Losing My Virginity: My Neighbor Totoro


When I heard that Studio Ghibli week was upon us, I knew there was only one thing I could do. It’s something that’s been on my list for years. I’ve run across it numerous times, though never when it’s convenient for me; I’ve seen the merchandise dozens and dozens of times; and I hear the eponymous creature named almost daily. It was time for me to watch My Neighbor Totoro.

So I did, and I was underwhelmed.

[Losing My Virginity articles are reviews written by someone who still hasn’t seen an incredibly popular movie after all these years. LMV reviews are interesting in that they can offer the perspective of a person who’s untainted by the cloud of commonness that surrounded a famous film of the past, and also show how well it has stood the test of time.]

Totoro in the rain

If there was ever a Japanimated film that has any kind of significance behind it, it’s My Neighbor Totoro. It’s the film that propelled Ghibli into the spotlight, anime into the American conscious (at least according to Wikipedia), and the stupid Snorlax into that path in the early Pokemon games. So it’s important. Really important. It’s basically the Citizen Kane of  Japanese animated movies. But there is a key difference between Miyazaki’s breakout hit and Orson Welles’s, one that is not apparent just by looking at them. It’s quite simple really: Citizen Kane is an incredible piece of cinematic genius that still holds up as one of the greatest films ever made… and My Neighbor Totoro is kind of okay.

The biggest problem with Totoro is its general lack of all things Totoro. The story follows a Japanese family that has just moved into a new village. There’s Mei, the bratty four-year-old; Satsuki, the bratty probably ten-year-old (who I totally thought was a boy with a really high-pitched voice at first); and their dad, who is just kind of there. Other characters include Kanto, the bratty male neighbor who has a major crush on Satsuki; Grandma, who is someone else’s grandmother, but I never figured out whose (I think it’s Kanto); Mei and Satsuki’s mother, who is in the hospital because of a generic illness (probably related to her absolutely massive forehead).

Totoro mom and her massive forehead

Seriously. What is up with that?

None of these characters are particularly interesting or compelling, and I think it stems mostly from the voice acting. I tend to dislike dubs, not because I’m against them inherently (which I often am), but because I think that Japanese voice actors often fit the characters better than American ones do. I base this entirely on my experience with anime rather than animated movies, however, so maybe I should have watched the dub.

I wouldn’t be surprised if I liked the dubbed version better, because I hated the people who voiced pretty much every character in the movie. Every single voice failed in some way or another. The father’s voice was too deep, the kids’s voices were piercingly high and obnoxious, the grandmother sounded like a creepy old man, etc. etc. Some of those are more forgivable than others. Since the girls are the protagonists, however, I couldn’t get past how much I hated their voices. They were terrible. Especially when they got upset and cried. It sounded like nails being raked down a chalkboard made of pain.

Totoro and Mei

But even if the voice acting was fine (which it wasn’t), I really don’t think I would have cared all that much about any of the characters. There are moments of fake tension, where it almost seems like maybe something is possibly going to happen, but nothing does, and that’s kind of the point. Nothing happens.

At the beginning of the movie, they’re a happy family who has just moved into a house, and they are waiting for the mother’s return from the hospital. At the end of the movie, they’re a happy family who moved into a house recently, and they are waiting for the mother’s return from the hospital. There are no noteworthy character arcs or progressions. The closest thing I can think of would be Kanto’s weird relationship with Satsuki, which becomes mildly less awkward as the film goes on. It’s not an interesting progression, but I guess it exists.

It’s not all bad, though, and that is pretty much entirely because Totoro is awesome. He’s big, cute, probably fluffy, and makes trees that look like mushroom clouds. Also he jumps up and down to make rain fall. What I’m trying to say is he’s amazing. Every moment with Totoro on screen was absolutely joyous. I laughed, giggled, squealed, whatever you want to call it, because seriously guys, it’s Totoro.

Look at it.

Totoro and the less interesting other characters


And not only that, but My Neighbor Totoro features perhaps the greatest feline based vehicle I have ever seen. I love everything about the Catbus, from the sci-fi sound it makes when it opens its door thing (which really should be creepy but totally isn’t) to its way too many legs to its actual cat-like features. If Catbuses were actually a thing, I think public transportation would be far more popular than it currently is. I know I’d use one.

Visually speaking, I’m conflicted. The animation is imperfect, but that’s to be expected given the fact that it’s all hand-drawn work. In fact, it’s kind of endearing. What bothers me more is the contrast between the things that move and the things that don’t. While not always the case, it’s often easy to tell whether or not something is animated by the thickness of the lines. The backgrounds are (gorgeous) paintings, with few to no black lines in sight. The characters (and some parts of the world) are lined, however, and I felt the two styles clashed more than they should have. It’s hardly a deal-breaker, but it’s something I noticed constantly throughout the film.

Totoro and the Catbus

Of the Studio Ghibli movies I have seen (admittedly not very many), My Neighbor Totoro is by far my least favorite. In a way, though, that’s a good thing. It’s one of their earliest works, and putting it up against films like Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke shows some real progression in terms of overall quality.

Perhaps I have missed some things. In fact, I’m sure I did. While I was complaining about the fact that Satsuki randomly decided to start acting like she was out of breath after about five minutes of running and then going right back to it with no ill effects, there was probably something brilliant going on. Maybe Citizen Kane was going right under my nose the whole time, and I didn’t see it, because I was too busy gritting my teeth after Satsuki told Mei that she (Satsuki) “never wanted to see her [Mei] again” after she (Mei) shouted “NO” four times. I honestly don’t know, but I don’t really care either. I don’t feel compelled to ever see it again.

My enjoyment of Totoro was based almost solely on Totoro himself. Unfortunately, his appearances are far too few and far too brief. I think Totoro would have made a great short film. Cut out pretty much all of the dialogue and characters, keep in all of the Totoro, and you would have something great. But it’s a feature film, so you don’t. Instead, you have something that is, on the whole, very much okay.