Studio Ghibli’s first release was Laputa: Castle in the Sky, and then came a double bill: Grave of the Fireflies and My Neighbour Totoro, shown together in cinemas in Japan. It must be the strangest pairing of movies ever. I’m not going to write an article about Fireflies. As much as I respect the film for what it does, it’s just not the kind of thing I can enjoy, a harrowing, downbeat war film. The studio had to insist that cinemas showed it before Totoro, because if they put them on the other way round nobody would stay to watch the second film, and I’m really not surprised. The two films couldn’t be more different in their demographic, with My Neighbour Totoro one of the most child-friendly Ghibli movies of them all.
That’s not to say it doesn’t have its moments of scariness, but they are few and far between and are mainly aspects that are troubling to viewers who are unfamiliar with the Shinto religion, because this is where the films really start going big with the belief in animal-like spirits living side-by-side with humans, a theme that will culminate in Spirited Away. It is also a theme that can be found in a huge number of animes, not just Studio Ghibli (The Boy and the Beast is a good example). Just outside of our perception another world exists. From a Western perspective we would probably give it a sci-fi label such as a “parallel dimension”. This neighbouring dimension is inhabited by gods and spirits in the form of animals and animal-like creatures. Totoro may be the neighbour of the family in simple terms, but his whole world also neighbours ours. It takes the innocence of childhood to be able to cross over and interact.
Totoro is very close to the Japanese word for “troll” but that word has very negative connotations to us. Totoro is an entirely sympathetic character, despite being big and scary at times in appearance. That guy has a lot of teeth. But he’s cuddly and kind, a gentle giant. He also has the innocence of childhood himself. In the most memorable scene from the movie, the two children (Satsuki and Mei, voiced by Dakota Fanning and her sister Elle) are stood at a bus stop in the rain, and Totoro turns up beside them. Satsuki offers him an umbrella, which he has never seen before, and like a child he is shocked and hugely excited by the big drops falling from the trees above onto his umbrella. So he decides to jump really hard, shaking the ground and knocking the raindrops out of the trees. But Totoro is amazing. When he jumps he doesn’t just knock the rain out of the trees.
He knocks all the rain out of the sky as well.
This brings us to the way in which Totoro interacts with nature. There is a very important line from the girls’ father when they find a huge tree close to their new home, about how old the tree must be, from a time when humans were friends with the trees. This is something of an obsession throughout the Ghibli films: the betrayal of nature. And it goes right back to Nausicaä. The spirit world still lives in harmony with nature, and in one gorgeous scene Satsuki and Mei help Totoro and his friends perform a ceremony to help some seeds to grow. They raise a huge tree out of the ground in seconds, in a stunning piece of animation, and fly up to the top of the tree, playing songs together. In the morning the tree is gone, but saplings have grown up out of the ground.
Totoro is not the only amazing creature in the film. He also has two little friends, and when he wants to travel around he catches the Catbus, which has to be seen to be believed. Then there are the soot sprites, who will return in Spirited Away. In fact, many of Miyazaki’s standard themes are present and correct, yet another grotesquely drawn but kindly old lady, the combination of Japanese traditions with Western literature (note how Mei basically follows the white rabbit down the rabbit hole when she chases Totoro’s little friend, and the big grin of Totoro is also reminiscent of the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland), and of course the stunningly animated countryside.
The only dramatic moment is the result of another favourite theme of Miyazaki’s: illness from tuberculosis. The disease is not named as such, but Miyazaki’s own mother had TB and he portrays suffering from the illness a few times in his films, so it is safe to assume this is the first example of that. When Mei thinks her mother has taken a turn for the worst, she runs off to find her and gets lost. It’s the first real moment of drama and doesn’t happen until we are about an hour into the film, but then this is a film that breaks all the rules of drama and does so magnificently. It is basically an hour of introducing the characters and exploring the world they inhabit, following by the only moment of genuine danger, and Satsuki seeking out Totoro’s help to find her little sister.
In the end, My Neighbour Totoro is a film about family. In fact, it is one of the most positive portrayals of family love you will find in any film. There are some lovely moments of caring and kindness shown by Satsuki towards her sister, such as when she gives her a piggy back ride so she can sleep, and tellingly the only time in the film where she is mean to her (caused understandably by extreme stress), the consequences are dramatic. Mei clearly hero worships her sister, learning from her by copying. The girl’s parents are both loving and kind, and with the mother unwell in hospital the father has to do the job of a single parent and does it effortlessly and brilliantly. How often do you see children in movies telling their parents they have seen something from the spirit world and the parents just accept it and believe them?
Just before I sum up, I must mention a little spinoff from this film: Mei and the Kittenbus. Sadly, this short film has never been included on any DVD or Bluray release, which is a great shame because it is absolutely enchanting, taking Mei even further into the spirit world that Totoro inhabits. If you ever get to see it, look out for the moment when Mei is scared in the dark, surrounded by the eyes of Totoros as they shuffle along, until her Totoro appears out of the darkness, still carrying his umbrella!
My Neighbour Totoro is probably the most well-known and loved anime with the possible exception of Spirited Away. It deserves its popularity, and it is probably the anime I have watched more often than any other. It is also much more child-friendly than most of the films, so if you have very young children it’s a good choice. I could probably name a dozen animes that I think are better films than this, but for sheer joy, beauty and wonderment, nothing compares to Totoro. RP
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