I have never sat through a complete Hayao Miyazaki animated movie despite all the good vibes, reviews, recommendations I got from friends. Actually I have Spirited Away on DVD just waiting to be watched, but for some reason it still sits on my desk amongst others. Well, a good friend from up north passed me THREE Miyazaki DVDs, and given I'm going to where he is tomorrow visiting someone who mentioned during a visit to the previous movie set, how the scene was reminiscent of My Neighbor Totoro, I thought I'll pop that DVD and give it a watch.
I was blown away. This IS animation, with a story suitable for kids to understand, and for adults to get a kick out of given its fantastical pieces. I shan't spoil the movie by spelling out the storyline, but suffice to say it centers very simply on a family, the father a professor who has recently uprooted his family of two girls, Satsuki and Mai, to the countryside, to provide a healthier environment for their ailing mom, currently in the hospital, to recuperate in. Thus begins the children's adventures in the country, with its lush greenery, and of course, with their new found friend, a giant ghibil known as Totoro, with seemingly magical powers of flight and fantasy.
And it is in its simplicity where its beauty shines through. It is always said that children can see things that adults don't, and hence, there's a constant question as to whether Totoro is real, or not, and if so, how its interactions with the kids are possible. It's not just Totoro itself which is out of this world, but I totally like that grinning cat-bus.
This is the kind of animated movie that our local animation production houses should be looking at. First and foremost, the story. While it doesn't contain huge battle sequences, complex or multiple characters for the sake of stuffing the movie, it goes to show that the story matters, in its ability to touch and resonate with audiences young and old (while the young ones go to the cinemas, don't forget the adults have to bring them too, and somehow you have to entertain them as well without being too complex for the little ones to understand).
The character designs are also kept simple, but nonetheless effective. The animation here is top notch despite it being 2D, as are the cast who voiced the characters. The acid test here is whether the movie can stand the test of time, and watching it close to 20 years after it was made, the answer is a resounding yes, it passed with flying colours. There are plenty of moments where you go "so cute!" without it being saccharine, or trying too hard, and that is indeed remarkable. Characterization is superb, especially Mai, whom I think everyone who has a kid sister, would be able to relate to. That's how realistic I thought she was!
Everything in this movie works well together, like a fine orchestra performing its pieces with precision yet with lots of heart. I do feel compelled to pop in and watch all the other Hayao Miyazaki DVDs I have in my collection, but I have to travel tomorrow and be away the next few days. You can be sure however, I will be back and complete watching them all real soon!
I like Tonari no Totoro, certainly one of the best movies I've seen!
Code 9 DVD from Studio Ghibil Movie Collection comes in widescreen letterbox format, with menus unfortunately in Japanese only. Visual transfer was ordinary and not pristine, probably because the movie's from the late 80s. Audio is in Dolby Surround in either Japanese or English, with subtitles available in English, Japanese, Chinese and Korean. Scene selection is available over 18 chapters.
It is curious to note though, when watching it in the original Japanese audio with the English subtitles turned on, the subtitles actually follow the English track. At some scenes where the characters do not speak, the subs actually came on, and when I switched to the English track, yes, the characters do speak those lines. Makes you wonder though, because I thought some non-verbal communication in the Japanese audio version actually is more powerful than the words that are spoken.