Never Seen … My Neighbour Totoro (1988)

About a month ago, I set Callum Dunbar the challenge of watching My Neighbour Totoro, a wonderful family-friendly Japanese animation that has become a cult classic, which he had never seen before. Here’s the conversation we had after he’d watched it.


Elspeth H (EH): So today we’re talking about My Neighbour Totoro, the Studio Ghibli classic from 1988. Am I right in thinking you hadn’t heard of Studio Ghibli before?

Callum Dunbar (CD): That’s correct. My cultural knowledge is fairly crap when it comes to Japanese films.

EH: So you hadn’t seen any Japanese films before?

CD: Nope. Nothing. The only Japanese anime I’ve ever seen is Pokemon. If you can call that…

EH: That counts.

CD: My expectations were not very high.

EH: In what way? In terms of the complexity of the animation?

CD: Yes, in terms of the animation I had extremely low expectations.

EH: What was it you were excepting?

CD: I was expecting a Japanese fairytale. A magical Japanese fairytale.

EH: And was it what you were expecting?

CD: Not at all. It was something far more complex and subtle than a fairytale. I guess it was more real and more hopeful than a fairytale as well.

EH: You found it hopeful at the end?

CD Yes, I did. It wasn’t just saying … there was no really hero, which I liked. There was no male character saving a helpless female life.

EH: Which is always refreshing to see.

CD: Which is why Frozen is such a great film because it breaks out of all those kind of tropes which I like.

EH: I guess there are similarities to Frozen, actually, in that there are two sisters and it’s about the elements and nature and the power of those things.

CD: Yes, I agree. And it has an interesting narrative as well. It’s exploratory in a way that other Disney films and other fairytales aren’t. It was far less of a fable. It wasn’t trying to teach me something, it was trying to ask me things which I think is good for children. But it’s equally entertaining for adults.

EH: I was going to ask, you watched it with your daughter didn’t you?

CD: I did.

EH: And how old is she?

CD: Olivia’s just six.

EH: What did she think of it?

CD: She loved it. In fact as soon as the film ended she asked me to restart it for her. She’s never done that before. it’s quite something. To get Olivia to sit still and do anything is a miracle.

EH: What was it she enjoyed about it do you think? Did she empathise with the children or was it the magic of the whole thing?

CD: Yeah, I think the fact it was a young girl. I think she liked Totoro. Actually I know she liked Totoro.

EH: You can get a Totoro onesie by the way, just if you’re thinking birthdays or Christmas…

CD: I think that’s it. I can’t speak for her but I think she liked the imagery, like the cat bus. We both liked that as fans of Alice in Wonderland.

EH: Admittedly I was much older than six when I watched My Neighbour Totoro for the first time, but I still found the cat bus kind of creepy and scary. But she didn’t find that?

CD: No, I don’t think so. But even if she did find it creepy, I think creepy is a good thing. It’s one of those films that expands the way you see things, which I really like. I really liked that. And maybe she was too young to get that but I think it was a good experience for her to watch it. It is exploratory in the art work and so on.

EH: There’s a fair amount of darkness in it as well. There are some really harsh and scary moments.

CD: At the same time, it’s not dragons, it’s real world darkness.

EH: So as you watched it with Olivia, I’m guessing you watched the dubbed rather than the subtitled version?

CD: Yes, the Disney release.

EH: I would recommend watching it by yourself with the subtitles instead. There is definitely a difference. Would you recommend it?

CD. Yes. And I’m not someone who watches films. Definitely watch it with a child as well. I should have asked Olivia what she thought because her reaction was very interesting. There must have been something in it that held her attention which, apart from the obvious ones like Frozen, I’ve not seen her do before.

EH: I’ve heard of other children reacting to it in a similar way. Identifying with the two sisters. I think that kind of childish madness is quite universal.

CD: Absolutely. And imagination. You know it touches on themes of your parents blaming things on your imagination, which I think is something all children can relate to. But it celebrates that as well. In the same way that Roald Dahl’s Matilda does that. And I know Olivia likes that too.

EH: So did it meet all your expectations? How did it stack up?

CD: It exceeded them by a long way.

EH: You like the animation style?

