My Neighbor Totoro holds an ability to take you back to a time when innocent exploration and imagination were all that we needed. Perhaps the greatest Japanese animator ever, Hayao Miyazaki gives us a film that is entirely hand-drawn (we’re talking tens of thousands of frames!), and it is this aspect of the film that supplies much of its soul.
- Director: Hayao Miyazaki
- Writer: Hayao Miyazaki
- Cast: Hitoshi Takagi, Noriko Hidaka, Toshiyuki Amagasa, Chika Sakamoto, Shigesato Itoi
The only thing that keeps My Neighbor Totoro from being a great film is conflict. The plot isn’t the strength, and that’s also what gives the film its charm. The story focuses on two girls, Satsuki (Noriko Hidaka) and Mei (Chika Sakamoto). After their mother falls ill and is taken to a hospital, the girls and their father Tatsuo (Shigesato Itoi), take up temporary residence out in the countryside to remain closer to the hospital. Upon arrival, Satsuki and Mei can’t help to notice a world of seemingly supernatural reality, one that includes dust ball spirits and ghostly trolls that resemble different sized bunnies. While some discussions about it takes place between the children and adults, it becomes clear that only the children have the ability to witness this spiritual world.
The events that occur are clearly made of fantasy, but much of the story’s engagement derives from the evolving familiarity that the two girls gain as they explore the natural surroundings of the country. Going from initial fear and wonder, when the girls gain access to this new world, it feels deserved – if not hard earned. When Mei runs after a pair of trolls into the bushes, it reminds you of Alice in Wonderland and The Never Ending Story, both of which convey a strong sense of innocent wonder. Perhaps my favorite scene of all involves Satsuki and Mei standing at a bus stop only for Totoro to appear. I was completely taken by the mood and tone of it. Even in live-action films, it’s rare that films trust their material enough to give characters enough to to express moment-to-moment reactions to their environment. When Totoro shows up at the bus stop, it feels genuinely wondrous, and I felt like a kid. The innocence to Totoro is charming, and especially when he plays with the rain falling on his umbrella, and then film grows even more wonderful. Despite a light plot, there is a surprising amount of weight the mother’s illness and its effect on her children. When Satsuki learns that her mother has suffered a complication that is dismissed as a cold, Satsuiki reveals that a cold is what they said she had when they first took her into the hospital. It’s obvious why this film is one of the most beloved of family films.
Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:
I could not agree more with the observation you make about this being the type of film presenting a world that children should be able to inhabit, one with no villains, no evil adults, no fight scenes, and no scary monsters. Miyazaki holds us captive despite not having more conventional story elements. He creates a world that sucks you in. The cultural distinctions you point out are also enlightening, for example, referring to the world of spirits, “This accepting attitude towards traditional Japanese spirit-creatures may well represent an interesting difference between our two cultures.” When you say that My Neighbor Totoro “depends on a situation instead of a plot, and suggests that the wonder of life and the resources of imagination supply all the adventure you need”, I can’t help but feel nostalgic for the days of my childhood, and hope that the kids of today can find time to turn off their electronic devices and see how great the natural world really is.
Good, Bad or Great Movie: GOOD
Do you like My Neighbor Totoro? Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?
Next week’s review: Vengeance is Mine
Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, an ever-expanding monolith of celluloid currently comprised of 354 films. Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response. By taking on Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro this week, he now has 277 under his belt and less than 100 films left to go.