Looking back at My Neighbor Totoro

Ahead of My Neighbor Totoro's release on Blu-ray, Ryan explains why it's among the greatest animated films ever made...

“I wanted My Neighbor Totoro to be a heartwarming feature film that would not only entertain and touch its viewers, but stay with them long after they have left the theatres. I wanted the spirit of the film to endear lovers to each other, inspire parents to fondly recall their childhood, and encourage kids to roam around temple grounds and climb trees” – Hayao Miyazaki, The Art Of My Neighbor Totoro.

Great animation is like a lens, providing a fresh perspective on the world around us. This is perhaps why, of all Studio Ghibli’s animated features, My Neighbor Totoro stands as its most beautiful achievement – even compared to undoubted classics such as Castle In The Sky, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, or any of its other major works you care to name.

Devoid of a strict three-act plot, villains, violence or peril, My Neighbor Totoro is, even by artist and animator Hayao Miyazaki’s standards, a gentle tale. Although some critics were nonplussed by Totoro’s slight narrative when it appeared in US cinemas in the 1990s, it’s the pace and rhythm of Miyazaki’s story that makes it so timeless and captivating.

Set just over a decade after the end of the Second World War, My Neighbor Totoro is about a Tokyo university professor and his two daughters, Satsuki and Mei, who move to the countryside to be near their mother who’s ill in hospital. As they explore first the dusty, somewhat dilapidated old house their father’s bought, and then the countryside around them, the detail of Miyazaki’s animation, and the luminous quality of Kazuo Oga’s background art allow us to share in their wonder.

From tadpoles wriggling in streams to the shimmer of light in the leaves of a camphor tree, My Neighbor Totoro brings the Japanese countryside to life with rich colour and minute, loving detail. The Shinto teaching that spirits exist in all things is reflected in both the story and every frame; just as Satsuki and Mei discover hidden, ancient spirits in the woods, so every image in Totoro is filled with a sense of vital energy – truly, the movie puts the anima in animation. 

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So infectious is their glee, it’s only on a second or third viewing that we might notice how long it is before Mei and Satsuki discover the woodland creature of the title. But when he does appear, it’s a truly captivating sequence of events. Four-year-old Mei, having wandered off on her own to explore, discovers a pair of small, rabbit-like animals which she follows into the woods. Tumbling down into a gap in a camphor tree, she lands in the secret chamber of Totoro, a slumbering keeper of the forest.

The way Totoro is animated is quietly brilliant. Although his rotund shape and fur evoke the warmth and gentleness of a cartoon bear, Miyazaki is careful not to anthropomorphise the character; there’s something mysterious and perhaps even a little frightening about his sheer size and languid movements which hint at a devastating potential strength. Just as he should be, Totoro is a force of nature.

My Neighbor Totoro is full of encounters such as these – quiet and filled with awe and mystery. To describe them in detail would do them a disservice, because so much of their power is all there to be seen in Miyazaki’s mastery of design, pace, light and shade. It’s sufficient to say that each character, from the supernatural Catbus to the ordinary young country boy Kanta – so shy he can barely even speak to Satsuki at first – has been considered and rendered with the utmost care and thought. 

With so many movies, animated or otherwise, filled with parents who are unsympathetic or downright uncaring, it’s refreshing to note how warm the relationships are among Totoro’s central family. The father, Professor Kusakabe, may be rather absent minded and absorbed in his work at times, but look how caring and attentive he is to his children; when Mei comes running back from the woods shouting about meeting a totoro (a youthful mispronunciation of the Japanese word ‘tororu’, meaning ‘troll’), note how he doesn’t dismiss what she says, but instead joins her as she tries to relocate his hiding place.

My Neighbor Totoro is one of Miyazaki’s most autobiographical movies, and its setting is closely modelled on the rural Japan in which he grew up. When he was a child, Miyazaki’s mother was desperately ill from tuberculosis, and he too experienced that fear of loss Mei and Satsuki experience in his film. This grounding in personal history is perhaps what gives Totoro its additional edge – although its depiction of a bucolic paradise and a family pulling together in the face of illness might seem like mere mawkish fluff when read as a synopsis, there’s another current beneath the shimmering surface. As Mei and Satsuki play in the sun, there’s the faint yet ever-present knowledge that such happiness and innocence can’t last forever.

The film presents a snapshot in history, a moment just before Japan’s rural past was about to be paved over by the industrial expansion that took place in the decades after World War II. My Neighbor Totoro and Isao Takahata’s Grave Of The Fireflies were produced at the same time, and released in cinemas as a double-feature – largely because both films were seen as too much of a financial risk to stand on their own. 

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While this pairing of a desperately tragic story of the firebombing of Kobe in 1945 and My Neighbor Totoro‘s blissful fantasy might seem like an awkward one – and undoubtedly offers up one of the most astonishing emotional roller coasters in cinema – they provide an unforgettable document of what happened to ordinary Japanese people during the War, and how the country would be forever changed afterwards.

In My Neighbor Totoro, Miyazaki seeds certain scenes with incidental yet vital background details. At several points in the film, Inari shrines can be spotted among the trees. Although these fox statues (often adorned with distinctive red bibs) are a familiar sight in rural Japan, Miyazaki’s use of them could serve a subtle yet important purpose; Inari was traditionally a god of agriculture, and its name even loosely translates as “carrying rice”. Gradually, as money replaced rice as Japan’s currency, Inari’s remit expanded to include all kinds of industry and commerce.

The presence of the Inari shrines in My Neighbor Totoro, therefore, could serve to underline the fleeting moment in which the film takes place – the point where Japan’s agricultural past was overtaken by cities and commerce. The film is a hymn to the natural beauty of Japan, and also its fragility. 

My Neighbor Totoro wasn’t an immediate success when it appeared in Japanese cinemas in 1988. Rather, its popularity gradually spread, partly assisted by Studio Ghibli’s eventual agreement to allow the production of furry Totoro merchandise, and also because its screening both in schools and on television introduced it to a generation of children, who took Totoro to their hearts as eagerly as Mei and Satsuki do in the film.

Within the space of a few years, My Neighbor Totoro’s fame spread. Akira Kurosawa named it as one of his favourite movies, while the recommendations from such influential critics as Roger Ebert contributed to its growing cult status in the US. Now Studio Ghibli’s mascot, Totoro has also made cameo appearances in several of the studio’s later films, as well as Pixar’s Toy Story 3 – the latter  a sign of animator John Lasseter’s personal affection for the movie.

Totoro has even become the face of a growing initiative to safeguard the sayotama (or farmland) in Japan, with the ‘Totoro Hometown Fund Campaign’ set up to protect the country’s remaining rural areas. 

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Although unmistakeably Japanese, and steeped in the country’s culture and history, My Neighbor Totoro’s appeal is universal. It’s a film about the wonder of nature, and also the wonder of childhood. If animation is a lens, then the film provides us with a glimpse of a familiar world of innocence and beauty – one that might chime with our own childhood memories, when summer days seemed to last forever and the spaces around us seemed infinitely huge.

With My Neighbor Totoro, Miyazaki opened a window into a world that feels so magically, intoxicatingly real, yet always tantalisingly out of reach. His film is a fable, an adventure, a drama, and above all, a truly monumental work of art.

My Neighbor Totoro is out on Blu-ray on the 12th November.

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