My Neighbor Totoro/Whisper of the Heart
February 5, 2006

I’ve been hearing how much I need to see Miyazaki’s films for a long while now, so I used the Turner Classic Movies showings to sample two. The first, My Neighbor Totoro, was fluffier than I expected.

I knew that the movie was about two girls who meet a fantasy character, but I was surprised that the first third of the film was simply about them setting up housekeeping out in the country. The images were beautiful, as expected, but when the younger four-year-old finally encounters the large, mystical Totoro, I couldn’t make myself play along with the film. I suspect I was supposed to be reminded of the trust and acceptance of the young, but I kept thinking “if she’d found a sleeping bear that she cuddled up with before it roared at her, it wouldn’t be cute, it would be dangerous.” I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to surrender to the wonder.

My Neighbor Totoro
My Neighbor Totoro
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I also expected more interaction between the girls and the fantasy characters, instead of them using the magicial beings as a deus ex machina (although I guess that’s appropriate). The catbus was a terrific concept that I thought might have fit better in another film; it even seemed to be animated in a slightly different style.

But as I said, the images of the countryside were lovely, and the animation was incredible. I’m glad I watched in the film in more than one sitting, because when my attention started wandering, I could stop and come back to it when I was fresher. Its pacing is very different from American cartoons; it allows much more time for reflection or appreciation of setting.

Although it’s technically not a Miyazaki film (he wrote it but didn’t direct), I liked Whisper of the Heart much better. It was geared much more to my interests: it’s a shôjo story about a girl who reads a lot who becomes obsessed with a name she sees has previously checked out all the library books she’s reading.

Whisper of the Heart
Whisper of the Heart
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She wants to be a writer, and the boy she meets has been working most of his life to be a violin maker. The two of them begin demonstrating interest in each other, only to face the problem of his imminent departure for Italy to continue his craft. There’s also a mysterious cat, and the boy’s grandfather, who plays music and runs an antique store.

I love the way the girl’s family is clearly made up of scholars. Mom is often absent because she’s working on a degree, and the walls of the house are lined with shelves of books. The same thing is true of the family in Totoro; Dad’s a professor, and they have similar decor based around lots of reading material. It’s refreshing and different to see.

22 Responses  
Johnny B writes:  

Somehow, Johanna, I don’t think these were the Miyazaki films that people were suggesting. You really should see Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and Kiki’s Delivery service before you decide…

Mark writes:  

I agree.
To actually be able to make a fair judgement on all the enthusiastic claims about Miyazaki’s films, Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away would be the films to try in my opinion (I haven’t seen Kiki’s Delivery Service yet, have to go and watch that one sometime soon). Especially Spirited Away is awesome.

Johanna writes:  

Johnny, you’re right. Ed’s been kind enough to loan me Kiki and Spirited Away, but I found it easier to watch something on Tivo than DVD (just to start sampling). I’m still planning to try those two. I also tried Mononoke, but the fantasy elements weren’t working for me, so I may have to come back to that one. So consider this an experiment still in progress.

Lyle writes:  

Kiki is probably the film I see you jumping into the easiest. Not a lot happens in that movie, either but the atmosphere is so very enchanting.

Spirted Away and Mononoke both play heavily on Shintoism and can seem fairly drug-inspired without that background. Both are excellent stories (though, again, Miyazaki’s pacing is different than what we’re used to) but I’ve found it helps to understand the mythology they’re borrowing from.

Johanna writes:  

Lyle, interesting influence, thanks for the link.

While I have you all here… are the dubbed or the subtitled versions the ones to watch? Does it matter much?

Lea writes:  

Also watch Laputa. That is one fo my favorite Miyazaki films, and it’s a terrific action film, as well.

Totoro is like a country drive. If you’re not in the mood, it can seem very boring. But it is relaxing, and the pace (like Spirited Away) gives it resonance.

Ed Sizemore writes:  

Lyle, I don’t think you need to be well read on Shintoism to appreciate either Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away. I think you just have to be willing to enter a mythological mindset. I know nothing about Shintoism and enjoyed both films immensely. I find the world of Princess Mononke much like the worlds of Naria or Grimm’s fairy tales. Animals talk and have intelligence. If you can accept that premise, then you will enjoy either works of art. I think my reading of fantasy literature was the best preparation for the films of Miyazaki.
Johanna, I understand your reaction to Totoro. When I was watching it on TCM I was worried how people would react to a little girl meeting a wild animal. However, I completely love the film. The sense of nostalgia is pain stakingly beautiful. I love the sense of childlike wonder. The father is a great character because he is a university professor who doesn’t discourage his child from living in a world of magic and wonder. Every time I watch it I get lost in this film. I hope you will give one more try when your in a more fanciful mood.
When I was watching Whisper of the Heart, I did keep thinking how much Johanna would enjoy this film. I am glad you liked it and got to see it. Both Whisper of the Heart and Ocean Waves have never been officially released in the US before.

