In Japan, be it a post-war rural landscape or concrete jungle, spirits lurk. The land of the rising sun is saturated with folklore and centuries distilled stories. So much so that amongst the pantheon of deities and demons there is room for the simple and every day. When two young girls (Satsuki and Mei) move away from the city with their professor father they find themselves in the middle of a life still at one with nature. Everyone has crops, everyone pitches in, and friendly trolls live within ancient trees.
My Neighbor Totoro is the seminal work from legendary Japanese animation director, Hayao Miyazaki. As one of the three founders of the immensely influential Studio Ghibli, throughout the late 80s to mid-00s Miyazaki directed and wrote movies that would strongly impact on a whole generation of filmmakers, worldwide. Whilst his work is varied (you can point to the Oscar-winning Spirited Away, the gleeful Little Mermaid respin that is Ponyo, or deeply Japanese folklore of Princess Mononoke), it is My Neighbor Totoro that stands as a perfectly balanced blend of his talents.
There are children’s movies. Then there are touchstone children’s movies. Then there are movies that transcend demographics and create endearing cultural icons. Since 1988 Japan has had Totoro: a large, furry and friendly woodland spirit that appears to oversee the spring cycle of growth and prosperity. Whether or not this is the case, it’s a cute and cuddly creature whose bemused expression and bursts of exuberance are guaranteed to elicit pure joy in both children and adults alike. Studio Ghibli immediately made Totoro their company logo, such is the creature’s draw.
For such an influential film, My Neighbor Totoro is a little difficult to do justice as the plot is intentionally minimal. Two buoyant young girls explore the old wooden house out in the sticks that is to be their home, chasing away sneaky soot sprites and whirlwinding through the building as only children can. As they settle into their new lives, the younger Mei stumbles across a huge furry troll creature with expressive whiskers, sleepy eyes, and bear-like claws. Her joy in this is every child who discovers something fascinating. And that’s the essence of the first two-thirds of the movie: adventures in the everyday where something as simple as growing acorns is imbued with magical wonder.
Many more learned reviewers than I have attempted to unravel what makes My Neighbor Totoro such an endearing and beloved movie. Perhaps it is because it represents Miyazaki at his most focused. Later Miyazaki films would get very wrapped up in themes of pacifism, environmentalism versus industry, and layers of subtext. Whilst My Neighbor Totoro has some subtle nostalgia for a simpler rural lifestyle this is expressed through gorgeous animation rather than heavy narrative. Butterflies bob around, fish dart through streams, and crops are plucked fresh from their stems. A furry creature wants to be your friend, and when he needs to get around a huge multi-legged Cat Bus meows in to give him a ride.
It is impossible to walk away from My Neighbor Totoro without a smile on your face. Without descending into saccharine sweetness or cynical pulling at heartstrings, the movie manages to be entertaining, enriching, and naturally joyous by encapsulating the immense feelings of young childhood. The narrative isn’t driven by threat or conflict (although fear of getting lost makes up the third act), but instead through inquisitiveness and exploration. The ‘plot’ is simply these warm-hearted characters interacting, rather than outside forces compelling them onwards. In that way, the movie has bottled the essence of our lives, but enriched it with gloriously lovely creatures that we all wish we could meet and hold.
My Neighbor Totoro is consistently ranked highly in global best-animated movie lists and if you haven’t seen it before then its addition to Netflix is the perfect excuse to rectify that.
Words by Michael Record