My Neighbor Totoro (US - BD RA)
Gabe recalls Miyazaki's classics and traces its weird US release history...
I was introduced to Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro under pretty unusual circumstance. At the age of about ten or eleven, I was watching The Shaggy Dog with a family friend/mother’s co-worker/occasional babysitter from Japan named Yoko. When Yoko asked if I was enjoying the film, I said something about preferring cartoons, prompting her to ask if I’d ever seen Tonari no Totoro. Because the film wasn’t officially released on US home video until 1993, I had to answer ‘no.’ In fact, I hadn’t knowingly seen a Japanese animated motion picture. Yoko was excited and announced she had a copy on VHS that she was going to lend me. The tape in question was recorded from Japanese television, meaning it was not dubbed in English and didn’t even include English subtitles (it also had ‘80s-laced Japanese commercial breaks, which was very entertaining). Despite dealing with what should’ve been an insurmountable language barrier on a ten or eleven-year-old attention span, I was able to follow the film and was completely enraptured. If memory serves, it took me several months to return the tape. The fact that I remember this random event in my life so vividly speaks to the intimate power of Miyazaki’s unique universe.
My Neighbor Totoro is possibly Miyazaki’s most universally accessible film. I can’t say I consider it his best, but it was an American breakthrough for good reason. Despite being a period piece with definitively Japanese cultural touchstones, the movie captures the true essence of imagination and transcends cultural barriers. Miyazaki is constantly compared to the likes of Walt Disney, but films like My Neighbor Totoro and Laputa: Castle in the Sky aren’t hindered by Disney’s constant adherence to pre-existing material. In comparison, Miyazaki has more in common with mythmakers like Lewis Carroll and J. M. Barrie. His most personal directed work is largely divided into two camps: epic, story-driven Joseph Campbellian monomyths, like Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Laputa, and Princess Mononoke, and dreamy, logic-evading parables, like Totoro and Ponyo. Some of his later films span both styles, but, at this early point in his career, he wasn’t yet integrating too much of the monomyths’ complexities with the parables’ child-friendly anti-rationalism. This left many adult viewers confused by My Neighbor Totoro’s popularity and acclaim. The film’s worst reviews all complain that it doesn’t really have a plot, which, frankly, it really doesn’t. Like Ponyo (and sometimes Howl’s Moving Castle), the point of the exercise is not the status of the story, conflict, or character arcs, but the experience of Miyazaki’s immersive world. I admit that, as a theoretical adult, My Neighbor Totoro has lost some of its magic. Watching it for this Blu-ray review made me feel a bit like I’d left Neverland and was left looking back through a telescope.
And, just because it’s interesting, I’d like to point out that My Neighbor Totoro also has one of the most surprising US distribution histories of any animated movie ever. Following the wholesale slaughter of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind by Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, who released the film heavily re-cut under the title Warriors of the Wind, My Neighbor Totoro was released in the US largely unaltered at Miyazaki’s insistence. The English dub was to follow the original text as closely as possible and none of the character names or locations were permitted to be anglicized. This was a very tall order back in the late ‘90s, before mainstream western audiences had any interest in Japanese animated property (Miramax famously dropped the ball releasing mega-hit Princess Mononoke in US theaters and even the box office takes of relative hits Spirited Away and Ponyo pale in comparison to their Pixar counterparts), but clearly someone saw potential money in the project and was willing to defer to Miyazaki’s demands. But here’s where it gets really weird – the first English dub of My Neighbor Totoro was co-produced by Academy Award winner John Daly. As if that was strange enough, Daly’s involvement helped re-spark the connections from Miyazaki to the American exploitation market (which started when New World released Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind).
You see, before he was winning Oscars and making boffo box office with movies like The Terminator and Platoon, Daly co-huckstered the 1974 ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, and co-produced Ozploitation classics Strange Behavior (directed by Michael Laughlin) and Escape 2000 (aka: Turkey Shoot, directed by Brian Trenchard-Smith). Once finished, the English version was distributed by 50th St. Films, or, as they’re usually called, Troma Films. You read that right – Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz’s Troma Films, the company behind such B-classics as The Toxic Avenger and Combat Shock, distributed Hayao Miyazaki’s magical children’s classic. Troma ended up co-owning the rights to the American release on VHS and Laserdisc until 2004 when their rights expired and Disney re-dubbed the film.
