1988 was a big year for Studio Ghibli, with the double-feature of Grave of the Fireflies (more on that in a later post!) and My Neighbor Totoro dominating Japanese screens. The studio’s gamble paid off, as the films became not only national but international successes. After having finally watched Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro it’s easy to see why the film was successful, as Miyazaki has made a mainstream audience-friendly film with a lot of heart, innocence and surprisingly adult themes.
It centers around two sisters moving to a house out in the sticks with their father. The older Satsuki and the younger Mei have a similar way of approaching the world and their sense of curiosity is what drives the plot forward. We explore their new home and its surroundings along with them, and both the fantastical and the seemingly irrelevant are treated with the same sense of awe. For me, this was partly due to the wonderful animation, but also because of the characters and yes, the surprising and unexpected turns the story takes pretty much right from the start.
Miyazaki’s imaginative storytelling is perfect for the medium of animation. Somehow he knows the audience of animated movies is much more open minded about being taken on a far-fetched and fantastical journey that would frankly not work with real actors or real settings. Take the creation that is the titular Totoro. As the girls’ father explains, Totoro may be a ‘forest spirit’ that can only be seen by people that he chooses. That description makes Totoro sound like a solemn, wise wizard character that we are all familiar with. But this is Miyazaki so of course he’s made Totoro a big fluffy mix between a cat and a rabbit that’s ready-made to be a best-selling stuffed animal toy that kids pick up on their way out of the cinema.
Totoro’s look and his behavior is unpredictable and mysterious, but because our heroines are so strong and unafraid, there’s nothing to fear. A memorable scene is when the two girls are waiting for their dad to get home from visiting their sick mother in the hospital. It starts raining and the two girls could not be any more miserable since their dad is running late. Surprisingly, Totoro visits them! Miyazaki portrays Totoro as avoiding direct eye contact with the girls, so we never really know his intentions. But in this scene he quickly becomes endearing – he exudes a naivete and innocence that do not betray his many God-like powers (like summoning a memorably animated Catbus).
There is a tinge of sadness throughout My Neighbor Totoro. The forced separation between the girls and their sick mother forms the central thematic element of the film and drives much of the third act plot developments. While Totoro may not be a tragedy, it packs enough palpable emotion to get some audience members (like myself) wiping away tears of both sadness and happiness at a couple of points during the film’s third act.
Overall, I strongly recommend My Neighbor Totoro. After viewing it I understood why it is timeless. There’s a lightness of touch that is missing in many animated movies today and the heroines of the movie are two of the strongest I’ve seen in quite a long time. B+
Well 30 years later My Neighbor Totoro is still as beloved as it ever was. It’s gone down as one of the ‘untouchable’ examples of what anime and animation in general should be. While at the time it was overshadowed by more adult anime fare like Akira and Grave of the Fireflies, these days it’s routine to call it the best film Studio Ghibli has released. The title character Totoro is an international phenomenon even now, with kids playing with stuffed Totoros, and hopefully watching and re-watching the film that made him a household name.
Next I’ll be reviewing the aforementioned Grave of the Fireflies. See you then!
1988 #15: The Great Outdoors
1988 #14: Time of the Gypsies
1988 #13: Bull Durham
1988 #12: A Short Film About Love
1988 #11: Heathers
1988 #10: Coming to America
1988 #9: Beetlejuice
1988 #8: Cinema Paradiso
1988 #7: Big
1988 #6: Who Framed Roger Rabbit
1988 #5: Akira