My name isn’t Totoro, kids. It’s Hayao Miyazaki.
Now this is what we’re supposed to get when we go in to see an animation picture. My Neighbor Totoro is everything you expect it to be, and equally as much everything you don’t expect it to be. This is definitely a kids movie, intended to fulfill the needs of the most innocent and simple-minded of younger viewers. But this is a rare treasure for adults too, a film that is equally fulfilling and emotionally appealing to older audiences as it is upbeat and joyous for the younger ones.
Taking place in 1950’s Japan, My Neighbor Totoro follows the story of two young sisters named Satsuki and Mei (English dub by Dakota and Elle Fanning), who are moving into their new home with their father Tatsuo (Tim Daly) in order to be closer to their mother in the hospital, Yasuko (Lea Salonga). Their mother has been sick with an unknown disease for quite some time, and it really concerns the girls because they can’t even get her home for a visit. Most affected is Satsuki, because her father is always busy, Mei is painstakingly afraid that her mother will leave them, and Satsuki is forced to be the strong one during this time of hardship.
Deep in the forest though, the girls encounter strange beasts of wonder and splendor. There are these small, darkly black fuzz balls called soot spirits, who hibernate from one dark spot to another. There are two bunny-like creatures, one white young one who can phase through objects like a ghost, and an older blue one who carries a knapsack of acorns with her everywhere. Most fascinating though, is a giant, loud, gray beast called Totoro (Frank Welker), a gentle-hearted forest spirit who loves nothing more but to sleep and play on his flute in the silence of the night. The girls are at first afraid of Totoro’s large, intimidating appearance, but through his gentle, kind-hearted spirit, learn to appreciate him and become friends with Totoro and the forest creatures.
Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, My Neighbor Totoro is a rare animated film where the characters are as vibrant and colorful as the beautiful animation that is being expressed on screen. You really just need to see these little girls in action: they’re one of the most energetic, emotional, endearing, and inspiring little characters I’ve ever seen. I knew from the first moment I saw them that I would like them: they are these little oddballs of energy, two cute girls who are literally exploding with energy and enthusiasm as they run across the front lawn, or explore the mysteries of their upstairs attic.
The best moments, however, come from when the little girls encounter Totoro. Looking from a straightforward perspective at Totoro, its a case of what you see is what you get. He’s a big, fluffy creature who loves to eat, dance, fly, talk (and by talk, I mean roar loudly), and more than anything else, sleep. If this were any other animated film, I would say the character was another interpretation of Garfield.
I, however, think Totoro is required for more fervent analysis. I can’t help but look at Totoro like an emotional recompense for the girls, almost like an imaginary friend to distract them from the pain they experience everyday through their sick mother. Kids with only one parent will know what I’m talking about: when the one you love is in pain or worse, they want everything in the world to distract them from the reality of what they are experiencing. Its simply too painful for them to take in all at once. They need something to distract them, to divert them from reality, and so the younger ones try to focus on something fictional that will put their mind at ease, like an imaginary friend for them to talk with.
Totoro reminds me of that imaginary friend. Unlike an imaginary friend, however, Totoro is real, and this is proven through the interactions he has with the girls. He is not just a simple-minded, unintelligent forest animal. He is considerate towards the girls. He cares for them. He expresses real and genuine affection for the girls, and he shows this by dancing with them in the middle of the night, growing trees with them in their backyard, or by letting them ride his Cat Bus in cases of emergency. Even though Totoro is fictional, he’s the most real thing in the movie, taking the girls story filled with hardship and tragedy and filling it with energy, enthusiasm, and life that cannot be faked in a movie.
Every single fiber of me wants to look at this movie and say it is a perfect film, but something stops me. What is it? It certainly isn’t the characters, the animation, the story, or the emotion being expressed on screen. What is it then, if its none of the above?
Of course, I think. Accessibility. The weakness with this film, much like the stark foreign language films and the ancient black-and-white silent films, is that it strictly appeals to a certain audience. You know what I’m talking about: what is the typical american viewer going to see, a boisterous and explosive action movie with big name actors starring in it, or some independent animated film made by some guy whose name they can’t even pronounce? The weakness here is this: people who don’t like anime won’t like it, and probably shouldn’t see it, because this film mainly appeals to that same audience and culture through its story and through its execution. Because of that, Totoro will lose some viewers in its audience.
But even then, is that the fault of the filmmaker for not conforming to their tastes, or the audiences for not being open about it? Regardless of what you think, My Neighbor Totoro is a magical little film, an uplifting and wonderful fantasy that taps into the inner child in all of us, and in many ways reflects the behavior of children: animate, lifelike, endearing, sincere, and visually expressive. It’s a movie whose characters are so precious and lifelike that a live-action portrayal couldn’t have been as real as this. It’s a film that allows us to believe in miracles, even if we don’t necessarily believe in them. And at the heart of it all is Totoro, a warm, fluffy forest spirit that only loves children more than he does sleeping on his favorite moss bed.