Book Review: My Neighbor Totoro: the Novel

Totoro is one of the most recognizable characters in all anime. Though 25 years have passed since the release of My Neighbor Totoro, you can still find Totoro goods and fans everywhere. Totoro is the face of powerhouse Studio Ghibli, what Mickey Mouse is to Disney, and he’s still popular enough to claim a role in Toy Story 3.

True fact: I learned Totoro was in that film while cosplaying as Totoro at Anime Expo. (An excited stranger started pointing at me and yelling, “You’re in Toy Story 3!”)

For English-speaking fans who can’t get enough of the lovable fuzzy giant, Viz Media has recently released their translation of My Neighbor Totoro: the Novel.

back cover blurb

The beloved animation classic by legendary Studio Ghibli director Hayao Miyazaki, My Neighbor Totoro is now retold in novel form. This prestige, hardcover edition features original illustrations by Miyazaki himself, accompanying a story written by veteran children’s book author Tsugiko Kubo. Sure to delight both existing fans and new readers!

Eleven-year-old Satsuki and her sassy little sister Mei have moved to the country to be closer to their ailing mother. While their father is working, the girls explore their sprawling old house and the forest and fields that surround it. Soon, Satsuki and Mei discover Totoro, a magical forest spirit who takes them on fantastic adventures through the trees and the clouds–and teaches them a lesson about trusting one another.

The review

This book is beautifully produced. The canvas textured cover and Miyazaki’s watercolor sketch illustrations give it the feel of a classic, which it is, actually. Though Viz Media has only recently released the English translation, the original Japanese novel was published in 1988. A whimsical acorn design decorates the inside of the cover, and the book includes a handy color map of Matsugo Village, where the story takes place.

It’s called My Neighbor Totoro: the Novel, but it’s closer to My Neighbor Totoro, the Chapter Book. The story follows 11-year-old Satsuki for the most part and was clearly intended for readers her age. Still, though the plot and descriptions are written for a younger audience, aspects of the book may pose a challenge for English-speaking readers. Part of it is because of the Japanese names. For instance, the name of hospital where the girls’ mother is being treated, Shichikokuyama, may seem daunting and unpronounceable to a Western child. The other part is the various cultural references of 1950s rural Japan, where breakfast consists of rice and miso soup, people pay homage to various nature spirits, and, yes, families bathe together.

The book contains the same general arc as the Totoro movie. Two sisters and their father move to the countryside to be closer to the girls’ mother, who is hospitalized with tuberculosis. As they settle into their new home, a long-vacant and rumored to be haunted house, they encounter a number of magical creatures, including Totoro, the ruler of the forest. The major plot points are the same, but Kubo-sensei, who wrote the novel adaption, does change a few details, including the cat bus’ role when Mei goes missing. She also adds a few scenes that weren’t part of the movie, including a ten day trip to visit relatives in Tokyo. Interestingly, the famous scene of Totoro and the girls playing ocarinas in the camphor tree on the front cover never actually takes place in the book.

Charming as the Totoro movie is, it moves pretty slowly, and the novel moves even slower. While the totoros are mysterious and magical, most of the pages are taken up by descriptions of the mundane: landscapes, plants, chores, school. However, because these things are seen through the eyes of a girl new to the country, who’s struggling to keep house in a place without the conveniences she’s used to and take care of her younger sister on top of that, the narration is engaging despite its pace.

The book paints Satsuki as a very likable character–brave, responsible, and positive. Mei, on the other hand, comes across as a troublesome, difficult sibling while their father is loving but unreliable, a kind of absent-minded professor. So the ones Satsuki  depends on are her neighbors, Granny Ogaki and Kanta. A few times, the story briefly shifts to Kanta’s perspective, which is pretty interesting considering his fleeting appearances in the film, and readers get a better grasp of his crush on Satsuki that’s only hinted at in the movie.

As mentioned earlier, the story largely follows Satsuki’s perspective. What that means is our first introduction to Totoro is a secondhand account through Mei, and considering she’s only got a 4-year-old’s grasp of language, it’s pretty confusing. Totoro doesn’t actually appear in the flesh until the bus stop scene, and the other totoros, of which Kubo-sensei provides hardly any description, don’t get much mention at all. Also, the book includes no illustration of the medium-size totoro so readers unfamiliar with the film wouldn’t have any idea what it looks like. As such, even though My Neighbor Totoro can be read on its own, it functions better as a companion piece to the film.

In summary

While it doesn’t follow the film exactly, My Neighbor Totoro: the Novel is a delightful companion piece to the movie. It gives readers additional details on the characters and setting and provides a glimpse into Satsuki’s thoughts as events unfold. Although it was originally written for young readers, fans of all ages can enjoy rediscovering Totoro’s forest from a new perspective.

First published at The Fandom Post.


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