Retrospective: “My Neighbor Totoro”, Written and Directed by Hayao Miyazaki

My journey through the Miyazaki oeuvre continues with “My Neighbor Totoro”.

“My Neighbor Totoro” is a movie so utterly different from both “Spirited Away” and “Castle in the Sky” it almost feels like a work from a different director.

“My Neighbor Totoro” is more or less in the vein of his film “Kiki’s Delivery Service” as a sort of supernatural slice of life, but for little girls. Miyazaki’s work can be categorized in a few ways. One way to look at it is that he has his adventure films (examples being “Castle in the Sky”, “Porco Rosso”, and “Howl’s Moving Castle”), his epics (“Nausicaa in the Valley of the Wind”, “Princess Mononoke”), and his children’s films (“My Neighbor Totoro”, “Ponyo”, and “Spirited Away”).

This classification isn’t perfect (it becomes very hard to fit in “The Wind Rises”, for one thing, and while “Spirited Away” is most definitely a children’s film it also feels like something much more than that), but using it we can successfully classify “My Neighbor Totoro” in the children’s category.

This is a movie that western animation simply cannot make. I don’t think anybody has even TRIED to. It’s a movie directed at TODDLERS, but instead of being frenetic and didactic it’s a very graceful film, with a slow build, little real conflict for the majority of it, and an idyllic setting. It doesn’t talk down to its viewers at all; everybody and everything that happens feels very natural and real, even the supernatural parts.

The movie is more a series of vignettes than a coherent story. It shines in little moments that burst through out of nowhere and suddenly leave you filled with emotion. There is a scene midway in the film where little four year old Mei shows up at her sister Satsuki’s school. She’s in tears but won’t speak, and her current babysitter (an old woman called Granny) said she wouldn’t stop crying unless she promised to take her to Satsuki. When Satsuki asks what’s wrong, Mei simply runs forward and clings to Satsuki’s legs.

It’s a very powerful moment that comes almost randomly, but it’s incredibly effective because Miyazaki did the legwork developing the relationship between the sisters. Earlier scenes that have no obvious point besides making you smile are important for establishing characters and relationships that pay off in big ways throughout the film, getting you emotionally invested in the little family before there are even any real stakes.

It works in exactly the opposite way as “Castle in the Sky”, which dropped you directly into the middle of action and expected you to keep up.

Despite the gentle nature of the film there is a very real and very serious sense of dread underlying it – once again, something I’m not sure I’ve ever seen in a western film. The main conflict is that the girls’ mother is very sick. Throughout the movie they are looking forward to her visit home for a weekend while she recovers, but are informed by the doctor that due to a relapse the visit will have to be postponed. When Satsuki finally voices their main fear out loud – what if their mother actually dies? – it’s heartbreaking and genuinely frightening, because what do you say to that? It’s a possibility. Sick people DO die. There’s no escaping or defeating it, like you can with a typical enemy. The threat is powerful because it’s real.

Satsuki’s terror when Mei goes missing at the end of the film is also palpable. There’s an absolutely terrifying scene where Satsuki is informed that they think they found Mei’s sandal in a pond. Satsuki’s fear that Mei might have drowned is heartbreaking, less because of any real threat (Do you think they’d REALLY kill off a four year old girl in a film like this?*) and more that you just ache for Satsuki, who’s clearly going through a personal Hell.

I’ve barely mentioned the supernatural creatures that are the most famous part of the film. The truth is that they’re really not even the appeal of the movie. It’s the sisters who are the heart and soul of the film, and they manage to be compelling all by themselves.

This isn’t to say, mind, that forest spirits aren’t wonderful additions to the movie. Totoro himself is a marvelous creation, the Japanese version of a big fluffy teddy bear. When Satsuki, as a last resort, begs Totoro for help, the giant grin he gives fills you with the sort of desperate hope and excitement that Satsuki surely must be feeling. Miyazaki, master that he is, is playing with your emotions like a fiddle and you don’t even realize it until the movie is over.

“My Neighbor Totoro” is a film that doesn’t have any moments of true transcendence like “Castle in the Sky”, and it isn’t as wildly imaginative as Miyazaki’s masterpiece, “Spirited Away”, but I’m not sure if I’ve ever smiled so much during the film. There’s a lot to love here, and it’s becoming increasingly clear to me that Miyazaki can take on pretty much any concept or genre he wants to and knock it out of the park. So far I’ve seen an all-time great adventure film, an all-time great family movie, and generally one of the greatest and most imaginative films of all time, period. Is it even possible for this guy to make a false move?

We shall see.

If you’re in the mood to sit back with a feel-good film and smile, “My Neighbor Totoro” can’t be beat. Highly recommended.

*I originally just said “Do you think they’d REALLY kill off a four year old girl?”, and then I remembered that “Grave of the Fireflies” was the double billing and decided to add the addendum.