Three feature films under his belt and with a brand new animation studio he helped found, Hayao Miyazaki was already sitting pretty in the mid-1980s, but his most acclaimed works were still ahead of him. After his initial triptych of high-action fantasies, the master turned his attention to a much more personal story, one that would bring in his final thematic passion, childhood wonderment. Unlike his earlier films, this one was very short and stripped down, with few characters and without a driving plot; the story instead unfolds for its main characters the way the days pass for kids. It’s a movie that focuses entirely on imagination and discovery, and it would allow Miyazaki to create a character so indelible that it would be the logo for Studio Ghibli forever after.
My Neighbor Totoro is still hailed by many to be Miyazaki’s best film, and it’s inarguable that it’s his most recognizable worldwide. It’s a film that’s gorgeous to look at but also is fairly innovative in the way it tells its story. While most children’s films focus on an advancing narrative, usually quite complex for the demographic, filling in the surrounding areas with little comedic or action bits, Totoro takes its time and lets things happen the way life happens, laconically, situationally, and without focusing on getting from point A to point B. It’s a film that feels like childhood – there’s really no easier way to put it.
We begin with a moving van driving through the Japanese farmland. The Kusakabe family are moving to a new (old) house, for a reason we don’t know right away. The family consists of a father and two girls, grade school-aged Satsuki, and her much younger sister Mei. When they arrive in the old, dusty house, they catch a glimpse of little black critters who run from sight the moment they’re spotted. The girls’ father tells them they must be soot gremlins (susuwatari), which sends them into a tizzy of exploration. They later meet a neighbor boy’s grandmother, who becomes their guardian when their father is in Tokyo teaching at the university, and she tells them they are soot spirits and have now gone to find another empty house. We then learn that they’ve moved to the country to be closer to the hospital in which their mother is recovering from a long illness.
One day while Satsuki is at school, Mei is playing outside and sees a small, white rabbit-like spirit, which she chases through the woods. Not long after, she comes across a slightly larger one which she also chases before coming to a large camphor tree with a huge hollow in it. Inside, she sees a giant-sized version of the same spirits, snoring loudly. She crawls up on its furry chest and wakes it up. It roars a series of noises that, to Mei, sound like “Totoro” which she takes to be its name. He doesn’t object. Later, Satsuki goes looking for her sister and finds her sleeping on the forest floor, Totoro nowhere to be found. Mei tries to find the tree and the hollow but can’t. Later, she’s sad that her sister won’t believe her and her father tells them that Totoro is probably the guardian of the forest and will make himself known again when he feels it’s time.
One day, Mei demands that Granny take her to Satsuki at school and she is allowed to stay their for the rest of the day. That night, it begins to rain and the girls, with umbrellas and a tiny rain slicker, walk to the bus stop to await their father. His bus is late and soon, in the dark, Satsuki feels something beside her. It happens to be Totoro waiting for his own bus with a leaf on his head for shelter. Satsuki, naturally very surprised that the creature really exists, offers him one of their umbrellas. The forest spirit is touched by the gift and how well it works and gives her a bag of seeds and beans as payment. Just then a bus that is itself a living cat arrives, with eight legs, headlight eyes and rats taped to its butt for break lights, and Totoro boards. Moments later, the girls’ father’s bus arrives and they shout at how they’ve just seen Totoro.
The girls plant some of the seeds in the back yard and, at midnight a few nights later, Totoro and his two smaller versions arrive and begin doing a ceremonial dance. The girls awaken and join them and all of the sudden a massive tree sprouts from the ground. Totoro then produces a massive spinning top and the two other Totoro and the two girls jump on his chest and they go flying through the air to sit on the top of the tree. The next day, they see that the tree is gone, but sprouts have indeed begun to grow. Once the plants have grown into vegetables, the girls are excited that their mother is coming home and Mei in particular is keen for her to eat the special “magic” corn she’s grown. But they later learn that she isn’t going to come home after all. Mei is distraught and begins to cry but Satsuki yells at her, telling her to grow up. Mei runs off, trying to find the hospital on foot (which is miles away) and Satsuki frantically runs after her. Eventually, she’s so lost and tired that she has nothing else to do but call for Totoro’s help. The spirit summons the Catbus.
This movie is only 88 minutes long and Totoro doesn’t show up until about a half an hour into it. A full third of the film is spent setting up the characters just being children. The soot spirits are magical, but they don’t do anything other than teach the girls that there are beings which don’t adhere to the modern world, but do exist in the natural one. Totoro is really only in those four scenes that I detailed, but his influence is felt throughout the movie. To Satsuki and Mei, he represents not growing up too fast, even if their mother is very ill and they’ve been uprooted from their earlier lives as a result. The father seems to know that “Totoro”, be he real or just part of their imagination, is important for the girls and their belief in him takes their mind off of the more unpleasant things in the world.
My Neighbor Totoro is also notable for being the first of Miyazaki’s movies to be verifiably set in Japan and not a nameless fantasy realm. The whole point of the story is that wonderment can happen at home, as long as children keep their imagination alive. Miyazaki lovingly depicts a part of Japan that doesn’t get much attention, that of a rural neighborhood and farmlands, and he kisses it with such amazing colors and makes it feel at once true to life and like a dream. Anime filmmakers didn’t show their own country very often, and in this same year, and on the same bill in Japan, Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata made his astounding Grave of the Fireflies, making 1988 the biggest year of Japanese animated films about Japan in forever.
Ultimately, My Neighbor Totoro is a much quieter, more lyrical movie than Miyazaki had yet made, but it would become what he’s known for. Totoro represents the spirit of childish joy. It allowed the filmmaker to search into his own childhood dreams to create the magical characters that have remained as popular today as they were in 1988. Totoro even showed up in Toy Story 3. Ghibli wouldn’t exist as it is today without the little movie about kids in Japan.
Next week, we stay on the theme of childhood but this time we go back a bit into a traditional idea of magic with his tale of a young witch who gets a job in the city. Kiki’s Delivery Service is up next.