The Film Canon: My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

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I was a late bloomer in the school of Hayao Miyazaki. All things Studio Ghibli evaded me until my second year of college, which was when I finally settled in to watch everything that I’d been missing and was instantly chastising myself for having not dove into his filmography earlier. My watching of My Neighbor Totoro fell somewhere in the middle of my marathon and it’s quieter, more contemplative tone struck an intriguing contrast with some of the directors more externally mystical films. Sure, Totoro and his friends are as otherworldly as creatures in Miyazaki’s films get, but My Neightbor Totoro is quiet and introspective, going for long periods of time with little dialogue as the sisters explore the world around them. 

The world of My Neighbor Totoro is one example of many of how all encompassing and detailed Miyazaki draws. There are images in this film, more than some of his most famously acclaimed, that have become synonymous with the visionary. From the two sisters, Satsuki and Mei, standing in the rain as Totoro ambles up, to the cat bus soaring across telephone wires, to the majestic and dreamlike scene where the girls, their father, Totoro and other spirits will the forest to grow. The world is nuanced and self-contained while no less grand than a film such as Howls Moving Castle, which boasts one of the directors larger than life spectacles.

Miyazaki has always had an ease at creating three dimensional female characters, many of whom who don’t resemble your typical animated protagonists. My Neighbor Totoro is no different, developing two sisters who both have immature and playful sensibilities-their cartwheeling and somersaults at their new home, the youngest’s unfiltered curiosity at the mystical creatures in her backyard. However, there’s also an air of the two being wise beyond their years, mainly due to theirs mother’s illness.

Such is the case with most Miyazaki films, the story doesn’t shy away from the gravity of the two girls situation. For a film that is arguably the studios most typical “kid friendly” film,what with it’s easy marketability and merchandising,  it also has one of the their most overt tone of melancholy. Beyond the magical realism of the film, it’s also a film about a father and his two young daughters coping as their mother stays in an hospital for an undisclosed ailment. Not to say that animated films stray from darker threads; Disney has practically made it a part of their pitches for each film to have characters who have lost parents, and Pixar certainly doesn’t shy from weightier subject material. The emotionally charged nature of their situation is something that imbues the film’s sense of wonderment all the more significant-here are two sisters in desperate need of escapism, of a reprieve from a world that they don’t totally understand yet and of ideas (such as loosing a parent) that they shouldn’t even begin to have to try and grasp just yet.

Beyond the tough but realistic portrayal of girlhood, the film is riddled with what have become trademarks for the director, from the spiritual creatures and the mysticism they bring along with them, to the heavy themes of being wary of humans destruction of nature, to the gorgeously detailed, hand drawn landscape shots that give the film it’s lifeline. What separates Totoro from his other films is that despite it’s simplistic and lighter nature, it’s creatures are some of the most otherworldly that the director has every created, barring the ones of Spirited Away. While Princess Mononoke was undoubtedly magical as well as highly conceptualized, the creatures, aside from the Forest Spirit itself, were based off of animals such as wolves and pigs, using their likeness to create creatures not just fantastical but also ones that seem to be born of legends and they’re treated as such. Totoro is a creation with nothing to base itself off of, a lumbering and friendly creature whose sole purpose isn’t just to inhabit the neighboring forest, but to also become the real imaginary friend the sisters need.

The idea of sisterhood itself is so beautifully integral to the film, with Satsuki’s protective nature of Mei becoming parental in it’s own unpracticed way and it gives the third acts search for Mei it’s necessary heart. A film that up until this point has been largely action free, it’s a thrilling chase to find a lost Mei and their reunion is both satisfying and emotional.

Joe Hisaishi’s score is impeccable, giving the film it’s fantastical air with dreamy flourishes and meditative tempos that swell into their crescendos with ease. It’s interesting as well to note the similarities of the score to the one for Princess Mononoke, another film that’s story walks hand in hand with elements of preserving nature.

Returning to the idea of melancholy in Miyazaki films, and Studio Ghibli films as a whole, there’s the ending as the girls mother is able to finally return home and Totoro and the following neighbors watch on from the forest as the sisters play with other children, their assistance no longer required. It’s an ending rife with a tangible bitter-sweetness, something that the creator and this film in particular excels at. Childhood and the innocence that it brings passes, just as the Catbus disappears as it flies away from the girls, and just as the neighbors slowly retreat themselves back into the forest.

She is a 23 year old in Boston MA. She is hugely passionate about film, television and writing. Along with theyoungfolks, she also is a contributor over at TheMarySue.com . You can contact her on Twitter (@AllysonAJ) or via email: allyson@theyoungfolks.com.