CD: I loved it. I thought the art work was beautiful. I thought the colours were beautiful. I thought the setting was beautiful as well. I just loved it.

EH: So have I created a Ghibli fan?

CD: I think so. I’d definitely watch more Ghibli.

EH: Would you be interested in watching some of the more grown up films? The wonderful thing about Ghibli is it covers quite a wide spectrum, unlike Disney which sticks to children’s films.

CD: I definitely think I would. I like to try all things and I felt like I got something new from that film. Yes. 100%.

EH: Fantastic. Any favourite moments?

CD: The cat bus.

EH: I rather like the dust mites. You know when you walk in to a room and it feels a bit like a lot of dust mites disappearing into corners and cracks?

CD: I like the … it’s hard to explain… I like the narrative and that it wasn’t a cause and effect narrative. So at the end when the girls left the corn on the window sill and the fact that the film didn’t end with them all visiting the mother in hospital. I really liked those things, it wasn’t obvious. And there’s the scene were they find the child’s shoe floating in the pond. It cranks up the tension, is this the younger sister’s shoe? and it’s not. And it just leaves it there. I loved it.

EH: Marks out of 5?

CD: Five. Better than Ghostbusters.

You can find Callum’s blog here or follow him on Twitter here.

We’d love to know what you thought of My Neighbour Totoro the first time you saw it. Was it the first Studio Ghibli you saw? Are you a fan? What do you think of Callum’s first impressions? Do you have a film you think Callum should watch? Please use the comments box below to join in the conversation! 

Never Seen … Star Wars (1977)

I set Callum Dunbar the challenge of watching Star Wars, another of my favourite films, which he had never seen before. Here’s the conversation we had after he’d watched it.


Elspeth H (EH): So this week you watched Star Wars (1977) – the original episode. You hadn’t seen it before?

Callum Dunbar (CD): I hadn’t. I haven’t seen any of the original films.

EH: How have you existed without seeing Star Wars?

CD: Probably the same way I’ve existed without watching Ghostbusters.

EH: So it’s not that you’d had the opportunity to watch them and you’d decided not to?

CD: No, the chance never came about. Which is surprising because I love the Phantom Menace. [pause] Don’t make that face.

EH: OK, and what were you expecting from the film?

CD: C3PO and R2-D2. I was expecting the “Luke, I am your father moment”, but that didn’t happen in this film. Actually I was expecting the chase at the end with the X-wings, because I’d seen that on a ride at Disneyland. I was looking forward to that bit.

EH: So you had some experience of the film?

CD: I had some experience, mainly of different characters – like Chewbacca.

EH: Can you make the noise?


CD: No. My girlfriend thought that Chewbacca was irritating and couldn’t understand why he was there. I had to explain that he was Han Solo’s co-pilot. She shouldn’t have been so dismissive.

EH: Chewbacca is my favourite character. But we’ll move on from that. Did the film meet your expectations?

CD: Yes. Definitely.

EH: It was everything you were hoping for and more?

CD: Yeah. It was awesome.

EH: What did you think of the special effects? I know when you watched Ghostbusters, there were some issues there.

CD: I thought they were really good. Especially as it was the 1970s. I mean, I was watching a re-mastered version and you could see where the re-mastering had been applied. But the sets and the costumes were just fantastic; the amount of extras; the budget must have phenomenal. It was great. I think I loved it most as a feat of imagination; the amount of things going on and the size of the vision is what I enjoyed.

EH: It’s a whole universe.

CD: Even down to the way the droids were loaded into the X-wings. It was just amazing.

EH: So, it was different from what you’d expected it to be?

CD: Urrm… It exceeded my expectations in terms of scale. It was huge.

EH: You can understand why it has a fanbase the size that it does?

CD: Yeah. Absolutely. I went straight onto Wikipedia and started researching different characters. I already know what happens in the next ones.

EH: You’re an idiot. [laughter]

CD: Yep, I just think it’s fantastic. Completely immersive. It’s awesome.

EH: So you want to watch the next ones?

CD: Yes. I want to watch all nine.

EH: Well, there’s only six at the moment. The next one’s out in December, so you’ve got a good couple of months to watch all of them before then. Did you know it won Oscars?

