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My Neighbour Totoro

Wednesday 7th November 2012

Andrew Osmond is cute and fluffy, and you can only see him when you are a child.

My Neighbour TotoroThis August, the venerable film magazine Sight and Sound published its ten-yearly Best Films Poll. It’s an institution dating back to 1952, and the new poll is based on the votes of nearly 850 directors, critics and specialists. You may have heard the press hooha – Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, which was rated number one for fifty years, slipped (horrors!) to second place, behind Alfred Hitchcock’s psycho-thriller, Vertigo. Tyrant newspaper moguls aren’t as strong as they were…

The top-ranked Japanese film in the poll was Tokyo Story at three, Yasujiro Ozu’s tender, melancholy family drama. Its embodiment of goodness, actress Setsuko Hara, was a clear inspiration for the fictional movie starlet in Satoshi Kon’s Millennium Actress. But what most reports didn’t notice was that the top-ranked animated film in the poll was Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro – yes, higher than Snow White or Toy Story.

Admittedly, the furry wonder slipped in the poll a fair way below Ozu, Welles or Hitchcock. Totoro placed at number 154, tying with an interesting range of live-action classics, including Brief Encounter, Black Narcissus and The Shining. If you want to sound impressive, you could add that Totoro was the eighth best Japanese film, one under Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiiru, which Hayao Miyazaki wrote about passionately in his book Starting Point. Of course, it’s just a poll, and very arbitrary – Totoro should have been in the top ten at least! But it does say something about Totoro’s long-term critical standing, and perhaps it’ll break the top hundred in 2022.

As Totoro is released on Blu-ray in the UK, what’s its influence and legacy? Two years ago, it was paid fulsome tribute by Pixar, which gave a smiling toy Totoro an extended cameo in Toy Story 3. Given Toy Story 3 took more than a billion dollars worldwide, that’s a lot of PR, although Totoro probably paid it back by boosting the film’s takings in Japan. For anyone who knows Totoro’s history, it’s fitting that Pixar turned him into a toy. As Ghibli’s former president Toshio Suzuki acknowledged, Totoro wasn’t very successful in Japanese cinemas; it made its money from a licensed plushie!

(If you can’t spot Totoro, he’s 48 seconds in.)

A more substantial Western tribute to Totoro, though, came in the traditional Disney cartoon, Lilo and Stitch. The alien Stitch was a lot naughtier than the peaceable Totoro (though he also made a good plushie) but the film’s directors, Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, were stirred by Totoro’s character dynamics. According to DeBlois, “We were inspired by the way Miyazaki created realistic relationships between the human characters, Totoro’s sister-sister relationship, and wove in a realm of fantasy and whimsy very subtly.” The anime-inspired film spawned an anime series, which you can read about here.

One more Western tribute must be mentioned – Totoro’s parody in South Park, the potty-mouthed late-night TV comedy made so primitively that some purists refuse to accept it as animation. In fact, Totoro has figured more than once in South Park – you can glimpse him as a background character in the epic “Imaginationland,” available on DVD. However, the full-on parody was slyer – it’s a loving recreation of the scene where little Mei meets King Totoro, substituting the horrible Cartman and the terrible Cthulhu. By the way, we reckon the parody is the reason why Hollywood turned down Guillermo del Toro’s At the Mountains of Madness – they feared it could turn out like this!

And yes, it even spoofed the Totoro song…

What about Totoro’s heritage in Japan? It might seem sacrilegious to even suggest sequelling the film, unless Miyazaki took it on himself. But the basic premise of Totoro is extremely open-ended – it’s just about a child or children who meet a magic embodiment of nature. You could relocate it to any country or time, in the past or future. The Production IG film Letter to Momo can certainly be seen as an unofficial sequel to Totoro, though the anarchy and earthiness of its otherworld creatures is closer to Isao Takahata’s Pom Poko. Momo doesn’t have a British home release yet, but here’s the trailer.

In fact, there is an “official” sequel to Totoro – the short Mei and the Baby Cat-bus, directed by Miyazaki himself. Before you look for it though, the 13-minute film is shown exclusively at the Ghibli museum in Tokyo (and only sometimes; it rotates with other short films, and you can only see one per visit). The film is great fun, and full of visual imagination – there’s not just a hyperactive baby cat-bus, but also a giant-size, multi-storey cat-bus grandpappy! However, it’s a straight kids’ cartoon, without the darker, adult resonances that took Totoro into the Sight and Sound poll.

The same is true of Miyazaki’s more recent Ponyo, which also has an inquisitive child, a cute fantasy creature, and the wonders of the sea replacing the forest. A different tack was taken by the Madhouse studio’s Mai Mai Miracle, also still awaiting a UK release. Madhouse’s film eschews the fantasy spectacle of Momo and Ponyo, instead playing up the wonder of its children at the Japanese countryside and how this informs their growing up. It also seems to take elements from Takahata, especially his Only Yesterday, and crossbreed them with Totoro. This is hardly surprising: Totoro was shaped by Miyazaki and Takahata’s collaborations on an earlier generation of lyrical child-view anime, including 1970s versions of Heidi and Anne of Green Gables.

Totoro’s anime children may fan into two branches: fantasies inspired by the film’s wonderful creatures, and more naturalistic dramas celebrating what a child sees. A case of the former is Welcome to the Space Show, with its huge crowds of cosmic creatures designed to delight. (When Space Show was dubbed into English, the child actors gawped and giggled at the hordes of space oddities.) Moreover, the main story isn’t a space opera; rather, it’s about the relationship between two young girls, putting it squarely in the Totoro tradition. As for a lower-key take on Totoro’s themes, the signs are Mamoru Hosoda’s new film, The Wolf Children Ame and Yuki, fits the bill, as two more small siblings charge around Japan’s country, howling at the fields and lakes. Okay, so they’re werewolf children and sometimes get hairy, but don’t worry; they’re as cute and cuddly as a Totoro.

My Neighbour Totoro is released on UK Blu-ray by Studio Canal.

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