My Neighbor Totoro is Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece, which probably makes it the best animated movie ever made, and definitely puts it amongst the very best movies -in general, not only animated ones- ever made.Totoro, the furry forest spirit that gives name to the movie, has become Studio Ghibli’s mascot. He is one of the most iconic and beloved characters of Japanese animation history.
All of these facts make it a little surprising that, on its original theatrical run, Totoro actually lost money. I talked on more detail about this in my review of Grave of the Fireflies, but the gist of it is that the two movies were originally released as a rather mis-matched double-feature. They’re both excellent films, but while one of them is a serious (and seriously depressing) historical drama, the other is a pleasant adventure about little girls and big furry creatures running around in a forest. Pairing these up seems like a dubious idea, but easy to understand if you take another fact about this movie into account: it is very, very different from everything Miyazaki had done up to that point.
If you ask someone to describe Miyazaki’s movies, then they’ll probably describe something very close to his two previous features (Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Laputa: Castle in the Sky): fantastic-futuristic settings, a young teenage protagonist (usually female), ambiguous villains, environmental messages, and lots of flying machines. There is a bit of flying in Totoro, and the main protagonists are young girls, but for the most part, it’s a completely different animal. Its originality, paired up with the fact that it was a fairly expensive movie to produce, made the guys at Ghibli decide to release it along with Grave of the Fireflies, hoping that the prestige and gravitas of that movie would benefit Totoro‘s box office.
But let’s go to what makes Totoro so unique. Miyazaki’s previous movies are epic adventures. The only people who would describe Totoro as an adventure, let alone an epic, would be small children, which is appropriate, because this is one hundred percent a movie made for them. What makes the movie so special is precisely the fact that it is the rare movie for preschoolers that doesn’t talk down to them. This isn’t some stupid Teletubbies-type of thing, this is a masterful filmmaker making a masterful film, and asking himself what the emotions of being a small child are.
Before I go any further, let me set the movie up really quick. Our protagonists are Satsuki and her little four-year-old sister Mei. The girls, and their father, have just moved to a house in the Japanese countryside in order to be closer to the hospital where their mother currently resides. The mother’s illness is never specified. Neither is the type period in which the movie is set (although Miyazaki has been quoted as saying it’s 1955). However, plot is not really that important. Most of the movie is made up of vignettes in which the girls encounter a series of spirit creatures (the titular Totoro being one of them) in the forest near their house, and occasionally deal with the fact that their mother is hospitalized.
One very effective word to describe My Neighbor Totoro is careful. At this point Miyazaki had more than come into his own as a filmmaker, and one of his greatest virtues, the attention to detail, was starting to flourish. I’m not talking about attention to detail in the way James Cameron makes sure that he has the right set of china that was used on the Titanic, but detail that comes from observation and understanding. In this case, the way he so carefully and tenderly writes the main girls’ dialogue, and the even more careful way in which he animates their movements.
Take, for example, the fact that Mei so often practically repeats all of Satsuki’s lines. At first glance, you say “of course she does, she’s a four-year-old hanging out with her big sister”, but think a little bit longer, and you’ll quickly realize how many movies wouldn’t have given a second thought to such a detail. It’s a simple detail, but an invaluable one. It makes everything ring true. It makes the oldest adult be fascinated by what’s going on. It might be unconscious, but it shows you how much the filmmakers cared while making this movie.
Another perfect word to describe the movie is “delightful”. The emotionally accurate portrayal of childhood is only part of what My Neighbor Totoro has to offer. Its other charms, are what its protagonists are so fascinated by: the cute furry creatures that inhabit the forest. Totoro, of course, is the main attraction. He is fantastically designed: a big, round, and furry creature. With giant eyes and a mouth that seems to appear and disappear when needed. He doesn’t speak, but rather, behaves like an animal. Like a huge family dog that doesn’t fully understand what these girls around him are doing. He is, like the girls, also very carefully animated.
Again, what makes this aspect of the movie so strong (besides the detail) is that it is so deeply rooted in the perspective of a small child. The mini adventures that Satsuki and Mei have are very much the stuff of backyard imagination on a saturday afternoon. Totoro is an imaginary-friend-type creature if there ever was one, and so are all his seemingly “magic” powers. The most successful example of this is the other incredibly iconic character in the movie: the catbus, which, just like you’d imagine, is a creature that is half cat, half bus.
The catbus is an intensely bizarre idea, but also one that could only have been imagined by a four-year-old, is it not? It’s almost too appropriate for the movie. Case in point, the way people react to the scene in which it makes its first appearance. Little children just accept it, often being excited by the fantastic creature. Adults, on the other hand, can hardly wrap their heads around it (I know I couldn’t). It’s just such a weird idea… except if you’re actually a child.
Very few movies manage to embrace the point of view of their protagonists as profoundly and effectively as My Neighbor Totoro. It’s even rarer in movies aimed at children. I can think about a few that do a pretty remarkable job, one of them is Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are, which while being a terrific movie, occasionally seemed more preoccupied with adult nostalgia than with an actual child’s perspective.
That is what makes Totoro so great. It is commits to its purpose without reservations. It gives over to the worldview of a child, and by doing so, speaks truthfully to the way one experiences joy, grief, and frustration at that age. I think all children deserve to watch My Neighbor Totoro. Again, I’ll allude to film critic Roger Ebert’s famous quote, and say that if the movies’ power is to generate empathy, then a movie like My Neighbor Totoro is how you put yourself in another person’s shoes. This is what cinema is about.
Next Time: Another childhood adventure, as Miyazaki adapts Kiki’s Delivery Service.