My Neighbor Totoro, 1988.
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki.
Featuring the voice talents of Dakota Fanning, Elle Fanning, Tim Daly, Lea Salonga, Frank Welker, Pat Carroll and Paul Butcher.
In post-war Japan two young sisters move to the countryside and discover a forest inhabited by magical spirits known as Totoros.
Remember when you were a kid and everything was massive? Cynicism barely existed back then. You could genuinely believe that a ‘People’s Elbow’ was the most devastating move in all of sports entertainment when really it was just The Rock doing an elbow drop. You could sit for hours in your bedroom plotting out mass, universe-wide battles pitting a Boba Fett action figure against an evil army of Lego drones. Some stories would span across many planets from under the stairs to the back of the garden. Christmas was great not just for the presents, but also because there was a rare military base that appeared only once a year in that assembled tree.
Suspending disbelief is easy when you’re young. There’s no doubting or second-guessing the realities you create with friends or toys. I’ve never seen a film that commits this unquestioning belief to film more than My Neighbour Totoro. It’s about two sisters who move to a new house with their father. Their mother is in hospital, but with nothing serious. It isn’t that sort of film.
Nothing much happens besides three brief scenes. The two sisters, Satsuki and Mei, about ten and four years old respectively, play in the garden and explore their new surroundings for most of the film. Satsuki eventually starts attending school, leaving Mei at home with her father. Mei’s the sort who could entertain herself for hours with only a toy bucket. On one of these play sessions, about half an hour into the film, she sees a tiny, faint blob hopping across the ground in her garden. Its ears are two small triangles on the top of its head. Mei startles the creature and chases it through the bushes at the garden’s edge. She comes to the base of an enormous tree, one that stands about twice the size of the rest of the forest. The faint blob jumps down into a gap between the roots. Mei jumps in after it.
Here she discovers two more of these blob-like creatures, only one is a little bigger and furry, and the other is much bigger and furrier. They are ‘Totoro’, which is Japanese for ‘forest spirits’. Satsuki compares them later on in the film to some drawings in Mei’s picture book. A lesser film might have used this to reveal the Totoro as figments of Mei’s imagination. That’s the easy interpretation – the sisters have created a fantasy to deal with their mother’s extended stay in hospital. If you wish to reduce the film with such redundant psychoanalysis, you’re missing its point. My Neighbour Totoro isn’t about the power of a child’s imagination. It’s about an entire realm of fantasy of which only children are conscious.
My Neighbour Totoro wisely never addresses this explanation, rather opting for a world where such fantasy is real for the children but only warmly humoured by their parents. It suggests that these Totoro are real, but because we’re a little older now, we just can’t see them.
Toy Story does this more obviously. After first watching that film, who didn’t believe that their toys would jump to life as soon as they saw you close the door? See it when you’re a little older though. You’ll appreciate the technique and some of the humour more, but you’ll loose that sense of wonder – that Toy Story was actually revealing something a lot bigger, a grand conspiracy where toys are actually sentient beings. My Neighbour Totoro addresses how a child’s imagination experiences the world more subtly. In doing so, it merges together this fantasy with reality. It makes you want to not only believe like a kid again, but for that lost perspective when you could see where the Totoro existed.
That the Totoro are used so sparingly is another of the film’s great strengths. You’re left wanting far more than you’re given and you start to dream yourself about what they might be up to when they aren’t on screen. Are they nocturnal? Are they the last of their kind? Do they take trips into space on the Cat Bus? Oh, right, the Cat Bus…
The Cat Bus is arguably the greatest animal form of transport ever conceived. It has five legs on either side and two mice on its roof for illumination. Its face owes a great debt to Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat and its eyes beam out strong headlights.
Its first appearance comes in the rain, whilst Satsuki and Mei are waiting for their father at the bus stop. He forgot his umbrella and they’ve brought one to give to him when he arrives. That’s how nice they both are, and how superbly simple this film is. King Totoro (the biggest of the three) has joined them, but he’s has only a leaf to cover his head from the rain. Satsuki offers him her father’s umbrella. He doesn’t know what to do with such a contraption, so he plays with it in Chaplin-esque naivety. He’s delighted when it opens above him. This is the first time Satsuki has encountered a Totoro, yet she batters not a single eyelid.
After standing in the rain for a while, King Totoro lets out an enormous roar to summon the Cat Bus, who gallops down the road and takes him away. You’re as unfazed as Satsuki because you share her child’s perspective, accepting the bizarre with a merry shrug. It’s only when the camera cuts to a witness frog across the street, mouth agape, that you realise the how absurd it all is – two girls and King Totoro underneath an umbrella that’s hardly half his width. Oh, right, and the Cat Bus. Taken out of context, it’s as trippy as balls.
So many movies are hard going. Lead characters often have some form of parent trouble or bereavement; others require parts of intense conflict for the conclusion to mean anything. Some, however, like My Neighbour Totoro, are just charming. It’s easy to read “a child’s perspective” as condescending, like it’s inferior to our wiser, aged view. William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience addresses the differences between the two outlooks. He also spoke of a higher innocence, an enlightened stage that follows experience. My Neighbour Totoro helps you get there.
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