CD: No.

EH: It won six.

CD: I’m not surprised.

EH: I’ll admit, I didn’t know that until I was checking it on IMDb earlier and I was impressed. I was going to ask if you wanted to make any guesses as to what happens in the next ones, but you’ve already Wiki’d it! So you know! You’ve destroyed this interview! [laughter]

CD: Sorry! It’s only because it was so good.

EH: Are you going to go away and buy all of the paraphernalia that goes with being a Star Wars fan? Are you going to be dressing up in your robe with a lightsaber?

CD: Probably not. I probably will dress my daughter up as a Tuscan Raider if I get the chance.

EH: Does it make you think less of Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, now that you’ve seen how good the first film is? Can you appreciate why I pull a face when you say “Phantom Menace”?

CD: Yes – especially given the 30-year gap between the two.

[EH rants about how much she dislikes The Phantom Menace, possibly unjustly as she’s only seen it once.]

EH: Good. Let’s move on. I have real problems with the Phantom Menace.

CD: I can see that. I also liked the fact feudalism and other medieval institutions had been taken into space. Darth Vader is a lord and there are princes and princesses. Again, it’s down to the size of the vision. Also, the references to Imperial and Republican history.

EH: Fantastic. I don’t really have any other questions for you. I kind of just wanted you to geek-out on the whole thing. Buy the posters that kind of thing.

CD: I won’t be doing that. But I will understand more t-shirts now, I think.

EH: I was going to say! Because there is so much in this world that is Star Wars-related…

CD: Exactly.

… May the Force be with you.

You can find Callum’s blog here or follow him on Twitter here.

We’d love to know what you thought of Star Wars the first time you saw it. Are you a fan? What do you think of Callum’s first impressions?Please use the comments box below to join in the conversation! 

Never Seen … Ghostbusters (1984)

I set Callum Dunbar the challenge of watching Ghostbusters, one of my favourite films, which he had never seen before. Here’s the conversation we had after he’d watched it.


Elspeth H (EH): We’re going to talk about Ghostbusters, which had its 30th Anniversary last year and which you, at the age of 23, hadn’t seen until the weekend.

Callum Dunbar (CD): It was 7 years before my time.

EH: Before we talk about what you thought of it, can I ask you what you thought it was going to be like? The film means a lot in modern culture and I wondered how much that had infiltrated your mind already and what expectations you had of it?

CD: I thought it was going to be like Men In Black. That was my template.

EH: In what way?

CD: Mainly because it involved supernatural business and suits. I was also expecting Bill Murray. Heavy duty Bill Murray.

EH: Well, you were lucky there.

CD: I was. I was expecting some fairly shonky digital effects. Not quite as shonky as they were, in fact. I was surprised by how bad they were. I was expecting Casper-standard digital effects and Bill Murray humour.

EH: And did it meet those expectations? Was it better or worse than you expected it to be?

CD: Bill Murray was creepier than I thought he was going to be.

EH: In what way creepier?

CD: His flirting was quite unsettling at times, and confusing. Some of the special effects were far worse than I imagined but the film was better for that, I think.

EH: Any specific moments that stand out?

CD: When the weird dog things run across the road; a moment of King Kong-standard digital effects. The film was better than Men In Black. Much better.

EH: What did you find most surprising about it?

CD: The sexual undertones running through the whole thing. From the two strange sexual experiences involving ghosts to the Keymaster and Gatekeeper weirdness.

EH: Sigourney Weaver hovering over a bed.

CD: Sexorcism.

EH: Would you recommend it to anyone?

CD: Yes.

EH: Who would you recommend it to? Do you have a “this will particularly appeal to people who like this film” or “I think my girlfriend would love it?”. She watched it with you, didn’t she?

CD: She did. My girlfriend did enjoy it; we’ll definitely watch the second one. I’d recommend it to people my own age. Just to witness a bit of gratuitous smoking in films. That’s always good to see.

EH: But it wasn’t gratuitous back then, that’s the thing.

CD: No, it wasn’t. But it sure as hell looks gratuitous now.

EH: You’re talking about a film that came out 7 years before you were born.

