A Sorta Fairytale: My Neighbor Totoro Soundtrack Appreciation Post

1988 movie My Neighbor Totoro put Studio Ghibli on the map. Joe Hisaishi’s music definitely helped.

Totoro on tree branch over river with Satsuki and Mei fishing

Late ’80s might be the era of Guns N’ Roses and Public Enemy, but mainstream music of that time was mostly sickly, unapologetically sweet. The US had hair metal ballads, but the trend was even more widespread in other territories. I wrote a little about it on this site recently. Sweetness seems a good approach to the music for kids. That’s where Studio Ghibli and Joe Hisaishi enter the picture and My Neighbor Totoro was born.

Studio Ghibli was formed in 1985 to capitalize on the success of Hayao Miyazaki’s anime Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. The name of the company was derived from the Italian word for a hot desert wind. Miyazaki and the other director involved—Isao Takahata—believed they would power through the world of animation like a hurricane. That’s more or less what happened. Lofty ambitions were founded on the experience that those two authors and their producer Toshio Suzuki were gathering from the 1960s. The first Ghibli production was Castle in the Sky in 1986. Then on 16th April 1988 came both Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies and Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro.

Innocence and Trauma

Takahata’s movie is a heart-breaking recollection of the Japanese defeat in the World War II and the toll it took on the nation’s children. The characters from My Neighbor Totoro also go through a lot of hardship but their existence is far from hopeless. The girls named Satsuki and Mei are separated from their mother due to her illness. They move to the country with their father to be closer to the hospital where mom stays. This gives them the opportunity to meet local forest spirits, including a big ball of fur from the title. Being cuddly and strikingly unusual, Totoro quickly became the Ghibli’s internationally recognizable mascot. Everyone probably recognizes the image of him standing in the rain at the bus stop under the umbrella lent by Satsuki.

Later in the film, the older sister is gravely worried when Mei disappears during a visit to the hospital. Blurring the borders between a dream world and reality is undoubtedly one of the strengths of My Neighbor Totoro. A good example of this is the scene of spirits planting the trees and Totoro subsequently taking the girls on a flying top ride. The theme of the sometimes uneasy relationship between humanity and the rest of nature returns in many subsequent works of Miyazaki. These are all the markings of a classic movie, confirmed by the award for the Japanese Film of the Year and the high scores in Time Out and Sight & Sound polls. Still I think that at least Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle outshine it among the Ghibli output. Maybe Totoro is too kids-oriented for me or I need more surrealism in my movies?

Strength in Repetition

The real name of the man who composed the music to My Neighbor Totoro is Mamoru Fujisawa. His adventure with scoring anime started in 1974. At the time of Totoro’s premiere he had also two solo electronic albums under his belt. He already published that work as Joe Hisaishi which is a sort of Japanese pun on Quincy Jones. Soundtracks for Studio Ghibli made him famous but he had also other successes. He composed music for 1998 Winter Paralympics and an acclaimed 2008 movie Departures.

Hisaishi wrote in his memoirs that he believes in the power of a strong musical theme that ties the whole film together. He quoted Henry Mancini’s “Moon River” as an example. He certainly lived by his words—one of the memorable motives he wrote for My Neighbor Totoro shows up in six places. Its most prominent version is probably “The Path of the Wind”. The pomp present in this track is absent from the rest of the instrumental score. Pastoral “The Village in May” is worth a listen, as well as the plaintive “Mei Is Missing“. These are also many tracks full of cheerfully sounding wind instruments—the kind of music mostly associated with circuses and burlesque. A good example is “Cat Bus“—named after the iconic mode of magical transportation. Finally, there is “A Haunted House!” that sounds more or less like disco or maybe even, ahem, house.

Behind Every Great Man…

…is a great woman. In this case it was a singer, Azumi Inoue. She’s also made herself heard on the soundtracks to the other Ghibli productions: Laputa: Castle in the Sky and Kiki’s Delivery Service. She contributed four songs to My Neighbor Totoro. Opening theme “Hey, Let’s Go” really sounds like a warm-up for a parade. “Mother” is based on Inoue’s warm vocalizing. “A Lost Child” is just a beautiful ballad. The ending theme “My Neighbor Totoro” sports a superb synth line and a chorus that will make you sing TOTORO TOTORO immediately. There is a grace to her voice that reminds us about the ongoing era of city pop—sophisticated Japanese music influenced by jazz, soul and bossa nova.

The soundtrack to My Neighbor Totoro contains at least a few pieces of music that stand well on their own. However, seeing the film improves the pleasure of listening to it significantly. For me, it was an inspiration to seek more neon-lit Japanese music of that era. This quest has just begun but it already brought some results. You can certainly find some sweetness of Inoue’s collaborations on the first albums of Chisato Moritaka. She is one of the most popular Japanese singers of our time, still going strong (at least as a concert draw). There was also duo Wink whose biggest hit could be Totoro’s main theme if he was a fish. It seems that a lot of Nippon music has the same gift as anime—it makes you feel young no matter your age.

Written by Kordian Kuczma

Kordian Kuczma is a writer, tour guide and teacher from northern Poland. One of his biggest dreams is to write the comprehensive biography of Pet Shop Boys. Being a good European boy, he chose to live his life in the company of Bergman and Tarkovsky. Kordian's path is a strange and difficult one.

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