My affection for My Neighbor Totoro is relatively unique, even among Ghibli films, because I feel it provides something that very few films have ever been able to achieve in the same way – which is a beautiful exposition of the idealistic sense of imagination and wonder – but also fragility – that we associate with childhood. While the former quality is present, to an extent, in many Ghibli films, it is presented in its most pure and isolated form in Totoro. Roger Ebert, in his excellent review of the film, says that the film “is a little sad, a little scary, a little surprising and a little informative, just like life itself” – because along with the joyful scenes of discovery (which are plentiful), there are heartfelt snapshots of other childhood emotions – the fear of loss, the looming awareness of death, and the longing for the warmth of a missing parent. Totoro is one of Miyazaki’s masterpieces, and is the film that is usually on my mind when I say that a children’s film, made with sincerity, will appeal to anyone.
Satsuki and Mei, our main characters, are two young girls moving with their father into a new home. Their mother is away in a nearby hospital with an unspecified illness. As they explore the house and the forests surrounding it, they meet Totoro, the guardian of the forest – a harmless, monstrous guardian with a toothy grin. Mei is the first to find him, as the youngest of the family. She finds the large creature with his mammoth jaw and rumbling roar, and then proceeds to hop onto his fuzzy stomach and pat his nose, free of fright. The transformation of this scene from a scary brush with a towering creature into a harmless encounter with the benign spirit of the forest is a joy to watch. Next is the iconic scene in which Satsuki meets Totoro – under the rain, he approaches clumsily and waits alongside her at the bus stop. Cautious at first, Satsuki lends him her umbrella which he gleefully accepts, relishing the sensation of raindrops pattering onto it. Eventually, after Totoro has left and the sisters’ father have arrived , the two of them jump up enthusiastically, barely able to contain their excitement at having seen Totoro. And in the audience, every jaded and cynical adult can’t help but smile at this display of recognizable, childlike wonder. Who hasn’t imagined, as children, of exploring the forest and finding all sorts of new and interesting things lurking within it? Totoro rekindles that childlike spirit within the audience in the way that very few films are able to do. It’s a film that has the potential to captivate both children and adults for identical reasons.
Like in Whisper of the Heart, Totoro has a wonderfully believable and likable portrayal of families. Mei and Satsuki are two of the most realistic siblings you will find, and their father is a kind and caring person who supports and encourages them. In Roger Ebert’s review, he says the following: “There is none of the kids-against-adults plotting of American films. The family is seen as a safe, comforting haven. The father is reasonable, insightful and tactful, accepts stories of strange creatures, trusts his girls, listens to explanations with an open mind. It lacks those dreary scenes where a parent misinterprets a well-meaning action and punishes it unfairly.” It is indeed a welcoming and refreshing portrayal of a relationship between daughters and their father. There are no artificial arguments or conflicts between characters introduced to create tension. At the same time, the climax, when Mei goes missing, is one of the most powerful found in Miyazaki’s films, perhaps owing to its utter simplicity. For all of the films cheerful and optimistic nature, it doesn’t shy away from the more conflicting aspects of childhood, in this case, the little-understood but looming fear of loss.
As much as we are tempted to describe Totoro as the story of spirits and forest creatures, it’s not. Just as the adults in the film cannot see Totoro and his friends, and just as it takes Satsuki a little longer to find Totoro than the younger Mei did, we can expect that one day, as they grow up, they won’t be able to see Totoro as well, and more children will grow up and explore and discover them. That’s what the film is – a snapshot of childhood, and the harmless curiosity and imaginative encounters with spirits is a mere part of it. But so is their deep attachment to their parents, their fascination with their new and rusty home, their relationship with one another, and their longing for the warmth of their mother. Toshio Suzuki once mentioned that according to Miyazaki, Spirited Away was aimed at “the people who used to be 10 years old and the people who are going to be 10 years old”. What a perfect way to describe Totoro as well. Its a film for children and anyone who can remember being a child.
It wouldn’t be too far-fetched to imagine Totoro as containing or being influenced by Miyazaki’s recollections of his own childhood. Now, I doubt that Miyazaki met forest spirits and flew over rural Japanese towns on their bellies, but Miyazaki’s mother was indeed hospitalized when he was a child, and his father was involved in airplane manufacturing, which lent Miyazaki a life-long love for flying and airplanes. One can picture an imaginative Miyazaki, as a child, dreaming (as we all did) of being whisked into the sky by a Totoro-like creature as in the film. One can also see, in this film, a certain sense of nostalgia for the rural life, before mass modernization transformed much of Japan. Of course, most places in the world have either underwent or are currently undergoing similar transformations, so it is something that any audience will be able to relate with.
The art is lush and beautiful throughout. The story, as mentioned, takes place in a rural part of Japan, and the lovely forests and pastures are a wonderful sight to see. The imaginary creatures in the film, including Totoro and his Catbus, are also charming and delightful to watch. A scene where Mei and Satsuki grab onto Totoro as he flies over the green fields below will have you mesmerized. Also note the attention to detail given to the girls in terms of animation and movement – it’s the same that I praised with Setsuko in Grave of the Fireflies.
Joe Hisaishi returns to lend his musical talents, and here we find Hisaishi’s clearly beginning to transition into a more mature style. Gone are the simplistic synth tracks which would occasionally pop up in Nausicaa or Laputa, disrupting their otherwise lovely tones. Instead we have an organic, consistent, and orchestra-led score with a lot of beautiful melodies. The most memorable, for me, is Path of the Wind, which you can find in many different versions. The quiet pentatonic melody excellently conveys the gentleness of nature as depicted in the film. The two songs which open and close the film are certainly worth mentioning as well. Sampo is a delightful little march featuring simple lyrics and an energetic melody, sung by one of the greatest Japanese singers, Azumi Inoue, who I gushed over in the Laputa soundtrack review. She also sings the closing song, Tonari no Totoro, and what a song it is! One of Hisaishi’s best, so optimistic and endearing.
Totoro is simpler than most of Miyazaki’s films, but spares none of the imagination that embodies every one of his films – nor the emotion and heart. While his films prior to this one are all wonderful and gave me much enjoyment, Totoro, in my opinion, is his first true masterpiece through and through. It is a timeless classic that has something to say to nearly anyone as its audience. And if you’re sitting behind your computer screen scoffing at this “softie” review of a “children’s movie”, do yourself a favour and watch the film, because you, like so many others, will probably be surprised by how much you will enjoy it.
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