Creator: Hayao Miyazaki
Genre: Fantasy, Adventure
Length: Movie (1:26)
A Studio Ghibli Production released in the United States by Fox 1993 and by Disney 2006
+ Beautiful feast for the eyes
+ Speaks to audience without being preachy or condescending
+ Avoids the cliché of adults doubting their children's encounter with fantasy
+/ Repeat character/visual designs found in other Miyazaki films
My Neighbor Totoro is a beautiful and charming film. Children and adults who've never seen a Studio Ghibli film will find this film a good introduction to their work. Those who've seen Miyazaki's other films will find some elements familiar. It is one of Studio Ghibli's earliest features and if Miyazaki can be said to have a weakness it is tendency to repeat character designs and visual motifs. Many of the characters look as if they could be related to characters from his other films. However, overlooking these minor quibbles My Neighbor Totoro is one of Hayao Miyazaki's most entertaining children's films.
4 out of 5 · Highly Recommended
My Neighbor Totoro Review
Written by: Frank B. Chavez III on 1/17/2007
In 1988, Studio Ghibli released Hayao Miyazaki's film My Neighbor Totoro as half of a double bill with Isao Takahata's Grave of the Fireflies. Various reasons are cited for the pairing: one- that the studio hoped to offset any financial losses if the film was not successful or two - they felt it necessary to balance Grave of the Fireflies' grim, realistic tone with My Neighbor Totoro's lighter fantasy theme. Either way the two films illustrate the near total opposite approaches to animated storytelling taken by Studio Ghibli's founders. Takahata's films tend to be either realistic dramas or satires dealing directly with the foibles and social concerns of life in modern and contemporary Japan while Miyazaki's films are more often fantasies exploring broader social concerns in the context of fairytales and fantasy adventures. Unlike the epic films Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away which helped cement Miyazaki's reputation in the United States as a master of animated storytelling, My Neighbor Totoro is a quiet, more personal story that still overflows with the whimsy and eye-catching animation we've come to expect from Hayao Miyazaki.
My Neighbor Totoro is a charming film, infused with a Japanese sensibility about the nature of reality. As the film opens the children Satsuke and Mei explore their new home and there is a sense that very real magical beings are just beyond human perception. The first beings they encounter are "black soots" similar to the beings that aided Kamaji the boiler room manager in Spirited Away. Grandma, the elderly neighbor who's been looking after the house explains that these beings are Susuwataris - harmless, easily agitated creatures who leave soot and dust in empty houses. Grandma, like other rural folk, accepts the existence of Susuwataris as a matter-of-fact, as much a part of the natural world as an insect or a dog or the giant camphor tree that dominates the nearby forest. Other folk beliefs about the nature of spirits and magical beings are laced throughout the story - such as when strong winds engulf the house during the family's first night there, rattling the windows and filling the air with ghost-like howls, Father suggests the girls chase the "ghosts" away with laughter.
The next day the family goes into town to visit the girls' mother, who, like Miyazaki's own mother, is hospitalized for tuberculosis. She indulges her daughters' belief that the house is haunted, commenting that she is exited to come home from the hospital to meet a ghost. In a small but touching moment, Mother combs Satsuke's hair and tells her that it will be like hers when Satsuke is grown up.
Show More The film is built up of many such small moments that gradually build to Satsuke and Mei's encounters with the Totoros. Mei is the first to encounter one of the creatures while playing in the backyard. Depicted just like a real girl, she picks flowers, plays with tadpoles, and looks for acorns. It's while searching for acorns, that she spots the Totoro as it emerges from the tall grass at the edge of the property. A small creature, round with long pointed ears, it can bend the light, sometimes appearing translucent like a bubble and sometimes completely invisible. Curious, as most small children would be, Mei follows the mystical being to the crawlspace beneath the house. While she waits for it to come out, the creature, joined by a slightly larger companion carrying a bag of acorns, attempts to sneak past, Mei notices and gives chase but the creatures disappear into the woods at the edge of the garden and Mei follows. Before she knows it, Mei finds herself in the middle of a mystical and ancient forest reminiscent of the forest from Princess Mononoke where she encounters a giant Totoro several feet tall dozing in the hollow of a tree. The creature isn't like any natural being but seems reminiscent of both the Cheshire cat from Alice in Wonderland in appearance and a Shinto kami spirit in temperament and behavior. He seems almost a prototype of the spirits and creatures from Spirited Away.
When Satsuke returns from school, she and Father find Mei sleeping in the shrubbery behind the house. Insisting that she saw a Totoro (a childish bungling of the Japanese pronunciation of the word Troll) Mei leads Satsuke and her Father along the path she believes leads to the Totoro's lair, as in many fairytales the path instead leads right back to their own garden. A few days later while waiting at a rainy bus stop for their father to return from his job at the University, Satsuke and Mei encounter the giant Totoro. Satsuke teaches the creature how to hold an umbrella. The creature enjoys the splatter of rain against his umbrella so much that he excitedly jumps up and down to make more rain drops fall from the trees. A few moments pass like this until an apparently living "cat bus" appears and takes the Totoro off into the woods. Just before departing, Totoro gives the children a package of seeds which they later plant in their garden. When Father finally arrives, it is impossible to tell if the girls are excited or frightened by the events they've witnessed.
Show More As summer begins the girls have many lighthearted, magical adventures with the Totoro, such as flying over the forest, dancing in the garden, or playing with flutes in the treetops. Their mother's illness, however, casts a certain melancholy pall over these events, the reality of her illness hits home when her illness takes a turn for the worst and she must delay her planned trip home. The girls quarrel over this news and Mei runs off. Regretting their argument, Satsuke runs herself ragged looking for her sister only to find that a child's sandal has been found at the edge of a murky pool near the Shinto shrine. The sandal turns out not to be Mei's and Satsuke, assuming Mei has tried to walk to her mother's hospital, runs off to find the Totoro. Satsuke begs the Totoro for help and he summons the "cat bus" to aid her.
Unlike many American fantasy movies, none of the characters ever questions the nature of the elements of the fantastic. The father is an archaeologist and a university professor but never doubts his daughters saw something unexplainable, he never rationalizes it away nor does he condescend to Grandma or treat her belief in the supernatural as quaint. Likewise Mother accepts that the house is haunted by supernatural entities or spirits of some kind she never tells her children that were just dreaming or imagining things. The supernatural elements of the story are accepted as real or at least very important even if they can not be sensed by the adults in the story.
Much like Kiki's Delivery Service, My Neighbor Totoro is small scale but charming fantasy that speaks to children and their parents without being condescending or preachy. Miyazaki develops his story at a natural pace and never attempts to overwhelm his audience with flashy effects or gimmicky narrative devices. There are no villains and the suspense builds out of realistic reactions to bad situations. Yet Miyazaki develops his central theme so subtly many in the audience may not even notice. Yet the idea that the spirit of a place can manifest as living being or that the supernatural exists just beyond your perception permeates every frame as does the idea that fantasy can ground a child in reality as well as anything parent can say in a time of crisis.
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