Sunday, February 19, 2017

Audient Anime: My Neighbor Totoro

"Whoa! Introducing a new series on us just like that, Vance, without any lead-up or lengthy preamble?"

Yes I am. Because it's more of an informal bi-monthly series, like when I rewatched all six Star Wars movies leading up to the release of The Force Awakens back in 2015. When you are doing bi-monthly series you gotta get started in February, so I'm launching one now in the hopes that we make it all the way through to December.

I'm couching my language in uncertainty because this series involves my son, and his viewing habits are not always predictable. But the attempt to predict them is what's causing me to launch Audient Anime, which makes for a very logical series to intermingle with my monthly series, Asian Audient.

My son, now six-and-a-half, is a huge Pokemon fan. There are Pokemon movies that I'm sure he'd love to watch with me, some of which we saw at a Hoyts kiosk when I was getting a different movie a few months ago. I promised him then that we would rent one "next time," but fortunately, he hasn't held me to that promise yet.

See, I don't want to watch Pokemon movies with him. But there are plenty of movies that will remind him of Pokemon that I'd love to watch with him.

I've been pretty derelict in my Studio Ghibli viewing. Almost impossibly, I have still only seen one film directed by Hayao Miyazaki, that being Spirited Away. I've seen probably 20 other anime films, but the medium's undisputed shining star has mostly eluded me. If you want to read the various obstacles anime presents for me, or has presented for me at different points in my life, you can follow the tag below this post to my other posts on anime. But let's just say the fact that I have not made a priority out of anime would be an understatement.

That had to change, and there's no better time than now to do it.

Although Miyazaki's films in particular, and anime in general, mostly have little crossover with the world of Pokemon, I figured the similar animation style would put my son in the mind of Pokemon and lower his barrier to entry. I sought advice on which film to start with, initially imagining Kiki's Delivery Service (for no good reason), but the members of my Facebook Flickchart group steered me toward My Neighbor Totoro. One said "Totoro looks kind of like a Snorlax," referencing a Pokemon even I was familiar with.

It wasn't easy to get my hands on -- I couldn't rent it from iTunes and it's not on any streaming services I subscribe to -- but after a couple weeks my library reserve did come through. I scooped it up yesterday.

We started out on a potentially worrisome note. I'd showed my son the cover and it piqued his interests, but shortly before we began watching he asked "Is it going to have battles in it?" I knew it wouldn't. In fact, I'd considered starting with something like Princess Mononoke because I knew it probably would have battles, but the Flickcharters advised against it -- too violent and nightmarish for a six-year-old. (So maybe we'll save that one for after he turns seven in August.) "I don't know," I lied. "I guess we'll find out."

So we put the younger one down for his nap and started watching.

Almost immediately I was put at ease. It was clear this was a world in which he felt comfortable already. He's watched hours of Pokemon and has recently discovered the similar Digimon. Anime is his bag, baby.

But I still worried about whether it would hold his attention, a sweet fantasy story with nothing in the way of physical conflict.

I needn't have worried about that either. Even just the two central little girls discovering their new house in the country was enough to draw him in, but when the soot sprites recede from the door to the bathhouse opening, he was properly fascinated. Hooked.

My only concern from then on came in the form of him asking how soon we were going to meet Totoro. The film doesn't actually introduce us to its title character until the 30-minute mark. But the wait was worth it. He loved Totoro, and we both especially loved the "cat bus" (does it have a name?) who shows up later. Totoro got me started, but the cat bus was the perfect emblem of the type of wonderful fantasy world in which we were now ensconced -- a fantasy world that it now seems crazy has largely eluded me to this point.

At one point he turned to me and said, "This might be the best movie I've ever seen."


And the score is much more satisfying than if I had just introduced him to a bit of anime involving "battles." It was heartening to see that my son has not lost his sense of wonder, and that an innocent world beautifully rendered can captivate him just like Pokemon using their moves on each other. I was similarly captivated, so it was a relief that my viewing companion wasn't squirming on the couch next to me.

One concern that I've had -- that I still have going forward with this series -- is that by watching these movies for the first time dubbed in English, rather than in Japanese with English subtitles, I wouldn't be giving myself my best first impression of them. It's something I wrote about here. But this English voice cast was on point. None of that sense of the words being disembodied from the actions or characters. In fact, the performances of the two little girls were particularly excellent. I was in love with the little girl Mei. So adorable, and so adorably voiced. If I understand correctly, Totoro may be one of the only movies where the English voice cast is this good, so I may have a bumpy road ahead of me. But then again, I suspect this whole series will feel a tad bumpy trying to meet the impossibly high standard set by Totoro. It's a tough act to follow.

Despite the fact that I can't possibly love the next movie -- maybe Kiki's, maybe something else -- as much as I loved this one, I am indeed licking my chops about our April viewing choice, and I suspect my son is too, though I haven't actually told him that this is a formal "viewing series."

Instead, I'll just choose a random April Saturday afternoon and show him a BluRay cover of our next movie, and I hope it will remind him of the experience we shared when we both discovered My Neighbor Totoro.

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