Easily one of my favorite films ever. Originally published by In Review Online for a Miyazaki Directrospective.
Hayao Miyazaki tested the feature length waters with The Castle of Cagliostro and then unfurled Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Castle in the Sky with such poise and confidence that it is hard to believe that they are only his second and third features. The rest is history, or so they would say. But Miyazaki’s filmography cannot be so easily cast aside as status quo work. Each film is special in its very own way, and this couldn’t be more true for My Neighbor Totoro his forth feature—Totoro is an emotional hub from which everything Miyazaki flows. The simple story of a family moving into a new house evolves into a heart-rending masterpiece that is both universal and timeless.
Set in the post-War countryside of Japan, Totoro is largely based on Miyazaki’s own experiences as a child during a time when his mother suffered from tuberculosis. In a truck packed with the family’s belongings, a father and his two young daughters, Satsuki and Mei, arrive at their new home at the edge of a forest. The two girl’s unbridled sense of adventure have them bounding into each dusty room with the joy of discovery. And a discovery is exactly what they make: real, live dust bunnies. Established early in the film, Satsuki and Mei have an intrinsic capability to see things other cannot, especially spirits. In this case, they are the soot sprites that have inhabited the empty house and must be chased away by laughter. In another such case is Mei’s discovery of Totoro. Home with her father while Satsuki is at school, Mei follows two creatures (a small and medium Totoro) into the forest. She falls into a hole within the roots of a large camphor tree, and happens upon the home of King Totoro—the most lovable and cuddly polar bear you could ever imagine. Gleefully grabbing onto his soft tale, Mei climbs upon his belly with utter fascination. Tickling his nose and stroking his chin, a three-syllable grunt reveals that he is Totoro, Mei’s misinterpretation for the Japanese word troll. Her father later explains that Totoro is a special spirit and the keeper of the forest.
The enchanting world of magic within the forest offers a polarity to the reality and the fears of being a child. Satsuki and Mei’s mother is sick and in the hospital, while their father, a college professor, tries his best to take care of his daughters and maintain his work. Satsuki and Mei, each at their own level of maturity, try to understand the unnamed illness responsible for their mother’s absence. Adjusting to their new home is no less difficult than yearning for their mother’s presence. Satsuki tries her best to fill her mother’s shoes, but it is a daunting task with the headstrong Mei. Worried about their father walking home in the rain without his umbrella one night, the girls decide to meet him at the bus stop. When he doesn’t arrive on his scheduled bus, Satsuki gets worried. Within Satsuki’s concern for her father and her weary little sister, who she is responsible for, is something so identifiable—the creeping feeling as a child that you have made the wrong decision and you are about to embark into unknown circumstances. It is at this exact moment of sympathy that Totoro lumbers up, nonchalantly wearing a leaf as hat in the rain, to wait next to Satsuki who is now holding the sleeping Mei piggyback. Playfully distracting Satsuki from the problems at hand, Totoro boards the amazing Catbus only moments before the bus carrying the girls’ father arrives.
Unifying experience instead of divisive conflict drives the story of Totoro forward with subtlety and care. The sheer pleasure of everyday life is given as much weight as narrative landmarks. Mei finding tadpoles or a bucket with no bottom is integral to the film, as is her father enjoyment of the flowers she has picked for him. A monumental scene of simple beauty captures the incredible world that exists between the extraordinary and the ordinary. Satsuki and Mei have carefully planted a package of seeds given to them by Totoro, but they have yet to show any signs of growing. The Totoro trio arrives, just as the girls have fallen asleep, and shows them the power of optimism and belief. As their seeds magically grow to the sky, Satsuki and Mei are also lifted on a spinning top, clinging to Totoro puffed-up belly. A connection between the spiritual and natural world is a more understated theme in ‘Totoro’ than in Miyazaki’s other films, but nonetheless very present. The girls wake to find that their seeds have indeed sprouted and that their dream wasn’t just a dream. Miyazaki does his best to correlate these simple pleasures with real magic.
King Totoro and the Catbus are two of the greatest animated characters to grace the screen. Vividly realized with an uncanny charm, they are only matched, in my mind, by the beloved Pooh-Bear. Part silly bear and part amiable gorilla, Totoro is a creature adorned with amazing facial expressions and physical oddities. With a powerful hop, he can pirouette to the top of his tree with ease. But his mischievous personality comes alive while waiting at the bus stop with Satsuki and Mei. Totoro is frightened by the first large drop of water from the trees that that makes a ‘thwack’ on his umbrella. Eyes wide and mouth set in a cringe, he looks like someone who has just tipped over the milk bottle. Once he understands the phenomenon, he gets nothing other than a shit-eating grin on his face as he jumps up in the air causing a tiny earthquake and a downpour from the trees above. Completely satisfied with a trick well done, he boards the Catbus, still daintily holding his umbrella and carrying his wacked out grin. And what is there to say about the Catbus? Twelve legs flying and eyes glowing, the Catbus’ plush interior opens up with a UFO-like sound.
Much of the credit for the beauty of Totoro should be given to art director Kazuo Oga, whose meticulous background paintings bring the landscapes of rural Japan to life. Although it is hard to take your eyes off the characters in the film, Oga makes it worth your while. Two years ago Oga had a 500-plus piece exhibition a the Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art compellingly titled “The One Who Painted Totoro’s Forest.” The Museum extended the show and extended its normal hours to accommodate the popularity of the exhibition. Oga worked on a total of ten Studio Ghibli films, including Miyazaki’s Kiki’s Delivery Service, Porco Rosso, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle and Ponyo, but it was his art in Totoro that gave him the notoriety he has today.
My Neighbor Totoro was released in 1988, the same year as Grave of the Fireflies, made by fellow Studio Ghibli director Isao Takahata. Because Totoro was seen as more of a financial risk, the two films were released as a double feature. Fireflies was seen as a sure-sell because it was based on a popular novel that had retained its historical relevancy. Over time, of course, it was Totoro that became a huge hit. The irresistible Totoro has become many things for many people including cultural icon and ambassador, and the face of Studio Ghibli. However, for its legions of fans that span ages and borders, Totoro represents a world without cynicism and irony and where, for 86 minutes, we can believe in the unbelievable.