibli releases titles from their back catalogue on Blu-ray. So far these releases have been stellar, English-friendly and region free. Unfortunately, they're also bloody expensive.
Thankfully, a few months later these are always followed by European, Australian and American releases. In the past I've written reviews for both the UK Blu-ray releases of Nausicaä and Laputa, and last month we got the UK Blu-ray for My Neighbour Totoro.
This title arriving on the Blu-ray platform has been one of the most anticipated events for me in the past years, because I flat-out love the film and think it is infinitely rewatchable. And I'm not alone in that opinion: when (years ago) we held a poll here at Twitch about the best film ever, My Neighbour Totoro ended in the overall number one spot. I'll try to explain why I think it to be so good in a moment, and then I will review the disc. But first...
First, A Small History Lesson:
In 1984, the financial "success" (non-failure, rather) of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind proved that it was viable for Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata to start their own animation factory, and Studio Ghibli was born. Their official first released feature became Laputa: Castle in the Sky and again it did well enough to pave the way for more films.
But after two apocalyptic science fiction extravaganzas Miyazaki wanted to do something entirely different. For more than a decade he had been designing a dream project about a girl moving from the city to a rural village in 1950's Japan. A gentle family story with emphasis on environmental issues and how children view fantasy. This would become My Neighbour Totoro.
Not surprisingly, investors were shy about putting their money in a project so unlike Miyazaki's two previous films. In the end, the only way Studio Ghibli was able to finance My Neighbour Totoro was by announcing it as a double-bill with Takahata's first film for Studio Ghibli: an adaptation of the popular novel Grave of the Fireflies, thought to be more box-office viable.
Both films were made and released in 1988, separately as well as in a double-bill, and indeed My Neighbour Totoro was the weakest performer. To this day it has been the lowest-grossing Studio Ghibli film when released theatrically despite getting glowing reviews.
All that changed a year later when My Neighbour Totoro was shown on Japanese television for the first time. The film and its characters became immensely popular overnight, with Studio Ghibli receiving literal truckloads of requests for Totoro plush dolls after someone inadvertently had mentioned on the telly that some of these would be made.
It would be the start of a separate flow of income for Studio Ghibli: merchandising. And both My Neighbour Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies started to cement Studio Ghibli's reputation of being truly extraordinarily good at what they were doing, and a safe bet financially as well...
Two young sisters move with their father into an old countryside home, to be closer to their mother who is hospitalized nearby.
After settling in, the nine-year-old Satsuki basically takes command of the household, caring for her four-year-old sister Mei and her father whenever she is not at school.
It's not a life of just drudgery though: both girls are delighted by their new surroundings. The nearby forests contain beautiful giant trees and the house appears haunted by harmless tiny ghosts. Then, one day, Mei walks into the forest and encounters a huge, mysterious yet apparently benign creature whom she calls Totoro...
As with many of my age, Akira and Ghost in the Shell pointed me towards the fact that adult-oriented anime existed which was worth checking out. A few years later I saw Princess Mononoke and was stunned by its scope and magnificence. A good friend with a beamer and some Japanese DVDs showed me more films by Studio Ghibli. When I finally had a region free player of my own I started collecting them, importing the editions from Hong Kong. Even though Totoro was one of the first items arriving, it took years before I sat down to watch it, so off-putting was the (in my mind) sentimental premise. I finally relented because a friend insisted it was very, VERY good and I should check it out.
That first viewing had me and my wife feeling so uplifted that I started showing it to friends and family. Everyone loved it. When my oldest son was two years old it became his favorite film and he asked to see it daily. Here's the thing: during that time I must have seen My Neighbour Totoro in its entirety more than a hundred times, and it never became a drag to watch it. Together with The Terminator this must surely be one of the most infinitely rewatchable films ever made.
The arrival of the Blu-ray prompted a recent rewatching and I was stunned. My own sons are currently aged eight and four, close to the ages of the children in the film. The similarities in the way they move when compared to Satsuki and Mei, the way they communicate with each other, is nothing less than uncanny. I knew Hayao Miyazaki was good at animating children but only now it sinks in just HOW good he is. The care, the silliness, the resentment... it's all there.
And it's the relationship between the two kids which makes this such an unforgettable film. It never feels forced or overdone, there are no theatrical pulling-of-heartstrings and the film never feels over-sentimental or (worse) preachy. Instead you get detailed realism bordering on obsessive nitpicking. Household chores in the rural area are shown with the same weight and attention as the more fantastical scenes with supernatural creatures, and the children treat both as equally wonderful at times because to them the experiences are equally new. It helps that the film constantly looks gorgeous, not just because of the stellar animation but also because of the exquisite background paintings by Oga Kazuo, whose style has become a major influence in the industry since.
Amazingly, My Neighbour Totoro does not contain any story worth speaking of. You get a selection of scenes as loosely fitting together as a sketch-comedy, but instead of inciting laughter the effects are more soothing. The film has an incredible sense of flow and just takes you all the way to the end drifting on a gentle breeze, short as it is.
