The Shapiro Files

Friday, July 13, 2007

In Praise of Totoro

TotoroBack in 1994, I was lucky enough to spend a summer in Yokohama, Japan as part of a business internship with Yokohama Ginko (Bank of Yokohama). My homestay family for the first half of my internship was with the Ishiguro family, who were absolutely wonderful. They are among the kindest, most admirable family I’ve ever known. And if that weren’t enough to be forever grateful for knowing them, they were also how I came to know the greatest family film of all time: Tonari no Totoro (American title: My Neighbor Totoro).

The Ishiguros usually played jazz or classical albums in the evenings (yet another reason they were such a great family) so we didn’t watch much television. However, one night they broke routine and had the television on for an animated film that I knew nothing about but which they told me was quite famous in Japan. Despite having limited Japanese language skills, I was able to follow the story well enough and for the first 15 minutes or so thought it was a pleasant enough children’s movie. But as I continued to watch, the movie charmed me in a way that very few films ever have. By the time it was over, I knew that if I were lucky enough to have kids one day, I would just have to show this movie to them.

Before I go any further, those of you unfamiliar with the film (which I’m guessing is most readers) are probably wondering what it’s about and why it’s so great. Well, I don’t think I could improve upon what film critic Roger Ebert wrote in his excellent essay about the film as part of his “Great Movies” series. Check it out.

Now back to my story. For the next 15 years, I struggled to get a good copy of the film on video in the original language — the U.S. domestic release was poorly dubbed and cropped into standard television aspect ratio. But the best I was able to do was obtain an umpteenth generation dub of the Japanese VHS release.

Meanwhile, Totoro’s masterful director, Hayao Miyazaki, began gaining international attention and critical acclaim during the 1990’s for his amazing animated films (titles such as Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle might sound familiar to some of you). This eventually led Disney to pursue an agreement with Miyazaki to release his films in the U.S. So after years of waiting, I was thrilled to learn last year that Tonari no Totoro was going to be released on a great 2-disc set with its proper widescreen aspect ratio preserved and the original Japanese language soundtrack included as an option.

I ordered a copy the day it was available for pre-order and was so excited to pop it into my DVD player when it arrived. Even better, Melody was now in my life and it was my chance to share this wonderful film with her. Although she was only around six months old and had never seen a feature-length narrative film at that point, I figured I’d put it on for her (in the original Japanese language no less) and see what she thought. As it turned out, she was completely transfixed from the second it started playing. Not even Baby Einstein videos caught her attention in the same way. Over the course of several weeks, I replayed the movie (usually in no more than 20 to 30 minute segments to keep her from watching too much TV at any one time) and she gradually started responding to it with gestures and sounds that clearly indicated she was engaged directly with what she was seeing. In the months that followed, she started saying “Toto” (not quite able to get that third syllable out) and pointing at the TV as a way of asking to see the movie. To ensure she wasn’t just interested in TV in general, I tried showing her other movies (especially some Disney films) but she always grew bored and distracted.

And now, over a year later, Melody continues to ask for “Toto” pretty much every day and is more participatory than ever while watching the film. I’ve since purchased the film’s excellent musical soundtrack on CD (she loves it) and even found a great Totoro stuffed animal that she likes to cuddle with when watching the movie. We still watch the movie in Japanese (she’s probably picked up on some Japanese vocabulary by now) and she still gets incredibly excited when she comes across the DVD case around the house. And amazingly enough, even after now seeing the film myself dozens (hundreds?) of times, I still am just as charmed and moved by it as I ever was.

For anyone interested in checking out the film, I strongly advise you to avoid the old Fox Studio DVD release at all costs. The only audio option is English and it’s a poor translation/dub to boot. So be sure you’re getting the new Disney DVD release.

Additionally, I strongly encourage you to only watch the film in its original Japanese language. The original voice acting is excellent and the American dub featuring Dakota Fanning and her younger sister just isn’t anywhere near the same quality. Now, for those of you with kids, I realize that showing them a movie in a foreign language might seem like a strange thing to do. But I guarantee they’ll find that they can still follow along (Melody always has). Plus you can turn on the English subtitles and simply explain things to your child as you go along.

I should probably also let you know that the first 15 minutes or so will almost scream “kid’s movie” and the opening sequence in particular has a juvenile quality to it. But stick with it and you’ll be rewarded for your patience. Take it from me and Melody: Where there’s Totoro, there’s magic.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007


MilestonesI’m back. What few readers I have left are probably pretty tired of that Cows posting by now!

