Cuddly Creatures and Cultural Barriers: The Struggles in Showing My Neighbor Totoro to an American Audience
By Michael Wilson
The animated film My Neighbor Totoro, made by the internationally acclaimed Studio Ghibli, is a cultural phenomenon in Japan. The film tells the story of two sisters, Satsuki and Mei, who move to the Japanese countryside with their father while their mother is in the hospital. At their new home, they meet a friendly, cuddly forest spirit named Totoro. The girls do not go on any big adventures, nor do they face evil villains. They simply enjoy being children. The beauty of childhood is a fairly universal theme in the media. What makes My Neighbor Totoro so unique is the large role that Japanese culture plays in the film.
According to the Internet Movie Database, My Neighbor Totoro has been released in thirty countries, most recently being released in China last December (My Neighbor Totoro: Release Info). With the significant role that Japanese culture plays in the film, it is debatable if a non-Japanese audience, particularly an American one, would be able to fully connect with it.
My Neighbor Totoro does have an American fan base, but is restricted to those who hold a strong interest in animè, animation, and filmmaking. When Americans are looking for a movie to show their children, odds are that My Neighbor Totoro is not the first one to come to mind..
An English dub was made for the States in 1993, under the distribution of 50th Street Films and Twentieth Century Fox. The film was met with mixed results. It performed well in home video sales (McCarthy 118), but it also received rather negative reviews (Klady). In 1996, Studio Ghibli entered into a distribution deal with Walt Disney Studios, granting them the rights to produce the English dubs of most of their films (Kelts 54). When 50th Street Films and Twentieth Century Fox’s rights to the film expired in 2005, Disney took advantage of the opportunity to make their own dub. This was when the film found its American following. Animè had become more popular in the States and Ghibli gained credibility after their film Spirited Away won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. The character Totoro has become more recognizable and has even made appearances in the American media in Toy Story 3 and South Park. Despite its growing success, My Neighbor Totoro is still much more known in Japan than in the United States. This popularity inequality could be due to the cultural differences that are reflected in the film.
The first cultural difference is the relationship within the family. The family depicts the typical image of a happy and loving family that one might find in an American film. Everyone gets along and there is a clear atmosphere of love and intimacy. What makes the family different, from an American point of view, are the customs that they partake in. These customs include bathing together and the children bowing to adults as they greet them.
This created some difficulties when the plans were first made to produce an English dub. Not knowing how American audiences would react to these cultural differences, 50th Street Films and Twentieth Century Fox wanted to make some edits to the film. One proposed edit was completely cutting the bath scene. Unhappy with the highly edited English dub of his earlier film, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, the film’s director, Hayao Miyazaki, made it clear that there would be no edits made to the film. While the studios were willing to work with Miyazaki’s demand, they did not anticipate the film doing very well due to their inability to edit certain scenes. Because of this, they did not invest in merchandising the film. As McCarthy states, “Obviously, no sensible company was going to put large amount of money in merchandising a film it thought its audience would find culturally alienating,” (McCarthy 118). This proved to be a mistake as Totoro dolls were in a high demand at the time of the dub’s release. Totoro dolls can be purchased in the States today, but mainly at stores such as Hot Topic, that focus on animè and fandom, not mainstream toy stores. One might speculate if the first dub would have been more successful if a greater emphasis was put into merchandising it.
Another cultural difference involves the role that religion plays in the film. The film makes a number of references to Shintoism and Buddhism, two important faiths in Japanese culture. A Japanese audience, even if they are not all religious, would recognize and make these connections. Shrines of Shinto and Buddhist figures are depicted throughout the film. The most important ones are of Jizo and Inari (Cavallaro 72). Jizo, a Buddha like figure often depicted wearing a red bib, is the guardian of travelers and protector of women and children. This is significant as the film is about two children coping with the fears and anxieties of having an ill mother. Inari, who is depicted as a fox, is the rice god. As Juliet Piggott states in her book, Japanese Mythology, “The messenger of Inari is the fox and the god or goddess is depicted as a fox, too, on occasion” (Piggott 58). The appearance of Inari is significant, since the film takes place in a rice farming community. A Japanese audience would understand and recognize the significance of Jizo and Inari; however an American audience would be less likely to make the connection.
With its strong emphasis on Japanese culture, it is understandable why My Neighbor Totoro is more popular in Japan than in the United States. That’s not to say that the film has not found an American following. The film is incredibly popular among viewers who are interested in animè, filmmaking, and animation. For the majority of American audiences, however, the movie comes across as too foreign to be considered fully mainstream.
Cavallaro, Dani. The Animè Art of Hayao Miyazaki. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2006. Print.
Kelts, Roland. Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. Print.
Klady, Leonard. “My Neighbor Totoro.” 6 May 1993. https://variety.com/1993/digital/features/my-neighbor-totoro-1200432299/. Accessed 26 Dec. 2018.
McCarthy, Helen. Hayao Miyazaki: Master of Japanese Animation. Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press, 1999. Print.
“My Neighbor Totoro: Release Info.” The Internet Movie Database, IMDb.com, Inc., https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0096283/releaseinfo?ref_=tt_dt_dt.
Piggott, Juliet. Japanese Mythology. London: Hamlyn, 1969. Print. My Neighbor Totoro. Dir. Hayao Miyazaki. Studio Ghibli, 1988. Featured Image from The Internet Movie Database. Web. 8 Mar. 2019. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0096283/mediaviewer/rm2857815040.