“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”
I first showed My Neighbor Totoro to my oldest child when she was two. It wasn’t the first movie I had attempted to show her, but in all my previous attempts she only ever made it through a third of the way through whatever movie I was showing her before losing interest. Not so with My Neighbor Totoro. With nary a villain, major conflict, fart joke or any other cheap Hollywood trick to keep the “youths” entertained in sight, Hayao Miyazaki weaved a gentle but compelling tale to keep my child enthralled and hooked from the opening frame. I can think of no higher example of this movie’s quite genius than that.
Given that My Neighbor Totoro has in many ways become synonymous with Studio Ghibli to the general public, it is somewhat surprising to consider that when it was released it was a bit of a departure from the studio. The studio’s previous efforts Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Castle in the Sky were swashbuckling high-fantasy adventures while Grave of the Fireflies, the movie that was double-billed with My Neighbor Totoro in what has to be the most emotionally devastating double feature ever (one hopes My Neighbor Totoro was the second feature, and no, I don’t recommend you try this double-bill for yourself), was a harrowing war story told from the perspective of two children.
My Neighbor Totoro meanwhile is a story about Satsuki and Mei, two young sisters, moving with their father to the country to be nearer to their sick mother and generally learning to adjust to their new circumstances. There is no hidden gut punch at the end ala Bridge of Terabitha. While there are various monster spirits inhabiting the countryside they are all benevolent, functioning more as burly guardian angels than threatening figures. There are no bad guys, no conflict, and no meaningful action taking place. Instead it a modest portrait of how young children imagine and interact with the world around them, set against a genteel pastoral backdrop. And yet, it is also one of the most magical movies I have ever seen.
From the very offset this is a movie that seems averse to manufacturing conflict. The movie opens with Satsuki and Mei playing in the back of a moving truck, and genuinely seeming to enjoy one another’s company without a hint of sibling rivalry. They have a father who is shown as neither aloof nor an obstacle to their adventures, instead he is loving, attentive, and interested in participating in his children’s fantasies. The house they eventually arrive at is a bit of a dump, with rotted wood and a strongly “haunted” vibe, yet Satsuki and Mei approach it with a sense of adventure. There are spirits and ghosts occupying dark forests, but they are not malevolent and need to only be respected. Miyazaki seems to revel in creating a world in which innocent wonder and curiosity is rewarded and not seen as a character weakness to be exploited.
While previous Studio Ghibli movies had showcased the studio’s special adeptness at portraying children accurately, My Neighbor Totoro takes this to a whole different level. Satsuki, as the oldest and with their mother away at the local hospital, takes on the role of being a surrogate mother to Mei and she takes on the tasks of running the house with the naive enthusiasm of a child being treated like an adult for the first time. She is animated in such a way that you can see her inner tension of wanting to be both a responsible adult and carefree child; the moment it finally becomes too much for her to handle is heartbreaking. Her sister Mei meanwhile, is a bundle of curiosity and joy. In one of my favorite scenes she finds herself playing alone in their garden with just her father present doing some work from home. As we focus on their father puzzling over a mountain of paperwork we are invited to observe as Mei quietly creates an imaginary world with so complete a vision that eventually she needs to rope her father in as a flower shop owner. I have personally witnessed similar imaginary worlds concocted by my daughter, and it is a marvel to witness first-hand Miyazaki’s unmatched eye in truly understanding how children act and behave, and to successfully translate that naturalistically to the screen.
It is My Neighbor Totoro‘s staunch commitment to naturalism that makes its more fantastical elements so wonderful. Satsuki and Mei accept wholeheartedly that Totoro, and his little Totoro friends (or offspring? It is never made clear), exist because they are children who aren’t encumbered by issues like logic and reason. And the adults in this story are radically not perturbed or worried by this development. Rather they listen to these children, and encourage and cultivate their imagination. It is easy to construct a scenario in which girls encountering strange creatures is perceived as a threatening and frightful reality for adults to misunderstand and be fearful of, but once again My Neighbor Totoro shows itself to be benevolent and kind at its core – it recognizes that for children to thrive they need to know that they are safe, they are heard, and that their curiosity is a strength to be cultivated.
Because fantasy and reality are allowed to be mixed in the hearts of Satsuki and Mei, they are similarly allowed to be imbibed in our hearts as well. It is easy to accept Totoro is real because as magically huggable as he may appear, we encounter him first as he is taking a very relatable mid-afternoon nap. Later he appears at a bus stop as disenchantedly bored as any commuter; his (her?) hilarious efforts to cheer up Satsuki and Mei while they wait anxiously for their father to return are much more parental in nature than magical. Even the psychedelic cat-bus Totoro waits for proves to be much more ordinary in use than its trippy nature might suggest.
Meanwhile the very ordinary setting of this movie is made more romantically magical. The sound of raindrops hitting an umbrella is literally the high point of this movie. The miracle of a seed sprouting is the most high-fantasy moment of the movie. The pacing of this movie, in which not a lot actually happens, forces you to pay attention to the most ordinary things like a paddy field in the rain, or tadpoles in a little pool, or sunflowers in a cacophonous field of crickets, or rice slowly boiling in a pot and find those moments to be beautiful. In an age where even adults are tricked to be constantly stimulated to function, there is something profoundly radical about My Neighbor Totoro‘s insistence in finding the most ordinary things fascinating.
Perhaps then it is no surprise that the movie has eventually sunk into the level of public consciousness where more showy children’s movies have been long forgotten. Similarly perhaps it also makes sense that Totoro himself has become the de-facto mascot for Studio Ghibli. Ultimately this movie is a gentle and benevolent reminder of the power of innocent childlike wonder. While the cynicism that naturally comes with adulthood means we can never truly go back to the naivety of our youth, every time I’ve encountered My Neighbor Totoro again it has reminded me that innocent wonder at the world around us is not something you have to lose either.
Other movies in the Studio Ghibli series:
Studio Ghibli #0: Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind
Studio Ghibli #1: Castle in the Sky
Studio Ghibli #2: Grave of the Fireflies
The Hall of Fame consists of movies that have appeared in multiple “Best Lists” and are considered exemplary enough to be “retired” from future lists.
Lists previously appeared in:
Best Foreign Films (For People Who Aren’t Into Foreign Films)
Best Films to Watch When You Have a Newborn
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