In 1989, Streamline Pictures produced an exclusive dub for use on transpacific flights by Japan Airlines. Troma Films, under their 50th St. Films banner, distributed the dub of the film co-produced by Jerry Beck. This dub was released on VHS and laserdisc in the United States by Fox Video in 1993 and on DVD in 2002. The rights to this dub expired in 2004 and so, was re-released by Walt Disney Home Entertainment on 7 March 2006 with a new dub cast. This version was also released in Australia by Madman on 15 March 2006. and in the UK by Optimum Releasing on 27 March 2006. This DVD release is the first version of the film in the United States to include both Japanese and English language tracks, as Fox did not have the rights to the Japanese audio track for their version.
In 1958 Japan, university professor Tatsuo Kusakabe and his two daughters, Satsuki and Mei, move into an old house to be closer to the hospital where the girls' mother, Yasuko, is recovering from a long-term illness. Satsuki and Mei find that the house is inhabited by tiny animated dust creatures called susuwatari –- small, dark, dust-like house spirits seen when moving from light to dark places. When the girls become comfortable in their new house and laugh with Tatsuo, the soot spirits leave the house to drift away on the wind. It is implied that they are going to find another empty house –- their natural habitat.
One day, Mei sees two white, rabbit-like ears in the grass and follows the ears under the house. She discovers two small spirits who lead her through a briar patch and into the hollow of a large camphor tree. She meets and befriends a larger version of the same kind of spirit, which identifies itself by a series of roars that she interprets as "Totoro". She falls asleep atop the large totoro, but when Satsuki finds her, she is on the ground in a dense briar clearing. Despite her many attempts, Mei is unable to show her family Totoro's tree. Tatsuo comforts her by telling her that this is the "keeper of the forest," and that Totoro will reveal himself when he wants to.
One rainy night, the girls are waiting for Tatsuo's bus and grow worried when he doesn't arrive on the bus they expect him on. As they wait, Mei eventually falls asleep on Satsuki's back and Totoro appears beside them, allowing Satsuki to see him for the first time. He has only a leaf on his head for protection against the rain, so Satsuki offers him the umbrella she had taken along for her father. Totoro is delighted at both the shelter and the sounds made upon it by falling raindrops. In return, he gives her a bundle of nuts and seeds. A bus-shaped giant cat halts at the stop, and Totoro boards it, taking the umbrella. Shortly after, Tatsuo's bus arrives.
The girls plant the seeds. A few days later, they awaken at midnight to find Totoro and his two miniature colleagues engaged in a ceremonial dance around the planted nuts and seeds. The girls join in, whereupon the seeds sprout, and then grow and combine into an enormous tree. Totoro takes his colleagues and the girls for a ride on a magical flying top. In the morning, the tree is gone, but the seeds have indeed sprouted; it is left unclear whether or not the girls were dreaming.
The girls find out that a planned visit by Yasuko has to be postponed because of a setback in her treatment. Satsuki, disappointed and worried, tells Mei the bad news, which Mei doesn't take well. This leads into an argument between the two, ending in Satsuki angrily yelling at Mei and stomping off. Mei decides to walk to the hospital to bring some fresh corn to Yasuko.
Mei's disappearance prompts Satsuki and the neighbors to search for her. Eventually, Satsuki returns in desperation to the camphor tree and pleads for Totoro's help. Delighted to be of assistance, he summons the Catbus, which carries her to where the lost Mei sits. Having rescued her, the Catbus then whisks her and Satsuki over the countryside to see Yasuko in the hospital. The girls perch in a tree outside of the hospital, overhearing a conversation between their parents and discovering that she has been kept in hospital by a minor cold, but is otherwise doing well. They secretly leave the ear of corn on the windowsill, where it is discovered by the parents, and return home on the Catbus. When the Catbus departs, it disappears from the girls' sight.
Eventually, Mei and Satsuki's mother returns home, and the sisters play with other children, while Totoro and his friends watch them from afar.
Art director Kazuo Oga was drawn to the film when Hayao Miyazaki showed him an original image of Totoro standing in a satoyama. The director challenged Oga to raise his standards, and Oga's experience with My Neighbor Totoro jump-started the artist's career. Oga and Miyazaki debated the palette of the film, Oga seeking to paint black soil from Akita Prefecture and Miyazaki preferring the color of red soil from the Kantō region. The ultimate product was described by Studio Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki: "It was nature painted with translucent colors."
Oga's conscientious approach to My Neighbor Totoro was a style that the International Herald Tribune recognized as "[updating] the traditional Japanese animist sense of a natural world that is fully, spiritually alive". The newspaper described the final product:
Set in a period that is both modern and nostalgic, the film creates a fantastic, yet strangely believable universe of supernatural creatures coexisting with modernity. A great part of this sense comes from Oga's evocative backgrounds, which give each tree, hedge and twist in the road an indefinable feeling of warmth that seems ready to spring into sentient life.
