Why I Love… #4: My Neighbour Totoro

Year: 1988

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Genre: Animation / Fantasy

My Neighbour Totoro is one of my favourite films of all time. Plain and simple. I love it. I never get tired of it. I’m a fan of Studio Ghibli’s output, and recognise the virtuoso brilliance of their grander scale epics such as Princess Mononoke and Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Winds, but My Neighbour Totoro is the film that holds a special place in my heart. The film I turn to if I’ve had a bad day or need to make things feel better somehow. Comfort viewing of the highest order, guaranteed to bring me around. The movie version of an ice cream sundae. And just as unashamedly sugary.

The mythical central creatures – the totoro – have become iconic. To this day – and in Japan especially – their cute faces are merchandised like crazy, on everything from alarm clocks to chopsticks. They still mark the logo of the illustrious animation studio. They are Hayao Miyazaki’s calling card. It helps that they’re charmingly designed creatures, but the secret to their success – and endurance – goes beyond that. Unlike so many fly-by-night Western animated characters, they don’t merely exist to serve a marketing strategy. It is what they stand for and the legacy of the movie that brought them into being that carries them on.

My Neighbour Totoro tells the story of Mei and Satsuki, sisters who, along with their father, move to an old house in the countryside whilst their mother convalesces. Soon after their arrival, Mei discovers a small troupe of woodland spirits that live in the undergrowth surrounding a large camphor tree adjoining their home. These creatures help the sisters to understand how to live in harmony with the natural world, and – occasionally – help them out of trouble. That’s almost all there is to the movie. Aside from the mild peril of Mei going missing toward the film’s end, there is absolutely no dramatic tension to speak of. Totoro is such a comforting watch because its characters remain, for the most part, untroubled and out of harm’s way. It’s a film about nostalgia as much as anything else. It reminds us how wonderful a child’s imagination is. Something Miyazaki has an uncanny ability to tap into again and again.

But here it seems to reveal itself in its purest forms. Even before the totoro reveal themselves, the joys of the world through a child’s eyes are conjured in Mei and Satsuki’s gleeful ‘discovery’ of their new home. From chasing away the ‘soot gremlins’ (or ‘dust bunnies’ depending on which translation you’re following), to a fun and innocent communal bathing with their father, My Neighbour Totoro devotes itself not to telling a complex plot, but to detailing it’s characters as genuinely human. Mei is a bouncing ball of kinetic energy, reacting impulsively against any and all stimuli. Satsuki is more thoughtful and self-aware, with an endearing earnestness. It’s also delightfully refreshing to see an honestly good father-figure holding the family together. These are people that I would like to know.

Like a lazy Sunday afternoon in the summer, My Neighbour Totoro unfurls at its own leisurely pace. It’s more or less a full half an hour (over a third of the way into the picture) before the film’s more fantastic characters make their appearance. And Miyazaki also seems keenly aware here that less is more. They don’t smother the picture, but appear randomly, and usually for brief periods. The largest of the totoro is a delightfully dopey animal; somewhere between a rabbit and a bear, he loves to sleep, is inquisitive and slyly playful. That Cheshire-cat grin hinting at a wicked sense of mischief. By dotting their appearances through the film’s running span, Miyazaki builds great anticipation in the viewer for when they’ll appear next, and to what fanciful end. And then he hits you with his trump card; a catbus!*

Like virtually all Ghibli films, My Neighbour Totoro concerns itself heavily with the themes of family and nature. Whilst not as heavy handed as the likes of Pom Poko or Nausicaa in commenting on the preciousness of the natural world, My Neighbour Totoro gently reminds us that the world is a beautiful place, and we’d do well to treat it with respect and love. The totoro themselves teach Mei and Satsuki just this as they help them to grow some seeds – the adventure spiralling into the fanciful as a huge tree sprouts forth from the tiny garden, before they all go sailing off on the wind.

The quest to find missing Mei at the end of the film caps things off nicely with a sense of closure, but really this is a piece without the need for plot. It’s like looking through a family album in which all your childhood daydreams were real. That’s the gift that My Neighbour Totoro gives us, and part of what makes it such an enduring and joyful treasure. It helps of course that it’s brought to us by the finest animation studio in the world. Miyazaki’s films always look exquisite, and this is no exception. It’s also worth crediting the brilliant work of composer Joe Hisaishi, one of the most often overlooked masters behind what makes these movies work. Throughout the Ghibli series his music has helped elevate Miyazaki’s creations to marvellous heights, and Totoro is no exception. From it’s theme to the catchy motifs that shimmy in and out of the picture, Hisaishi’s contribution is a wonderful one. It’s also worth noting that as raucous as the kids can be, they don’t grate, either in the original Japanese or the American dub (where they’re played out by the vocal talents of Dakota and Elle Fanning).

These elements, combined with the laidback warmth of Miyazaki’s vision, make My Neighbour Totoro something incredibly special. It almost didn’t happen at all. The financiers were dubious about the idea, and Miyazaki could only get the film made as one-half of a double feature with the far more sobering Grave Of The Fireflies. But here it is, in all its simple beauty.

Generally speaking I don’t get on with Western animated movies, especially American ones. They’re always too busy trying to be clever, or worse, trying to be sassy. Their characters behave like wise-cracking adults. In Ghibli films – My Neighbour Totoro as much as any other – the characters behave like people. The children act like children, the adults are respectful. Miyazaki’s films are worth cherishing because they show us the best sorts of people we could be. And we love them because they present these idealised versions of ourselves in the most amazing fantasies imaginable. I wish I had a neighbour totoro.

*it’s a cat that’s also a bus!

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