Japan's `My Neighbor Totoro' Is An Enchanting Adventure

XXX "My Neighbor Totoro," animated feature directed and written by Hayao Miyazaki. Opens tomorrow at Alderwood, Aurora, Grand Illusion, Lewis & Clark, Newmark, Totem Lake, SeaTac Mall Cinemas. "G" - General audiences.

Unlike the series of ultra-violent "splattertoons" from Japan that have been playing art houses in some cities, this is a charmingly whimsical, English-dubbed cartoon that's getting a wide release this weekend in the suburbs.

Previously shown here at last year's Japanese Film Festival, "My Neighbor Totoro" is the story of two city children, Satsuki and her younger sister Mei, who move to the country and make acquaintance with forest playmates their parents can't see. Their mother is ill at a country hospital, and the girls and their father have moved to an apparently haunted house to be near her.

The kids are enchanted with the place, which comes equipped with magical Tribble-like creatures they call dust bunnies. Near the house is a mysterious giant camphor tree that's part of a forest that reveals more hidden treasures, including Catbus, a 12-legged creature/vehicle that takes them on rides through the woods, and Totoro, a furry playmate and guardian who sounds like Godzilla and looks like a cross between an owl and a bloated penguin.

The early scenes deal with the blissful relationship the girls have with their parents, especially their father, a scientist and university professor who does more than tolerate their new enthusiasms. Indeed, he claims it's been his lifelong dream to live in a haunted house; he believes that long ago "trees and men were the best of friends."

Still, he sleeps through Totoro's most spectacular nocturnal demonstration of otherworldly powers. Even the girls aren't quite sure what they saw the next morning.

Directed by Hayao Miyazaki (best-known in this country for the much-praised "Laputa: The Castle in the Sky"), the movie is based on Miyazaki's book, which recently turned up in an Americanized version from Tokuma Publishing in Bellevue. Book and film were hugely popular five years ago in Japan, where Miyazaki followed them up with last year's top-grossing Japanese film, "Porco Rosso."

Miyazaki's appreciation of miraculous possibilities and childhood visions is what drives "Totoro," not the rather trumped-up drama of Mei's disappearance during the final stretch. The movie has a lulling, gently wry quality that makes its commercial success in a mayhem-dominated market a de