This week, Disney’s finally releasing two of Ghibli’s most well-known films on Blu-ray for the first time in North America: My Neighbor Totoro and Howl’s Moving Castle. Both films were given a North American release through Walt Disney Pictures in the mid-2000s, almost entirely due to Pixar honcho John Lasseter’s passion for the works of Studio Ghibli head and director Hayao Miyazaki. There may not be a very good reason for why it took Disney a few years to get both of these films on a high-definition format, but finally, they are available for fans to watch and rewatch over and over. Neither Blu-ray release is bursting at the seams with countless special features, but the movies themselves are worth a purchase.
My Neighbor Totoro, originally released in Japan in 1988, is the better of the two films, a story that’s technically small-scale but feels as if it’s one of the most epic stories because it’s framed through the eyes of imaginative children. Set in the late 1950s, Totoro focuses on sisters Satsuki and Mei, and their father Tatsuo, who move to a more rural part of Japan to be closer to the girls’ mother, Yasuko, who’s ill in a nearby hospital. The girls—Satsuki a few years older than Mei—have endlessly fertile imaginations, encouraged by their friendly dad, and one day they meet some forest sprites and creatures. One of them, dubbed Totoro by Mei, is a large spirit, a mix of rabbit and cat who becomes the family’s protector and friend. Though My Neighbor Totoro is not brimming with plot, it’s full of sweetness and life, a keenly felt meditation on what it’s like to be a child in a lonely place. Whether it’s your first time watching My Neighbor Totoro (as it was for me), or your hundredth, this will be an excellent film to watch in HD.
Howl’s Moving Castle is more of an epic, in scope and length. (It’s just under 2 hours long, which is pretty lengthy for an animated film.) Based on the novel by Diana Wynne Jones, the story is about a teenage girl named Sophie who’s turned into a 90-year old woman by an evil witch, but then fights alongside a wizard named Howl to defeat local royalty who are trying to control and defeat all other practitioners of magic. Like My Neighbor Totoro, Howl’s Moving Castle is filled with beautiful imagery—the wonder of hand-drawn animation will never cease—but is a little too extended and drawn-out. (Also, specific to the North American dub, Howl is voiced by Christian Bale, who, a couple of times, sounds an awful lot like a certain Caped Crusader.) Even if Howl’s Moving Castle isn’t as warm and inviting as My Neighbor Totoro is, it’s worth checking out just to see what the artistry of Studio Ghibli looks like on Blu-ray.
The special features on both Blu-ray releases (each comes with a separate DVD) are a bit light, but one in particular will likely be quite thrilling to Ghibli fanatics. Both Blu-rays have an “Original Japanese Storyboards” feature, in which you can watch the whole film via its original storyboards. This feature, new to the Blu-ray release, unlike many of the other supplements on these discs, is a stunning look at how far any animated film comes from its initial vision to the final, detailed, colorful completed picture. There’s no commentary included, and the audio isn’t from the North American dub, as a note. (Honestly, depending on how you feel, that audio choice may be preferable.) The My Neighbor Totoro Blu-ray has a handful of HD supplements, but all of them are very short, barely over 5 minutes long each. If you’re fascinated to learn, very briefly, of the film’s creation, its score, and its characters, these may be exciting. However, the most detailed supplement on either Blu-ray is a holdover from the Totoro DVD, a 30-minute documentary showing us all of the film’s locations and where they exist in real life.
What matters most, though, is that My Neighbor Totoro and Howl’s Moving Castle are now both on Blu-ray in the United States and Canada. It would be nice if each release was overstuffed with new features (or even a feature commentary, possibly from John Lasseter or Pete Docter, the latter of whom worked directly on the American translation of Howl’s Moving Castle), but at least you can own them now. And though blind-buys of Blu-rays may not be your thing, I can’t emphasize enough how much you need to own these if you want to watch animation as pure art. As with the greatest pieces of feature-length animation, My Neighbor Totoro and Howl’s Moving Castle (the former more than the latter, to be honest) are films you do not need to watch with children to appreciate fully. They work on a universal level, as powerful to adults as they may be to the younger crowd. Treat these releases as you would with one of the Disney animated classics finally entering the realm of HD: buy them, and do it quickly.