Reviewby Carlo Santos, Oct 20th 2013
My Neighbor Totoro
Two young sisters, Satsuki and Mei, are moving to the countryside with their father so they can live closer to their hospitalized mother. Their new home has been vacant for so long that some locals call it the "haunted house"—and the girls soon find out this might actually be true. Mysterious soot sprites lurk in dark corners, a path in the nearby woods leads to unexpected places, and a massive raccoon-bear-rabbit-hybrid creature named Totoro supposedly roams the forest. Mei is the first to claim that she has met Totoro, while her father suggests that he might be a powerful spirit of the woods. Through a series of encounters, Satsuki and Mei learn that Totoro—often accompanied by his smaller-sized companions—is a cryptic yet helpful creature. But will Totoro come to Satsuki's aid when she fears that Mei's life is in danger?
My Neighbor Totoro is known by many as a masterpiece of children's animation. But how many know that it is also a delightful children's book? This novel, adapted from Hayao Miyazaki's original story and released around the same time as the movie in 1988, has finally reached English-speaking audiences, long after most people have heard about the anime. But don't be so quick to dismiss it as a cheap "book-based-on-a-movie" cash grab. The simple but descriptive writing style, along with a faithful adherence to the tale, keeps the charm of the movie intact. It may not be exactly be Ghibli animation turned into prose—but it's about as close as prose can get to the spirit of Ghibli.
Of all the things that symbolize the spirit of Ghibli, it's Miyazaki's love of nature that gets echoed most frequently in the book. In every chapter—if not every other page—author Tsugiko Kubo diligently describes the landscape, the plants, the weather, even the little scents and sounds that make up a scene. It may not have the dazzling impact of the anime, but being able to imagine each moment is special in its own way: the famous "bus stop" scene, for example, introduces the idea of how Totoro smells. (Try making that happen on a movie screen.)
This romanticized image of rural living is also presented through the characters. Satsuki and Mei aren't just here to meet Totoro and go on wild adventures; they're also adapting to a country lifestyle. Early on, the story makes a big deal about Satsuki learning to do housework the old-fashioned way, and later contrasts this with the sheltered life of her city-bred Tokyo relatives. Mei, who is first portrayed as shy and afraid of her new environment, eventually grows into the true heroine of the story—a child of nature, who views Totoro and friends not with skepticism but a welcoming sense of wonder. The supporting cast of villagers also adds a dimension not seen in the movie: they interact with the main characters frequently, creating an atmosphere of country hospitality, and (surprisingly) give the book a more cohesive ending than the anime.
For the devoted fan, though, it's all about the moments of Miyazaki magic. This novel stays true to the film's most famous fantasy sequences: Mei's first encounter with Totoro, the bus stop scene, the tree-growing scene, Satsuki's journey aboard the grinning Catbus. They're all there, in order, but the lack of visuals or music can make it feel like a mechanical, watered-down reenactment of the movie. Perhaps there is such a thing as being too faithful. What readers might enjoy, however, is noting subtle differences where the mystery of Totoro is emphasized over his grandeur (or cuteness). Instead of trying to bluntly describe every animated scene, the story sometimes detours into introspective moments that only prose can pull off.
The book also includes some original scenes not in the film, fleshing out the main characters. When Mei intrudes on Satsuki's class at her new school, it reveals the self-consciousness of being the new kid in town (especially when Satsuki so often puts up a confident front). Satsuki and Mei's visit with their relatives in Tokyo is another eye-opener, showing how the city girls who moved to the country no longer fit into their old lifestyle. Some might see these as pointless slice-of-life fillers that take away from the fantasy aspect—but what they really do is make the story more well-rounded, so that it's not just about trying to find giant mysterious creatures in the woods.
Tsugiko Kubo's plainspoken writing style—translated into effortless English by Jim Hubbert—makes the story easy enough to follow for grade-school readers, but with a classic storybook charm that adults will also enjoy. Kubo never dwells too long on abstraction, and instead focuses on the concrete details in each brief sentence: the sights and smells of the country, physical and emotional sensations, the things that people say and do. The only fault in this approach is that the descriptions sometimes get so involved that nothing actually happens for a page or two. Lastly, while Totoro may be a massive creature who defies description, all the little details about his size, appearance, and sheer presence add up to a striking word-picture.
As an added bonus, Hayao Miyazaki's understated pencil-and-watercolor sketches also find their way into this book. Each chapter comes with an illustration, portraying selected scenes but never going for the "obvious" choice. For example, Totoro's appearance at the bus stop is one of the sketches—but it's taken at an oblique angle, not the famous front-facing view that everyone's already familiar with. Even as a guest artist, Miyazaki demonstrates his creativity. These sketches are the ideal complement to the text: not as garish as an anime screenshot, but enough of a visual prompt to let readers fill in the details in their own minds.
The book adaptation of My Neighbor Totoro proves that a well-told story will hold up in just about any medium. The existence of this novel certainly doesn't "ruin" the greatness of the anime, and in some ways it even improves on the original: supporting characters and new scenes add realistic, slice-of-life elements to the fantasy, and the ending actually ties things up in a more satisfying manner. The film's greatest highlights lose some of their luster when condensed into text, but it's a worthy trade-off as the novel presents the story from a refreshing angle. Whether children or grown-ups are in the audience, whether it's on screen or on the page, that Miyazaki magic always remains.
Overall : A-
Story : B
Art : A-
+ This charmingly written novel stays faithful to the original, but also adds its own wrinkles and dimensions to the story.
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