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My Neighbor Totoro

Hayao Miyazaki is one of the most popular animators in Japan. He makes animated feature films with a strong appeal to the entire family; young kids can watch his movies as well as grown-ups. This, plus the fact that he draws heavily on Western sources for his stories, has attracted the attention of fans of Japanese animation fans here in America, who want his movies to reach as wide an audience over here as they do in Japan.

A few of Miyazaki's animated works have been translated into English and released on video, but they've had no major impact on American audiences, children or otherwise. Now another attempt is being made to introduce Japanese animation (called "anime" - pronounced AN-ee-may - by the Japanese and Japanimation fans) to America. Troma Pictures, the company that made a name for itself after producing such deliberately awful movies as The Toxic Avenger and Surf Nazis Must Die, is trying to shed its schlock-film image (perhaps they're finding themselves trapped by it) by forming a new movie distribution arm called 50th Street Films. The first film to be released to theaters by this new company is Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro, an animated feature film that was one of the biggest box- office hits of the past few years in Nippon. While this new project has absolutely no chance of toppling Disney from the throne, it's given us a chance to see a delightful fantasy film for children that might have otherwise gone completely unnoticed.

My Neighbor Totoro is the story of two young children, ten-year- old Satsuki and her sister Mei, who move with their father to a house in the Japanese countryside. As they acquaint themselves with their new home, they get the feeling that the house is haunted by mysterious "dust bunnies" - spirits that gather in old houses and that are dispersed by laughter. Their suspicions prove true, and they meet Totoro, an ancient spirit living in a giant tree by their house. Totoro is a huge, furry creature that looks like a ten-foot-tall cross between a rabbit and a pillow; he takes the children on a magical journey through the forest that's full of wonder and laughs.

Anime has been appearing on American video shelves, though its appeal has largely been to the teenage action-flick market: most Japanese animated films (such as the popular Akira) are full of robots, guns, women with large breasts and lots and lots of graphic violence. Fans of this type of animation will avoid My Neighbor Totoro like the plague, because it's a quiet story that will appeal mostly to young children and their parents. If you watch this movie expecting guns and death, forget it.

However, if you're a parent with young children, or you're just a person who likes watching movies with good animation and good stories, you'll be pleased with Totoro. It's a far cry from The Care Bears, because not only will your children be entranced by it - you'll enjoy it, too! You'll chuckle with glee when little Mei encounters a "dust bunny" spirit for the first time, and when Totoro helps the children make the seeds in their garden sprout, and when they take a ride in a delightful, living Cat-bus that reminds one of the Cheshire Cat. (Several elements of this story are taken from "Alice In Wonderland," including Mei's fall down the rabbit hole into Totoro's Wonderland.) You'll smile all throughout the movie - and I'd much rather enjoy a children's story than wince at sickly-sweet treacle such as we get with My Little Pony or Barney the Dinosaur.

The film is not all sweetness and light: the children's mother is in the hospital, being treated for an illness, and while there's nothing here as shocking as the death of Bambi's mother, the climax of the film where Mei runs away and Satsuki searches desperately for her may cause anxiety among small children. But it certainly won't traumatize them for life - and there's a happy ending that everyone will be sure to love.

In addition, the animation is done with care and love. The opening credits look very silly, and parents may wonder what they're in for when they watch them, but once the credits are over the movie is lushly animated, with beautiful, realistic scenery and many delightful touches, such as a cluster of pollywogs in a pond or Totoro making it rain by stomping on the ground and shaking rain off of the trees. There's no computer animation here (Miyazaki prefers the traditional hand-drawn method of animation), but while the animation may not be as dazzling as that in The Rescuers Down Under or Aladdin, it's very well done nonetheless.

Also of note is the transition from Japanese into English. Dubbing into another language is always difficult, especially with children's films, because the voice actors in these films often sound like thirty-year-olds trying sound like children. That's not the case here: the voices here come from the same company that dubbed other Japanese animated films, such as Gunbuster, but this time they've taken the care to sound more like children and less like squealing grown-ups. The dialogue is good; you won't wince with embarrassment from the translation. Some films, such as Laputa, are sometimes unintentionally funny by using ridiculous phrases to simulate the movement of the character's mouths - as when two children are falling down a hole and one says to the other "We can go all the way!" There's none of that here. This is one of the best dubbing jobs of a Japanese animated film I've seen, and I applaud the effort taken to make it sound right.

Because of the language barrier (and the fact that Disney has a near-monopoly on animated feature films in this country), it's been difficult to introduce Miyazaki's films to American moviegoers. But his fans have made some progress: Streamline Pictures, a company formed especially to translate and distribute Japanese animated films in America, has managed to get a couple of Miyazaki's movies to play in American art-house theaters. The Castle of Cagliostro, a wild and hilarious James Bond type of adventure starring a noble thief called "The Wolf" (his Japanese name is Lupin III), was subtitled and played at art houses across the country; I saw it at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where it played to a packed house and received loud applause from the audience. Laputa: Castle in the Sky one of Miyazaki's most enchanting films (and one of my personal favorites), was dubbed into English and likewise sent to art-house theaters. But outside of anime fandom, these movies have had absolutely no impact on the mainstream moviegoing audience, whose sole idea of going to the movies consists of heading to the local mall to see Aladdin and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

My Neighbor Totoro is suffering from the same lack of exposure. Troma Films failed to land a major distribution contract with any of the major Hollywood studios, and thus they're reduced to sending a few prints to theaters across the country. Not many people are going to have the chance to see this movie on the big screen - and if it does come to their town, there won't be any TV commercials or big ads in the newspaper, and it might pass them by completely. Keep a close eye out for this one, and if you see it at a theater, take the kids and go. But even so, you might sit in a near-empty theater.

The best thing to do is wait for the video release - probably by Christmas of this year. When it appears, rent My Neighbor Totoro and watch it with your children. You're in for a treat.