Directed by: Yao Miyazaki » Written by: Yao Miyazaki, 1988 » Region/Time: Japanese, Animated, 86 minutes.
Starring: Noriko Hidaka (voice) as Satsuki » Chika Sakamoto (voice) as Mei.
In his introduction to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Frank L. Baum claimed that what he intended to write was a children’s story without the horror and violence that pervaded the children’s stories of the Old World. I’m not sure he was entirely successful, but Hayao Miyazaki certainly was with his celebration of childhood imagination, My Neighbor Totoro. This is a film that does not create stock villains and horrible events, but instead is content to observe the world of two young girls, Satsuki and her younger sister, Mei, as they move into a new house in the country with their father. Their mother is sick – presumably with tuberculosis – in a nearby hospital, but seems to have a good prognosis. In any other movie, a mother with tuberculosis would be a cause for tears and a weepy death, but here, is treated merely as a fact of life.
The older child, Satsuki, is about 10 and living in her final days between the world of a child and the world of an adult. Throughout the course of the movie, the two sisters flush the “soot sprites” – makkurokurosuke – out of their new house, discover three Totoros – friendly creatures that are a cross between rabbits and bears – and go for a ride in a giant Catbus. The father accepts their stories of these creatures, glad they are occupied as they wait for their mother’s return from hospital.
The story is relatively simple. Upon moving to a new house in the country, Setsuko starts to attend school and Mei is jealous and misses her sister. As she plays outside, she discovers a creature – Totoro – suspiciously similar to a drawing of a troll in her book “The Three Billy Goats Gruff” who ends up leading the two sisters on a number of adventures. Later, Mei, worried that her mother may be getting worse, tries to walk to the hospital but gets lost. The family fears the worst, but after asking Totoro to help, Setsuko rescues her in the Catbus.
Miyazaki, the founder of Studio Ghibli, is the most successful animator in Japan – and probably the world. His style tends toward watercolour-like realism and in Mei especially, he has captured so perfectly the awkward movements of a young child it renders Western animation of children laughable. Watch one scene in particular in which Mei climbs the stairs with both her hands and feet, cantilevered forward for balance. The movements are surprisingly accurate.
If you are looking for a movie full of optimism and playfulness, it doesn’t get better than this. The film perfectly captures the wonder and ingenuity of a child’s imagination and watching it allows temporary entry back into that world, however briefly. And that damn theme song is annoyingly catchy, in a strange J-Pop way. I guarantee this movie will make the sun shine a little brighter and generally put you in a good mood.
If you end up enjoying this film, you should check out some more Miyazaki – Spirited Away won the Oscar for best animated film a few years ago, and has similar themes, although it is much ‘scarier’; Princess Mononoke is on the surface a very typical anime, with tentacle monsters, bow and arrows, tortured heros, etc., but underneath deals with destruction of the environment, female empowerment and the fallout from Hiroshima; Nausicaä is a brilliant science fiction parable of nuclear warfare; and Porco Rosso (The Red Pig) is a surprisingly endearing tale of a World War I fighter pilot who has mysteriously been turned into a pig. Finally, Miyazaki’s new movie will be coming to North American movie screens this August – Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea is apparently very similar to Totoro in its feel. I have to point out that the trailer looks absolutely insane.
Up Next in the Film Canon: A mother, her son, an actress and a few transvestites.