Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro is a film inextricably linked with my childhood. My first memory of seeing it is as a five-year-old, though I’ve been told I was even younger on my first viewing. The version I watched as a child was the old American dub made by 20th Century Fox, which doesn’t entirely hold up today, but has its own charms and worked well enough for me as a kid. I saw the film repeatedly, and the film’s main theme got stuck in my head. Whenever I’d see the little plants in my mother’s garden, I’d imagine Totoro was dancing around them in the night, allowing them to sprout like he did in the film (and yes, I did that silly dance too, thinking that it worked). But perhaps my fondest memory is when I realized that one of the main characters, Satsuki, was in fact just a short-haired girl and not a boy like I had originally thought. I was a stupid kid. And I’d never take it back.
There’s a reason why My Neighbor Totoro has transcended its own origins and become one of the definitive classics of animation and family films, crossing the boundaries of generations and languages worldwide. And yet, seeing the film now as an adult, My Neighbor Totoro is a much more rewarding experience than it has any right to be. It retains adorable characters, a sweet-natured innocence, warmth, and an uncanny ability to make me smile. What holds it all together, however, is a deep melancholy that bubbles underneath the surface. It’s easy to see why this is one of Studio Ghibli’s most beloved films, and why it’s one of the best children’s stories of all time.
My Neighbor Totoro is a quietly revolutionary film in the world of Japanese anime. When Studio Ghibli was formed, they wished to fulfill their mission statement of bringing something original to the world of anime. In one of the special features on My Neighbor Totoro‘s Blu-ray, Miyazaki himself describes how the state of anime at the time emphasized “speed” and “action” above all. Miyazaki knew this more than most because he was part of that system and would often suggest slower, more introspective scenes.
When Miyazaki began to direct his own work, he was inspired not by the speed and action of Hollywood blockbusters and the popular animes that he worked on, but rather the works of filmmakers like Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi: quiet films that emphasized the beauty of the everyday world and the lives of ordinary people. He liked films with hardly any conflict that were instead portraits of the profundity of the mundane.
In fact, when Miyazaki was asked to name his favorite Walt Disney film, he brought up an obscure 1937 short called The Old Mill that follows a bunch of forest animals inhabiting an abandoned windmill right when a freak storm hits. With zero dialogue, it’s easily one of the most meditative and atmospheric of the legendary animator’s works, and its themes of nature overtaking human technology likely influenced Miyazaki’s work. The choice was symbolic of Miyazaki’s ambitions of constantly looking for ways to use the Japanese method of animation in different and more emotionally affecting ways.
Even in Miyazaki’s previous Studio Ghibli production, the action-packed Castle in the Sky, he provided room for his characters to breathe, allowed quiet moments to settle in, and let those moments define his work more than the explosions or pretty airships. In an interview with Roger Ebert, Miyazaki explained why it was these scenes were effective. “We have a word for that in Japanese,” he told him. “It’s called ‘ma’. Emptiness. It’s there intentionally.” In the interview, he claps his hands three to four times. “The time in between my clapping is ma. If you just have non-stop action with no breathing space at all, it’s just busyness. But if you take a moment, then the tension building in the film can grow into a wider dimension. If you just have constant tension at 80 degrees all the time, you just get numb.”
Miyazaki proved that the “ma” method of storytelling could be successful with both Castle in the Sky and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, but it wasn’t until his next film that he truly evolved his style into something that had never been done before in Japanese animation. My Neighbor Totoro is a film with hardly any conflict, no villains, no major character arcs, no twists or turns, and barely even a semblance of a traditional plot. It’s a film powered by situation and circumstance, steeped just as much in reality as it is in imagination. It isn’t even so much a story as it is a series of simple moments, but sometimes simplicity can communicate the most truth.
My Neighbor Totoro opens with a father and two young girls moving into a new house deep in the countryside so they can live closer to their ailing mother. The sisters, Satsuki and Mei, are left to explore their new home and the forests surrounding it when they accidentally discover the benevolent forest spirit Totoro—a giant, fuzzy creature that’s one part owl, one part giant cat, one part raccoon, and one part another giant cat.
That’s it. Adorable children discover adorable forest creature and have adorable shenanigans together. Despite the movie’s more fantastical elements, this is a film that, like Ozu, celebrates the simple. We don’t love Totoro because he can make trees grow with magic, but because the first thing he does when handed an umbrella is smile at the sound of rain drops crashing against the fabric. He (it?) is simply a gentle companion our characters can count on.
The film hardly ever emphasizes its magical elements. If anything, the “magical” side of its magical realism is downplayed, arguably even less important as the scenes in which Satsuki and Mei laugh with their father, ride a bike to the hospital, or wait on a bus stop while drenched in rain. The normal and the abnormal are in a state of balance, another theme that pops up rather frequently in Miyazaki’s filmography.
Yet for all of My Neighbor Totoro‘s delights, seeing it again as an adult revealed a melancholy I hardly noticed as a child. Mortality is felt in many moments, and not just in the subplot with the mother. The two young girls are always juxtaposed by both their environment and by the creatures that inhabit it. They’re constantly surrounded by trees, including the large camphor that’s hundreds of years old, while Totoro and the rest of the forest spirits are so passive because they are as eternal as the forest they call home. All these things will outlast the human race. Satsuki and Mei, on the other hand, have only a few years before the joys of childhood are behind them.
This is why the film often languishes on Satsuki and Mei’s smallest of actions. Each one is a step into adulthood, and their innocence is as precious and fragile as the leaves that fall from those everlasting trees. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Castle in the Sky depicted the struggle between innocence and adulthood, but My Neighbor Totoro is a celebration of innocence and meditation on the fact that it will never last. These moments are special because they’re finite, and it’s that truthfulness that makes My Neighbor Totoro a film that crosses generations and cultural barriers: watching it, it’s hard not to feel like a kid again.
My Neighbor Totoro‘s somewhat experimental method of animation became a long-term phenomenon. While the film was only a modest success during its theatrical run, its reputation grew over time until it became Studio Ghibli’s most recognizable and emblematic film even outside of native Japan.
But the experiments didn’t stop there. What many people don’t know is that My Neighbor Totoro was originally released theatrically as part of a Ghibli double-feature that also included Isao Takahata’s studio debut. And if you thought My Neighbor Totoro pushed the limits of what animation could accomplish, Takahata’s film pretty much demolished every boundary imaginable.
Next, I’ll examine the first non-Miyazaki film in the retrospective, and one of the most harrowing anti-war dramas ever created: Isao Takahata’s devastating Grave of the Fireflies.
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