My Neighbour Totoro (Tonari no Totoro)

Reviewing Totoro is tough for me because with a film that’s loved by millions and which has enthralled audiences for decades – what’s left to say, right? 🙂

My Neighbour Totoro (Tonari no Totoro)
1988

But I love it and so here we go anyway!

While Nausicaa is actually my favourite Miyazaki film, My Neighbour Totoro has a few similarities such as its environmentalism and female leads, but what seems most satisfying to me as a viewer is that the drama is located around a (seemingly) small event.

(Small compared to the world-changing or boldly magical aspects of many other Miyazaki films at least.)

But for sisters Satsuki and Mei, moving to a rural landscape and coming to deal with the illness of their mother is clearly an example of incredibly high stakes. (Even more so when young Mei sets out with her corn and we get those dusk-search scenes that are so powerful.)

Obviously, Totoro and his friends really provide a sweet side to the magic, along with adding a lot of humour, but I think it’s probably the bright-eyed nature of the kids themselves as they roam the beautiful, pastoral settings and explore, that really makes the film endearing for me.

Internet theories about a darker undertone to this one aside (even with a sad story as possible inspiration for one plot point) I always see Tororo as warm and entirely uplifting. It’s the kind of film that makes me think of a child’s memory of a place – idealised and comforting, everything safe to explore.

So, on the off chance that you haven’t seen Totoro – definitely watch it!

And again, if you’re not familiar with its history – Ghibli released this and the gut-wrenching Grave of the Fireflies at the same time in 1988 and the ‘double a-side’ really helped cement the studio.

It’s since become an absolutely mammoth industry – my favourite example of Totoro‘s reach isn’t just the merch or the global adulation, but when the house was built for an expo back in 2005 I think.  

5 Stars

Whisper of the Heart (Mimi o Sumaseba)

Compared to my last Ghibli-related post, this time I’ve chosen a film not directed by Miyazaki (though he did write the script) but instead by Yoshifumi Kondo.

Whisper of the Heart is another Ghibli adaptation, this time of a manga written by Aoi Hiiragi. While Whisper of the Heart has less action than early Ghibli works, it is full of conflict – and not simply the cliched teen angst to be found in many works aimed (unfairly?) at younger audiences.

Whisper of the Heart (Mimi o Sumaseba)
1995

Instead it focuses on the conflict of the writer which immediately hooked me of course, or perhaps, the conflict of the creative person – whether it’s main character Shizuku (who desperately wants to be a writer) or Seiji, her love interest, who is striving to become a violin-maker.

Most of the film focuses on the struggle these characters go through, trying to please themselves, take their dreams seriously, to work for them, while also trying to accommodate their families’ wishes and deal with their feelings for each other.

Woven within the film’s central narrative are smaller stories, the mystery of the cat Muta, the story behind the fantastic statue ‘The Baron’ and his lost love Louise, and the story young Shizuku is writing (starring the Baron), and finally the struggle to produce a complete draft that she is happy with.

Any writer or creative person should be able to relate to her frustration and excitement. On one hand, she can’t wait for someone to read it, on the other she’s convinced she’s not good enough yet. I definitely relate, and it’s part of why the movie appeals to me so much, I reckon.

Whisper of the Heart also features a classic country song written by John Denver as something more than simply soundtrack – throughout the film Take me Home, Country Roads is rewritten and performed by Shizuku, and also by Shizuku and Seiji in addition to appearing over the opening sequence – I’ll got youtube links for each (John’s version, the very earnest Olivia version and the English dub of Shizuku and Seiji on vocals and violin).

And before I wrap up the review – I should mention the ending – apparently some folks feel the proposal scene is a little too much, and years ago I remember thinking I was in agreement… but I since the, I’ve come to feel that it was meant to be a sweet (perhaps somewhat naive) gesture, which suits youth pretty well.

And here’s Miyazaki on the ending (taken from Nausicaa.net):

Q: Wasn’t Seiji’s proposal a bit too sudden?

Many thought so. In the manga, Seiji merely says “I love you”, but Miyazaki changed it to “Will you marry me?” Miyazaki defended his position by saying, “I wanted to make a conclusion, a definite sense of ending. Too many young people now are afraid of commitment, and stay on moratorium forever. I wanted these two to just commit to something, not just ‘well, we’ll see what will happen’.”

5 Stars

Ah yes, the terror of asking someone to read your work for the first time.

Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi)

For the first post here at the Review Heap, I wanted to jump back to a write up I did a fair few years ago – because if I’m going to review/highlight anime (amongst the other things I’ll ramble on about here) then I should start with the studio that really had an impact on me (though as a kid of the 80s I remember mostly Astro Boy :D).

So, up first it’s Spirited Away!

Miyazaki’s work as a director seems so warm and I guess I naturally gravitate toward his films. That isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy Takahata’s work, or the films of the other directors from Studio Ghibli, but I’ll probably end up reviewing the Miyazaki ones first.

Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi)
2001

Perhaps like many Western audiences, this was my first exposure to Studio Ghibli and its wonderful films – though I didn’t see this movie until about three years after it’s English-language release.

I was actually at uni and had recently borrowed the impressive 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. Inside, I noticed Spirited Away and went straight to the university library where I borrowed the DVD and that was it. I was hooked.

Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, Spirited Away is the story of a young girl who has to work in a spirits’ bathhouse in order to save her parents, who’ve been transformed into pigs by their own greed.

A pretty simple description of the plot, right?

But it gives an idea of the main source of tension, I hope. What it fails to show is the stunning attention to detail found in the animation (common to Ghibli of course) and the great character arc at its heart.

The way protagonist Chihiro goes from being basically an annoying child to a person of resolve, and one who can turn those around her into friends, is one of my favourite aspects. It also provides an emotional core that’s a big part the reason I’ve watched the film a fair few times now.

But perhaps my favourite element of Spirited Away is the setting.

The bathhouse is located in an abandoned amusement park and it’s beautiful, detailed and vivid, both in terms of its social and physical structure. And part of that colour definitely comes from the variety of spirits who visit it, among the most memorable being the close-mouthed Radish Spirit and the old River Spirit, who also embodies the environmental themes Miyazaki often includes in his films.

Another stand out aspect of the movie (and most Ghibli films) is the music.

Provided by Joe Hisaishi, it’s a moving score, I reckon with so much of it feeling both magical and familiar.

An Academy Award winner and an amazing film, Spirited Away isn’t quite my favourite Ghibli movie, but I’m kicking off with it because it’s where I started and if on the off chance you’re looking to see what Studio Ghibli is like, you probably couldn’t find a better starting place.

5 Stars