This week, one of Hayao Miyazaki’s most beloved and accomplished features, along with one of his less successful efforts, debut on Blu-ray.
My Neighbor Totoro is among the most extraordinary family films ever made. Roger Ebert included it in his Great Films project, justly so. For years now I’ve been mulling over a personal all-time top 10 list (I’ve settled on about six or seven titles), and I’ve gone back and forth whether to give a slot on the list to Miyazaki’s Spirited Away or My Neighbor Totoro. In the end I think Spirited Away wins out, but it’s close.
The gentle, nearly plotless events in the lives of two young girls moving into a new house are mesmerizing to even the youngest viewers, and draw receptive adults into a precritical world of exploration, eeriness, worry and wonder. The mundane is infused with magic, and the magical is presented with matter-of-fact ordinariness.
In one iconic scene, the two sisters wait in the rain at a bus stop for their father, for whom they have brought an umbrella. Mei, the younger sister, becomes sleepy, and Satsuke holds her piggy-back, balancing her umbrella on one shoulder. Then they're joined by an unexpected party. This clip offers a taste of the scene (for more, read my full review):
Miyazaki’s compelling gift for world-building hasn’t failed him in Howl’s Moving Castle, loosely based on the fantasy novel by Diana Wynn Jones. I’ve watched the film three times now, and I can’t deny that it has a certain power, even fascination.
But this only makes the film’s weaknesses more frustrating. On our most recent viewing, my daughter Sarah put her finger on the heart of the problem: Howl himself, an enigmatic wizard whose ambiguities aren’t so much a matter of inscrutability — as with Fujimoto in Ponyo, or Yubaba and Haku in Spirited Away — as they are a matter of the character’s own lack of direction.
Chihiro in Spirited Away might not know whether or not Haku could be trusted, but at least Haku’s confidence and powers provided a reference point in an otherwise inscrutable world. His nature might be in doubt, but if he could be trusted, one could trust him utterly. With Howl, the question is not merely what his nature is, but whether he has a center at all. Certainly he doesn’t seem to deserve Sophie’s love, as Haku does Chihiro’s.
Still, Howl’s Moving Castle has its charms. Above all, I’ll always love the first-act moment in the video below. When I first saw it in the theater, my heart leapt at this scene as high as Howl and Sophie, and I thought perhaps I had a new favorite on my hands. The rest of the film didn’t hold up, but this scene remains potent.
Bonus features for My Neighbor Totoro include a series of brief interviews with Hayao Miyazaki talking about the inspirations for the film, the characters and Totoro himself and an extra on dubbing the film into English. Extras for Howl's Moving Castle include an interview with Pete Docter, who oversaw the English adaptation and talks about the impact this experience had on his own (superior) Up. Both Blu-rays include original storyboard art and Japanese trailers.