American anime connoisseurs were hip to Hayao Miyazaki even when his imaginative, epic adventures were only available on the bootleg market. But average moviegoers (or, more accurately, video renters) first encountered Miyazaki via My Neighbor Totoro, an atypical and arguably non-ideal way to meet the master. Compared to the breathtaking action sequences and elaborate fantasy landscapes of Miyazaki’s early features (not to mention subsequent films like Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away), the genteel, languid Totoro seems at first slight, and even soporific. The sliver of a story—about two girls who move to a small village with their father while their mother recovers from a life-threatening illness—never gets past first gear, and the heroines’ few encounters with the mystical forest spirit Totoro hardly justify the movie’s title. Yet My Neighbor Totoro may be the most enduring entry in Miyazaki’s impressive filmography, because it’s so particular about the nuances of human behavior and emotion. The movie stands up to re-watching, gaining in profundity.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what makes Totoro breathe. Maybe it’s that the girls run, stumble, and daydream in ways that are familiar and notably unfussy. My Neighbor Totoro examines how a family crisis affects children, but Miyazaki keeps some distance from the subject, standing back and watching the sisters be kids, preoccupied by schoolwork and chores. As for the rounded, furry, playful Totoro and his family of woodland sprites, Miyazaki treats them as benign but ultimately alien. Throughout the movie, Totoro adopts some human habits, like clutching an umbrella, but the point is that while we respect and rely on nature, there’s something uniquely touching about being human, with lives and habits so flawed and yet so beautiful.
Shortly after My Neighbor Totoro became a massive hit in Japan, Miyazaki’s partner in Studio Ghibli, Isao Takahata, made his own masterpiece about young girlhood, Only Yesterday. Miyazaki responded a few years later by writing the screenplay for the equally girl-focused Whisper Of The Heart, directed by his protégé Yoshifumi Kondo (who died young, before he could fully succeed Miyazaki as planned). Stacked next to the sublime, still-unavailable-in-America Only Yesterday, Whisper Of The Heart looks too cute and frothy, especially when its story about a bookish teenage girl’s crush intersects an ancient legend about a feline lothario. But while the fantasy digressions feel tacked-on as a sop to Miyazaki’s young fans, Whisper Of The Heart does fall gracefully into step with the rhythms of first love, and Kondo and Miyazaki keep the movie so grounded in the landscape of contemporary Japan that viewers could almost draw a map between the music shop and school library where most of the action takes place. Studio Ghibli productions have always been adept at making the fantastic seem real, but with Whisper Of The Heart, Kondo and Miyazaki focus so intensely on the everyday that they make the real seem fantastic.
Key features: Like all Disney’s Ghibli DVDs, these two contain a too-short featurette on the English-language vocal tracks, and separate discs with the movies’ complete storyboards.
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