Oga's work on My Neighbor Totoro led to his continued involvement with Studio Ghibli. The studio assigned jobs to Oga that would play to his strengths, and Oga's style became a trademark style of Studio Ghibli.
The opening sequence of the film was not storyboarded, Miyazaki said. "The sequence was determined through permutations and combinations determined by the time sheets. Each element was made individually and combined in the time sheets..." The ending sequence depicts the mother's return home and the signs of her return to good health by playing with Satsuki and Mei outside.
The storyboard depicts the town of Matsuko as the setting, with the year being 1955; Miyazaki stated that it was not exact and the team worked on a setting "in the recent past". The film was originally set to be an hour long, but throughout the process it grew to respond to the social context including the reason for the move and the father's occupation.
Miyazaki has said that Totoro is "not a spirit: he's only an animal. I believe he lives on acorns. He's supposedly the forest keeper, but that's only a half-baked idea, a rough approximation." The character of Mei was modeled on Miyazaki's niece.
After writing and filming Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) and Castle in the Sky (1986), Hayao Miyazaki began directing My Neighbor Totoro for Studio Ghibli. Miyazaki's production paralleled his colleague Isao Takahata's production of Grave of the Fireflies. Miyazaki's film was financed by executive producer Yasuyoshi Tokuma, and both My Neighbor Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies were released on the same bill in 1988. The dual billing was considered "one of the most moving and remarkable double bills ever offered to a cinema audience".
In 1993, Fox Video released the Streamline Pictures dub of My Neighbor Totoro on VHS and Laserdisc. However, because of his disappointment with the result of the heavily edited English version of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Miyazaki would not permit any part of the movie to be edited out, all the names had to remain the same (with the exception being Catbus), the translation had to be as close to the original Japanese as possible, and no part of the movie could be changed for any reason, cultural or linguistic (which was very common at the time) despite creating problems with some English viewers, particularly in explaining the origin of the name "Totoro". It was produced by John Daly and Derek Gibson, with co-producer Jerry Beck. 20th Century Fox held all rights to the Streamline Pictures dub of the film until their rights to the dub expired in 2004. Disney's English-language dub premiered on 23 October 2005; it then appeared at the 2005 Hollywood Film Festival. The Turner Classic Movies cable television network held the television premiere of Disney's new English dub on 19 January 2006, as part of the network's salute to Hayao Miyazaki. (TCM aired the dub as well as the original Japanese with English subtitles.) The Disney version was initially released on DVD on 7 March 2006, but is now out of print. This version was also released by Madman Entertainment in Australia, and Optimum Releasing in the United Kingdom. A reissue of Totoro, Castle in the Sky, and Kiki's Delivery Service featuring updated cover art highlighting its Studio Ghibli origins was released by Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment on 2 March 2010, coinciding with the US DVD and Blu-ray debut of Ponyo. This 2010 DVD release remains in print. It was later released on Blu-Ray Disc. GKIDS will re-issue the film on Blu-ray & DVD on October 17, 2017.
As is the case with Disney's other English dubs of Miyazaki films, the Disney version of Totoro features a star-heavy cast, including Dakota and Elle Fanning as Satsuki and Mei, Timothy Daly as Mr. Kusakabe, Pat Carroll as Granny, Lea Salonga as Mrs. Kusakabe, and Frank Welker as Totoro and Catbus. The songs for the new dub retained the same translation as the previous dub, but were sung by Sonya Isaacs.
My Neighbor Totoro has received critical acclaim from film critics. Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reported that 93% of critics gave positive reviews, with an average rating of 8.3/10 based on 44 reviews, stating "My Neighbor Totoro is a heartwarming, sentimental masterpiece that captures the simple grace of childhood."
Film critic Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times identified My Neighbor Totoro as one of his "Great Movies", calling it "one of the lovingly hand-crafted works of Hayao Miyazaki". In his review, Ebert declared "My Neighbor Totoro is based on experience, situation and exploration – not on conflict and threat", and described its appeal:
... it would never have won its worldwide audience just because of its warm heart. It is also rich with human comedy in the way it observes the two remarkably convincing, lifelike little girls.... It is a little sad, a little scary, a little surprising and a little informative, just like life itself. It depends on a situation instead of a plot, and suggests that the wonder of life and the resources of imagination supply all the adventure you need.
