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!