CD: I know, but the world appears to have changed so much. Now we expect plots without massive holes in them. Do we expect too much, Elspeth? I think we do.

EH: What kind of plot holes are you talking about? This is one of my favourite films, I don’t remember any plot holes in it. To me it is a seamless beauty.

CD: Maybe not plot holes, but big unanswered questions in the film.

EH: Such as?

CD: Such as Bill Murray’s dismissive attitude towards ghosts in the first half of the film, which he forgets when it’s time to become the de facto leader of the Ghostbusters.

EH: It’s just the charismatic Bill Murray character.

CD: He seems like an opportunist to me.

EH: But that’s fine. You can’t put a dampener on that. He’s magnificent in that role.

CD: And who is the blonde woman dancing at the accountant’s party? What’s the story behind the alarming sexual tension between the receptionist and the ghostbuster with glasses?

EH: Egon. That’s a beautiful foundation of a relationship, right there.

CD: And what happened to the cigarette that fell out of the ghostbuster’s mouth in the hotel?

EH: When you said massive plot holes, I was expecting massive plot holes, and what you’re giving me are higgle-dy piggle-dy little details.

CD: The film very much belongs to the “let’s throw enough shit at the wall and see what sticks” school, which I like. It kept me guessing. Also, the lack of an explanation as to how the team store ghosts; that’s something that really bothered me.

EH: But they did, they put it in the big thing with the lever.

CD: Yes, but how do you do that? They just happened to have enough money to create a ghost storage device which was literally capable of storing the end of the world.

EH: Well, they’re getting quite a lot of money from the people paying them to store the ghosts.

CD: Yeah, I guess they do.

EH: And they made friends with the mayor by the end of it.

CD: YES. Here’s the key one: why does a cardinal turn up during one scene? What does the cardinal add to the film?

EH: I think you have to allow for comic effect. I think you’re missing the fact that this is a comedy.

CD: It was a different age…

EH: I don’t have much to add to that. The other thing I was going to ask you about was, having seen the film, are there lots of cultural references that now make more sense because of it? I know you’ve seen Be Kind Rewind, where two friends make their own version of Ghostbusters. Have you suddenly thought “Oh my gosh! That’s what they were referring to!”?

CD: Actually, a lot of the hype around Bill Murray now makes more sense. As a crash course in Bill Murray I think you can’t go wrong with Ghostbusters.

EH: Had you not seen many Bill Murray films before?

CD: I’d seen a couple but now it makes more sense.

EH: You just have a better understanding of Bill. The might that is.

CD: Yeah, that’s about it. Did The Exorcist come out before or after Ghostbusters?

EH: I don’t know, actually.

CD: In the film, there’s the exorcism scene where Sigourney Weaver floats above the bed; was that a reference to Ghostbusters or was Ghostbusters referring to The Exorcist? I know which one I want to believe.

EH: I don’t know. That’s an interesting question.

CD: Another question: why do the weird dog things have to target Sigourney Weaver and the other character? I mean, there was a whole party full of people there in the accountant’s apartment when they lets the dogs out. Why did the dog chase the accountant across New York, when prime pickings of other wholesome bodies, right down the hall?

EH: You’re missing the fact that he’s the Keymaster.

CD: I am. But was he the Keymaster before that scene?

EH: He’s always been the Keymaster because of the building. I feel like you need to watch this film again.

CD: A lot of Ghostbusters went over my head. I’m not sure what this says about me.

EH: Finally, if you were to give it a rating out of 5 stars, where would it fall?

CD: I think before our conversation, I would have said 3 but now…

EH: Now you’ve got a better understanding of it…

CD: On reflection, I’d say 4 and a half.

EH: 4.5 That’s pretty good. I’m impressed by that.

CD: I can see why it’s a classic.

EH: It gets a straight-up 5 from me, nothing about that film can flaw it. It’s fantastic. So, thank you very much.

CD: Can I give my favourite quote?

EH: Please do.

CD: Bill Murray: I make it a rule to never get with possessed people… It’s more of a guideline than a rule.…

You can find Callum’s blog here or follow him on Twitter here.

We’d love to know what you thought of Ghostbusters the first time you saw it. Please use the comments box below to join in the conversation!