Miyazaki’s movies are all a long time coming on Blu-ray, but the wait for My Neighbor Totoro has been especially frustrating, following yet another DVD release in 2010, alongside Laputa: Castle in the Sky and Kiki’s Delivery Service (which still hasn’t had an HD release). These SD versions were released around the same time Ponyo hit Blu-ray, scaring all of us negative nellies into thinking maybe Disney wasn’t going to bother with any of the catalogue Ghibli releases. This film was made two years after Laputa: Castle in the Sky and, as I understand, had a bigger budget (not to mention more than 30 minutes less animation), so my expectations for this new HD transfer were spiked a bit higher than they were when Disney released Laputa last year. Totoro is a less epic film than Laputa, but it makes up for scope in concentrated detail. The detail allotted in these rich painted backgrounds helps makes the upgrade from standard definition to high definition here a small step above the Laputa disc. Otherwise, this is a very similar re-master. The complex painted elements are big, bright, and brimming with layers of texture. The detail increase doesn’t do the cell animation as many favours, since it reveals minor imperfections in the ink outlines, but fine, intersecting lines are much sharper in HD, without the compression effects you see on the various DVD versions. Disney has a tendency to clean the negatives of their catalogue animated releases, erasing almost all signs of film-gain, but here, the organic grain structure is intact without overwhelming the image. A few odd shots appear dirtier than others and there are some jittering bits, but overall, this is a good HD cleansing that doesn’t lose the integrity of the film-based image.
Like every one of Studio Ghibli’s early efforts, My Neighbor Totoro has had a colourful dub history. The original English track (the one I discussed in the feature section) has been lost along with the analogue home video release’s, replaced with Disney’s 2005 (I believe, perhaps 2006) all-star re-dub. The re-dub was supervised by some big name ADR and sound editors, but was not a theatrical release, so it didn’t get much of a sound design overhaul. This is mostly good news. This disc features dual original Japanese and Disney English dub 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio tracks, rather than the 5.1 tracks that have accompanied most of the other Disney Ghibli Blu-rays ( Nausicaä was also 2.0). Again, based on the original material, this is mostly good news and means the original mixes haven’t been altered all that much (aside from the new voice work, naturally).
Because I’d never seen the film with the newer English dub, I spent most of this viewing paying attention to the English track. This is certainly a well-produced track, but the direct translations kind of hamper memories of the original Japanese experience. Dakota and Elle Fanning’s performances are pretty capable – they just don’t feel like an original part of the puzzle, like some of the stronger English dubs. The volume of the vocal performances are also a bit louder than those of the Japanese track, which simply doesn’t sound as organic. The overall aural landscape is more or less identical between the two dubs, but it does sound like more effort was put into re-mastering the effects and music for the re-dub, which only makes sense, given the time put into separating and reconstituting tracks. The effects are a little bit sharper and Joe Hisaishi’s music is a bit louder. There’s not a whole lot of directional movement or immersive ambience in the sound design, aside from choice sequences. The scenes involving King Totoro’s magic are the obvious standouts, along with some scenes spiked with heavy nature noise (rain storms, cicadas, wind).
Note: The opening credits have been altered to change, based on which version of the film you are watching – if you’re watching in English, the credits are in English with the new dub’s cast; if you’re watching in Japanese, the titles are entirely original images.
Another Note: Sadly, Tim Daly is not the son of original English dub producer John Daly. That’s a different Tim Daly.
The brief extras begin with Creating My Neighbor Totoro (3:00, HD), an interview with Miyazaki about the film’s inspiration and inception. Creating the Characters (4:20, HD) is an interview with producer Toshio Suzuki and Miyazaki on the design and introduction of the title character. The Totoro Experience (2:00, HD) features Suzuki and Miyazaki talking about the film’s initial box office failure (apparently not a surprise), which was turned around with the introduction of plush toy versions of the title character. Producer’s Perspective: Creating Ghibli (1:20, HD) covers the process of naming the studio. The extras end with vintage look at the real-life locations titled Locations of Totoro (28:40, SD), featuring actress Mayu Tsuruta talking to locals and nature park curators, Scoring Miyazaki (7:20, HD) with composer Joe Hissaishi, Behind the Microphone with the 2005 voice cast (5:40, SD), trailers, and an option to watch the film in original storyboard form. The Scoring Miyazaki piece features some nice HD footage from Kiki’s Delivery Service, making me think it’s on deck for the next round of Ghibli Blu-rays (perhaps alongside From Up on Poppy Hill?).
My Neighbor Totoro has lost some of its magic as I’ve aged, but it’s still an amazing film and one future generations of children should absorb and adore, and this Blu-ray release is a great way to share. The new 1080p transfer is clean without losing grain or dynamic range, the DTS-HD MA 2.0 Japanese and English soundtracks are crisp without changing the structure of the sound design, and the extras, though short, have a nostalgic sweetness about them.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and original Disney DVD release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Gabriel Powers
All ages admitted
Release Date: 21st May 2013
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Japanese, English, French
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Extras: Creating My Neighbor Totoro, The Totoro Experience, Producer’s Perspective: Creating Ghibli, Locations of Totoro, Scoring Miyazaki, Behind the Microphone, Trailers, Original Storyboards, DVD Copy
Easter Egg: No
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Cast: Chika Sakamoto, Noriko Hidaka, Hitoshi Takagi, Dakota Fanning, Elle Fannng, Tim Daly
Genre: Adventure, Animation, Family and Fantasy
Length: 86 minutes
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