Johnny B writes:  

It’s funny- when I watch foreign films that are dubbed, the familiar voices kinda take me out of the picture just a bit. Depends on the picture. I also wonder about the veracity of the translation in both the cases of the dubbed and subtitled versions.

Myself, 9 times out of 10 I watch the subtitled version, with the original voices. Your mileage may vary.

Ed Sizemore writes:  

Johnny, I agree. I like watching foreign movies subtitled instead of dubbed. That is a huge debate in the anime community, but I like hearing the original voice actors. Especially, since Miyazaki ususally picks these actors so their voices are the way he hears the characters.

Johanna writes:  

Good points, Ed and Johnny. In Totoro, I recognized Tim Daly’s voice (playing Dad) too much.

tom writes:  

I would watch Kiki’s Delivery Service first with the Japanese soundtrack. Phil Hartman dubs one of the main characters and his voice is so distinctive that it took me out of the film almost every time his character spoke.

On the other hand, Michael Keaton in Porco Rosso sounded so right that I had no problem watching the dub. That’s another good one to watch when you can, very entertaining.

Lyle writes:  

Ed, I don’t think one needs to be well-read on Shintoism, but just have a basic feel for it. Some elements (the radish god or the kodomai, for example) feel a lot less strang if you’ve got a feel for the well that Miyazaki is drawing from.

As for subtitled vs dubbed, I usually go for subtitled… though Mononoke has a really good dub that I really like. I really wanted to like the Spirited Away dub (especially for Daveigh Chase) but it worked better for me subtitled.

Shawn Fumo writes:  

Whisper is one of my favorites, so glad you enjoyed it. The scholarship aspect is nice but also the musical emphasis. I love that Japanese version of Country Road (actually.. how does that work in the dub since it is a plot point that she’s using her writing skills to translate the song from one language to another?)..

I almost always go subbed.. it isn’t just for authenticity’s sake but that a lot of times the english itself doesn’t sound right (especially in terms of pacing) because of trying to fit it to the mouth movements. One of the few where I really got used to the dubbing was Cowboy Bebop from seeing it on TV..

I’ve still somehow managed to not see Totoro yet, but that is definitely aimed the youngest from what I’ve heard.

I’ll always have a soft spot for Nausicaa since I’d watched it as a child as Warriors of the Wind, though after reading the manga, it feels simplified..

I’d really like to see Only Yesterday, which is one of Takahashi’s other Ghibli films..

Johanna writes:  

In the dub, she’s writing her own lyrics for the song for some kind of graduation ceremony or something. They do a couple of different versions, one of which is a parody that starts “Concrete roads”. I didn’t realize that the same song was used for the subtitled version, interesting. I thought it was something Japanese with the same rhythm and structure.

Ed Sizemore writes:  

Johanna, They use Olivia Newton-John’s version of country road in the movie, which I find interesting. The alternate lyrics don’t differ that much between the subtitled and dubbed verison. Its a good look at cultural differences to see how the song lyrics translated and then modified.

Comics Worth Reading writes:  

[…] Continuing to sample the works of Miyazaki, I tried Kiki’s Delivery Service. […]

Joe Szilvagyi writes:  

I’m guessing that you watched the Disney release of Totoro. My first exposure to Miyazaki is the older Fox release where the dubbing was handled much differently.

Listening to the newer release all of the voices seem to portray amplified emotions all the time. If the girls are excited the are VERY excited and if the girls are quiet they are very quiet.

When I go back and listen to the dubbing of the older Fox release the emotions are much more subtle and more genuine for the kids. This is the type of voice acting that I have come to expect from Japanese voice artists and is why I tend to prefer watching a movie with subtitles.

If you get a chance to watch the older version from Fox I do recommend watching it just to hear the difference in how the voice acting is done. Totoro is one of my favourite movies of all time but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t feel as strongly about it if I had seen the Disney version first. This is a slow movie and all of the conflict is internal which is very hard to portray on the screen. The inclusion of the various fantastic characters are more of a tool to help the two girls communicate with each other than solutions to the emotions they are experiencing.

If you’re looking for a really fun Miyazaki movie that is often overlooked I recommend the Castle of Cagliostro. This was Miyazaki’s first big screen movie (as far as I know) and makes good use of being animated by performing all sorts of impossible feats throughout the movie. Where Totoro and Whisper are both introspective movies Cagliostro is a roller coaster ride that is fun from beginning to end.

Bill writes:  

I think Totoro is Miyazaki’s best. It’s much more subtle than the likes of Spirited Away and Princess Monokoe and though it might seem like a fluffy fairy-tale movie it’s deceptively complex.

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