By Steven Wright
My Neighbour Totoro is one of the greatest family films of all time, in my opinion, of course. But it depresses me how many people have never seen it. You really have no excuse, with there now being a multitude of versions in many different languages, although the original subtitled version is my personal favourite.
The story is so simple, almost coming second to the wonder of the world and the fantastical creatures within it. It tells the tale of Satsuki, Mei and their father, who are moving to a new house in the beautiful Japanese countryside, while their mother, and wife, recovers from a nameless illness. The house resides beside a forest with a massive Camphor tree at the heart of it, which we later find is home to the keeper of the forest, Totoro.
The story does not really feature much else besides the kids interactions with the forest spirits, all the while their mother is hoping to come home. The biggest plot point is near the end, when Mei runs away after an argument to see her sick mother, leaving Satsuki to ask for Totoro’s help to find her.
A lot of the scenes do nothing to drive the plot forward, instead favouring on building the characters and the relationships between them. But these are some of the best scenes in the film, with most of them featuring the loveable little tyke, Mei. One scene for example, features Mei picking flowers for her father who his stressed with work, and placing them one by one on the desk beside him. Although it sounds like nothing, it’s so well directed and animated that is speaks volumes about the characters, giving them, like the roving forest around them, room to grow.
It’s these interactions between the family and the spirits that make the film so memorable. Mei, again, is the driving force behind these interactions with her inquisitive nature getting her in lots of places she should not be. From catching a soot sprite in the most adorably cute manner, to chasing the little magical Totoro-like creatures into the forest and eventually falling through the camphor three onto the belly of the sleeping Totoro.
I adore the way Miyazaki has animated the children, perfectly capturing their innocence and wonder of everything that happens, and he has transferred this care into the spirits. Whether it’s the soot sprites, the little Totoro’s, the big Totoro or the psychedelic Catbus, they are all so full of character. The biggest difference to Western animation is the fact that these characters don’t speak – besides the guttural yell of TO-TO-ROOOOO, of course.
This is the first of many things that defy the classic recipe of a children’s animation. Gone are talking lobsters, gone are the Princesses, gone are the songs and most importantly, gone are the villains. This is something that I did not pick up on throughout my many viewings of the film, having to be told recently by a friend, and it really is a huge thing.
Although the film does not have a villain it does not suffer for it, instead having some real human worries in it; Satsuki worrying about the health of her mother when an alarming telegraph turns up; the disapearence of Mei, and the finding of a little girls sandal in the lake is genuinely worrying; all of these scenes are very adult, almost too real for a standard kids film.
And yet that’s why it’s not just a film for the children, it’s something that adults can love too. Miyazaki understands this and can walk the fine line between cute and deep, with a lot of his films having deeper meanings. One theme that I have noticed as being present in a lot if his films is nature, and it is present in Totoro, although in a lesser way than the likes of Mononoke.
I could gush about My Neighbour Totoro for hours as it is such a special film, balancing humour, magic, wonder, love and just downright fuzzy warmth. I have to stress: if you have not seen it then please do, because even though it’s 22 years old, and even though it’s a cliché, this film is a timeless classic.
Next week, Sam Giddings takes a look back at ‘Spirited Away’