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flick pick | My Neighbor Totoro 1998
Directed + written by: Hayao Miyazaki
Starring: Noriko Hidaka, Chika Sakamoto, Shigesato Itoi, Sumi Shimamoto
Language: Japanese with English subtites
Look for it at the video store under: animation
Watch it when you’re in the mood for something:  whimsical
The critic says: ½/ 5 the rating system explained
Fun factor: /5 

Plot synopsis Satsuki and her little sister Mei have just moved into a house in the countryside with their professor father. Their mother is sick and in the local hospital; the new house is close enough for the family to visit, and will provide a calm, restful place for her to recuperate once she's finally able to return home. It's an old house, long deserted, and as Satsuki and Mei explore their new place, strange things begin to catch their notice - zillions of whispy little black creatures zipping out of eyesight just as the girls enter the room, not insects or anything else that seems remotely familiar. When the girls mention it to their dad and the old lady who's been brought in to help take care of the house and girls, the old lady is delighted. She tells them that she could see the creatures too back when she was a child; they're harmless spirits that like to inhabit empty houses. With the arrival of Satuki, Mei, and their dad, she assures them, the spirits will soon be gone. True enough, the creatures disappear after a great big windstorm. But not long after, curious little Mei finds herself encountering even more magical beasties. While wandering in their backyard one day, she sees an odd little creature bouncing through the grass. Naturally, she can't help but follow it. The shy critter disappears briefly, then turns up again with a friend that's a slightly large version of itself. Mei ends up following them through the fields and into the woods, and finally down a deep tunnel nestled at the base of a great big camphor tree. There, she encounters the giant totoro -- and soon, Mei and Satsuki find themselves on a series of magical adventures.

Review Years ago, my brother bought me an alarm clock while he was living in Taiwan. It was a rotund whiskered creature with pointy little ears; it played a maddeningly catchy little tune that could be stopped only with a good smack to the ear, at which point, the creature screeched a slumber-rattling "Ohio!" (Japanese for good morning). Not knowing better, I called it the fat cat. So imagine my surprise when about a half-hour into My Neighbor Totoro, a strangely familiar song started playing. It was my alarm clock song, and apparently the totoro theme song as well. As I realized that my fat cat clock wasn't a cat at all, I felt a little like Mei, discovering an unexpected bit of magic in something I'd heretofore considered fairly mundane. It's the sort of gosh-wow excitement that happens all the time when we're kidlets, but sadly becomes rarer and rarer as we grow up. And it's a feeling that Miyazaki's animated classic captures perfectly, even if you've never been the oblivious owner of a totoro alarm clock. Featuring charmed seedlings and an amazing cat bus and of course, those adorable totoros, My Neighbor Totoro is just chock full of magical marvels. Still, as appealing as the enchanted elements are, just as much of the charm comes from the details about the girls' new life in the countryside. One of my favorite scenes is of Satsuki preparing lunchboxes for her family just before she has to head off for school. We seeJapanese bento boxes artfully stuffed with rice and veggies, fish and an assortment of lovely sides. It's an utterly normal thing -- a simple lunch -- turned into something beautiful and special. And maybe that's the real magic in Miyazaki's film: it celebrates the ordinary, and reminds us how much wonder there is to be found in the day-to-day world, even when we're too grown-up to believe in tree spirits and soot sprites and cat buses. —reviewed by Yee-Fan Sun

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