The semi-short story is that upon returning to work in April after my month-long paternity leave, I was promoted to a management position. I generally don’t like to talk about my job here at The Shapiro Files (nor will I ever include the company’s name in order to avoid getting indexed by Google and other search engines) because the company I work for happens to have a very enthusiastic (more like fanatical) fan base. As such, I wouldn’t want anyone to ever think they can get the “inside scoop” on my company’s activities here — something I would never provide in a million years. So I’ll just say that things have been incredibly action-packed at work for quite some time now and it all culminated in a major activity on Friday. I’ve had to work many late nights and weekends and what remaining free time I had was always spent with Marcie and our wonderful little girls. Somewhere in there, I needed to find some time for sleep. Blogging unfortunately had to be put on hold for a while.

And now that I’ve gotten all that out of the way, let’s get to the important stuff — namely how Melody and Julianne are doing. Both have reached several milestones, so here’s the quick update:

  • Melody finally started crawling in March.
  • Beginning around April, she started pulling up to furniture and cruising.
  • She has gradually been able to stand independently for increasingly longer periods of time.
  • Most recently, Melody has gotten extremely good at walking with the assistance of a toy walker (this one, to be exact).
  • She pretty much can do all the expected gross-motor activities except walk entirely unassisted. It’s bound to happen any time now!
  • Other milestones include now eating at a children’s table (no more highchair for her!) and drawing with crayons and all manner of other writing devices.
  • Oh, and how can I forget: she loves to sing! She even improvises her own melodies (appropriately enough) when I’m improvising chord progressions at the piano or on my guitar. Talk about nachas!

  • Began smiling at around 2 months and now smiles all the time (and very beautifully, I might add!).
  • Does lots of fun vocalizing (probably trying to catch up with big sister Melody).
  • Still not sleeping through the night (sleep cycles can occasionally be as long as 5 hours, but most are closer to 3-4 hours), but like many exclusively nursed babies, is expected to improve sleep-wise in the near future once her diet gets supplemented by other nutrition.
  • On the verge of being able to roll over (at least we think she is).
  • Still has blue eyes, which means they now have the potential of being permanant. Who would have thought we’d have a blue-eyed child?!

As far as how the two interact together, Julianne is still a little too young for Melody to be able to do much with her. But they clearly like each other very much. Julianne always smiles when Melody goes up to her and says “Hi baby” or “Hi Jules.” And Melody is always looking for her sister around the house and gets very excited when she sees her. They both also seem to enjoy watching Sesame Street together! Actually, I really enjoy watching it too (it’s been over 30 years since I last watched regularly)!

As for Marcie, she recently returned to work on a very flexible work-from-home schedule. But even with the flexibility, she is really exhausted from all the things she has to do each day. At the moment, we have a babysitter watch Melody most weekday mornings and Marcie tries to get some work done during that time while also attending to Julianne as needed. Then when the kids take their afternoon nap, she gets a little more work done then. Finally, once both kids are sleeping in the evening, Marcie works until quite late to ensure she completes all job tasks. In between, she’s running around taking Melody and Julianne on walks or errands and making sure they’re both fed. Talk about a tough day!

In terms of my parental activities during the week, I always get Melody up, dressed, fed, and her teeth brushed in the morning. In the evenings, I usually help feed Melody dinner and then give her a bath or some other pre-bedtime activity. Additionally, during dinner and frequently after Melody goes to bed, I’ll hold and walk around with Julianne to calm her. I also feed her her Mommy’s pumped milk via bottle every 2-3 nights to ensure she’ll always be able to take a bottle (very important for allowing us the ability have a babysitter look after Julianne).

I wish I could do even more during the work week, but with my new management position, I don’t have the same flexibility that I used to have. Weekends are a little better in terms of our sharing Melody/Julianne duties. But I’m still not able to help out with those middle of the night feedings, given my biological inability to participate in the nursing duties!

In late August, Melody will be starting at a great preschool (the same one that Marcie and her Palo Alto cousins all went to) three mornings a week, with the option of expanding to five if she loves it as much as we think she will. When Melody is in school, our babysitter will continue coming, but will attend to Julianne instead. This will allow Marcie the ability to focus 100% on working (even coming in to the office for meetings if necessary) for the first half of the day. The remainder of the work will continue to be done during afternoon nap time and after evening bed time. It’s still going to be a tough schedule, but hopefully a little less stressful.

Marcie has been absolutely amazing balancing everything while getting very little sleep and being constantly dehydrated (nursing will do that). It’s a true Herculean load she has to carry each day and most people would crumble under the pressure. She deserves all the respect and admiration in the world for everything she does.

In the weeks/months ahead here at The Shapiro Files, I hope to get back in the groove of posting on a regular basis again. Planned future topics include Tonari no Totoro (My Neighbor Totoro), a look back to Julianne’s first month, and a new Netflix DVD review recap. Plus, I’m overdue for Julianne’s 3-month photo album (I have hundreds of pictures to choose from), so hopefully I’ll get that put together before too long. Stay tuned.