Jasper Sharp reviews Tsugiko Kubo’s prose adaptation
“The moment the door swung inward, the kitchen came alive with a whirring and a scurrying and a scuttling. Little balls of fluff darker than charcoal were swarming all over the floors and walls and ceiling!
“Perhaps because the darkness in the house was so sudden after the light outside, Satsuki wasn’t sure whether to trust her eyes. The whole room seemed to heave and writhe in front of her. Yet the next moment, there just was a shabby gray kitchen like one you might see in any old house. Satsuki gasped with astonishment.”
Released in 1988, Hayao Miyazaki’s poignant elegy to childhood needs little introduction. One of Studio Ghibli’s most iconic creations, its tale of two young sisters who follow their father from Tokyo to their new tumbledown abode in the countryside to be near to their ailing mother, was born from personal tragedy – Miyazaki’s own mother was left bedridden with spinal tuberculosis for nine years until her death in 1955. For all that, it’s a magical, heartfelt tale with a positive message. As Kate Stables once succinctly described it in a review for Total Film: “Its gorgeously painterly visual details and deliberate pace perfectly recreate a child’s endless fascination with nature, or a new house.”
Compared with Miyazaki’s more epic flights of fantasy, the story’s relatively low-key drama might not seem the most obvious candidate for novelisation. The original stands among the most vividly realised and dreamlike of his movies. It is an evocative celebration of the sharpened senses of its young protagonists, 11-year-old Satsuki and her 4-year-old sister Mei, as they discover a world of enchantment and mystery within the dark recesses of their new home and the surrounding forest, which harbours the woolly woodland spirit that Mei christens Totoro.
Nevertheless, such instances of children’s author Tsugiko Kubo’s prose (and Jim Hubbert’s translation) as that quoted above do a remarkable job in distilling the imagery into the written word to evoke such lushly designed environments, while maintaining the sense of trepidation and wonder that lies at the heart of its appeal.
Like the film, this novelisation is intricate and intimate in its details, and universal in its storytelling. The writing is simple enough for readers of around seven or eight to enjoy, without any loss to the emotional impact of the girls’ adventures, while fans of the film will also find new details that were previously unelaborated in the movie. The text also provides some additional details for Western readers, such as that “Satsuki” is the traditional Japanese name for the month of May, and that “Mei” is the phonetic spelling of this same month, and inventively fleshes out some of the emotional depths of the story in the form of, for example, a letter Satsuki receives from her mother.
It is a terrifically designed package too, with Miyazaki’s delicate illustrations gracing both the hardback cover and the text, and a map of the area of Matsugo in its opening pages, explicitly dated as circa 1955, giving a greater sense of the geography of the area in which the story unfolds. In all, Viz Media have come up with a wonderful companion to the film, one ideally suited as a gift that will be treasured by children and adults alike for many years.
My Neighbor Totoro: The Novel is out now from Viz Media