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.


  • Hi Steve,
    You got me convinced! I'm sure Sammy, Bradley & I will all love it, so i'm going to try and get my hands on a copy. To babies, English is a foreign language, so I don't think it's strange at all to show a film in Japanese, i'm actually looking forward to it. For work, i've been taking Japanese lessons, so I actually might be able to follow along :)

    Glad to hear you all are doing well. Looking forward to seeing pictures soon!


    By Anonymous Jody, at 7/21/2007 12:20 AM  

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