With his two long science fiction adventures, Hayao Miyazaki proved to the world that he was a force to be reckoned with. But that he, immediately afterwards, was able to make something as compact, solid and fragile as My Neighbour Totoro showed he was a true master. I'm in awe of the man and consider him to be one of the greatest directors still living today. The four films he made after Totoro each prove this mastery, while his two most recent films are still pretty damn fine if you don't start comparing them to his earlier stuff (and even THESE contain inspired moments of utter brilliance).
My Neighbour Totoro also highlighted the talents of composer Joe Hisaishi. He had done the soundtracks for both Nausicaä and Laputa, but with those films Miyazaki wasn't too bothered with music. For Totoro the relationship between the director and the composer became much different, the two having to work together for real for the first time. The end result was the first truly noticeable soundtrack for a Studio Ghibli film and the Hisaishi-Miyazaki collaboration has remained strong ever since.
All in all I just cannot stop loving My Neighbour Totoro: it is that rare kid's film that adults can watch endlessly, or maybe it's an adult film children can enjoy. And I haven't even mentioned the Catbus yet...
On paper it may sound saccharine and lethally sentimental, but My Neighbour Totoro is nothing but wonderful and honest. The characters and the marvelous way their body-language is shown elevate the film high above most (maybe even all) others. I consider My Neighbour Totoro to be one of the absolute best films ever made, animated or otherwise. It is a true classic for all ages. And quite possibly Studio Ghibli's greatest achievement.
On To The Discs:
As the second "U" in the title of this article already suggests, this review is for the UK release by CanalPlus UK, same as with my reviews for the Nausicaä and Laputa Blu-ray releases (although the distributor was still called Optimum at the time). Similar to their other Studio Ghibli titles, this release includes the old region 2 DVD and the new Blu-ray, coded region B-only which means that disc won't work outside of Europe and Australia
The first thing you'll notice when popping in the Blu is the awesome transfer. Like with the other Studio Ghibli catalog titles, CanalPlus UK shows that the company is fond of Digital Noise Removal and has used it copiously again, to the point that nearly all grain is gone. While I am not a fan of removing grain in general, the tinkering has not harmed the look of the film and does not seem to have resulted in loss of detail in the lovely drawings themselves. Color and contrast are fantastic and the film has never looked better on any home edition.
Similarly, the sound is now noticeably clearer than on the DVD editions. Having seen the film countless times on DVD over the past decade, I really had to get used to this new sound but I had to agree in the end that it was MY problem, not the disc's. LPCM 2.0 Stereo English and Japanese soundtracks are on the disc, and the English subtitles are perfect.
Next we get to the extras and here is where things get a bit weird.
As mentioned above, the creation of My Neighbour Totoro is strongly linked with that of Grave of the Fireflies: both films were made in parallel, the Takahata film helped the Miyazaki film get financed, and they were released together as a double-bill. In Japan, they released the Blu-rays for the films on the same day to commemorate this and you could even buy them as a double-pack with an extra booklet, detailing the bond between the two productions.
However, the international rights of Grave of the Fireflies have made it fall out of Studio Ghibli's standard portfolio in most countries, and the United Kingdom apparently is not excepted. Totoro and Grave were announced with the same Blu-ray release date in the UK, but CanalPlus retracted the announcement for Grave of the Fireflies and as of yet we do not have a new release date. My Neighbour Totoro was released by itself. And nowhere in the extras on the Blu-ray any mention is made of Grave of the Fireflies. There are many small making-of documentaries on the disc, each a few minutes long, but they all seem weirdly cut and edited. You'll hear Hayao Miyazaki saying how hard it was to get Totoro financed, and then you'll see a cut to him saying that it was finally financed. Huh?!
The only glimpse you can catch of Grave is in the "trailers" section, some of which are for the Totoro / Grave double-bill and include a bare few fractions of seconds showing two other children who are obviously not Satsuki and Mei...
The reason for the omission is in all probability a legal one as the Japanese discs of Totoro and Grave do pay lip-service to each other as expected. It is unfortunate however that this is missing on the UK disc as this severely hampers any attempt to create a valid "making-of" doc.
The best extras are therefore those that in no way have anything to do with Grave of the Fireflies: one is an extended interview with legendary composer Joe Hisaishi about scoring Totoro, and the other one is a 45 minute documentary about the real-life location as pictured in the film. This documentary explains the look of the Japanese countryside, the appearance and use of small forests between the fields, and it shows what the Totoro-foundation (the only organization allowed to use a licensed Studio Ghibli figure as its mascot) tries to achieve in preserving parts of this landscape.
Also on the disc is a short item on the American voicecast. On the 2005 English soundtrack, Satsuki and Mei are voiced by real-life sisters Dakota and Elle Fanning. Watching them do this is actually funny as the girls do share a similar chemistry as the characters seen in the film. Also, Dakota was shedding her teeth at the time and missed the entire upper front row of her incisors, so you see a unique look for her if you happen to be a fan.
And finally, as is usual with these releases you can watch the entire film in storyboard-mode, allowing some insight into Hayao Miyazaki's working methods.
So the end verdict is that this is a damn fine disc. Seeing My Neighbour Totoro in HD is a delight for the senses and balm for the soul. And while the extras do contain some oddities there are also plenty of good items in there to rummage around in. And now the wait is on for Kiki's Delivery Service, Porco Rosso and of course the unbelievably successful Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away. Bring them on!
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