The 1993 translation was not as well received as the 2006 translation. Leonard Klady of the entertainment trade newspaper Variety wrote of the 1993 translation, that My Neighbor Totoro demonstrated "adequate television technical craft" that was characterized by "muted pastels, homogenized pictorial style and [a] vapid storyline". Klady described the film's environment, "Obviously aimed at an international audience, the film evinces a disorienting combination of cultures that produces a nowhere land more confused than fascinating." Stephen Holden of The New York Times described the 1993 translation as "very visually handsome", and believed that the film was "very charming" when "dispensing enchantment". Despite the highlights, Holden wrote, "Too much of the film, however, is taken up with stiff, mechanical chitchat."
Matthew Leyland of Sight & Sound reviewed the DVD released in 2006, "Miyazaki's family fable is remarkably light on tension, conflict and plot twists, yet it beguiles from beginning to end... what sticks with the viewer is the every-kid credibility of the girls' actions as they work, play and settle into their new surroundings." Leyland praised the DVD transfer of the film, but noted that the disc lacked a look at the film's production, instead being overabundant with storyboards.
Phillip E. Wegner makes a case for the film being an example of alternative history citing the utopian like setting of the anime.
My Neighbor Totoro set its writer-director Hayao Miyazaki on the road to success. The film's central character, Totoro, is as famous among Japanese children as Winnie-the-Pooh is among British ones. The Independent recognized Totoro as one of the greatest cartoon characters, describing the creature, "At once innocent and awe-inspiring, King Totoro captures the innocence and magic of childhood more than any of Miyazaki's other magical creations." The Financial Times recognized the character's appeal, "[Totoro] is more genuinely loved than Mickey Mouse could hope to be in his wildest – not nearly so beautifully illustrated – fantasies." Totoro and characters from the movie play a significant role in the Ghibli Museum, including a large catbus and the Straw Hat Cafe.
The environmental journal Ambio described the influence of My Neighbor Totoro, "[It] has served as a powerful force to focus the positive feelings that the Japanese people have for satoyama and traditional village life." The film's central character Totoro was used as a mascot by the Japanese "Totoro Hometown Fund Campaign" to preserve areas of satoyama in the Saitama Prefecture. The fund, started in 1990 after the film's release, held an auction in August 2008 at Pixar Animation Studios to sell over 210 original paintings, illustrations, and sculptures inspired by My Neighbor Totoro.
Totoro has made cameo appearances in multiple Studio Ghibli films, including Pom Poko, Kiki's Delivery Service, and Whisper of the Heart, even appearing on Studio Ghibli's logo. Additionally, various other anime series and films have featured cameos, including one episode of the Gainax TV series His and Her Circumstances. Miyazaki also uses Totoro as a part of his Studio Ghibli company logo.
A main-belt asteroid, discovered on December 31, 1994, was named 10160 Totoro after the film's central character.
In 2013 a velvet worm species Eoperipatus totoro, recently discovered in Vietnam, was named after Totoro: "Following the request of Pavel V. Kvartalnov, Eduard A. Galoyan and Igor V. Palko, the species is named after the main character of the cartoon movie "My Neighbour Totoro" by Hayao Miyazaki (1988, Studio Ghibli), who uses a many-legged animal as a vehicle, which according to the collectors resembles a velvet worm."
A four-volume series of ani-manga books, which use color images and lines directly from the film, was published in Japan in May 1988 by Tokuma. The series was licensed for English language release in North America by Viz Media, which released the books from November 10, 2004, through February 15, 2005. A 111 page-picture book based on the film and aimed at younger readers was released by Tokuma on June 28, 1988 and, in a 112-page English translation, by Viz on November 8, 2005. A 176-page art book containing conceptual art from the film and interviews with the production staff was released by Tokuma on July 15, 1988 and, in English translation, by Viz on November 8, 2005.. A hard cover "light novel" written by Tsugiko Kubo and illustrated by Hayao Miyazaki was released by Viz in 2013.
Mei and the Kittenbus (めいとこねこバス, Mei to Konekobasu) is a thirteen-minute sequel to My Neighbor Totoro, written and directed by Miyazaki. Chika Sakamoto, who voiced Mei in Totoro, returned to voice Mei in this short. Hayao Miyazaki himself did the voice of the Granny Cat (Neko Ba-chan), as well as Totoro. It concentrates on the character of Mei Kusakabe from the original film and her adventures one night with the Kittenbus (the offspring of the Catbus from the film) and other cat-oriented vehicles.
Originally released in Japan in 2003, the short is regularly shown at the Ghibli Museum, but has not been released to home video. It was shown briefly in the United States in 2006 to honor the North American release of fellow Miyazaki film Spirited Away and at a Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation fundraiser a few days later.
The Tonari no Totoro Soundtrack was originally released in Japan on May 1, 1988 by Tokuma Shoten. The CD primarily features the musical score used in the film composed by Joe Hisaishi, except for five vocal pieces performed by Azumi Inoue. It has since been re-released twice, once on November 21, 1996, and again on August 25, 2004.
All music composed by Joe Hisaishi.