Monday, April 17, 2017

My Neighbor Totoro

The Film: My Neighbor Totoro, Directed by Hayao Miyazaki, 1988, Japan

The Plot: A sweet film about sisters adjusting to difficult life changes with a little help from friendly wood spirit Totoro.

In Short: Light on plot but big on charm, Totoro is a lovely slice-of-life film focusing on the relationship between sisters Satsuki and Mei. The lack of an antagonist and the gentle pacing offer a welcome change from the usual 'kid' fare. A sick mother and missing child, which provide the main conflicts in the film, may be intense for some (parents as well!). Overall, a happy ending and cute creatures make this a feel-good film that is truly for everyone. An animated classic.

Rating/Age Range Guide: Rated G, Ages 4+ 

Where to Find it: Not currently streaming, Buy on DVD here or check local library for a copy

My Neighbor Totoro is a wonderful introduction to the world of Studio Ghibli films. 

Hayao Miyazaki's partly autobiographical 1988 film did not do well upon initial release but has, over time, become one of the most iconic Studio Ghibli films with King Totoro as one of it's most lovable and recognizable characters. 

Totoros in the Studio Ghibli logo
King Totoro making a cameo in Toy Story 3
The film begins with sisters Satsuki and Mei moving into a new house in the picturesque Japanese countryside, to be closer to their sick mother (implied to be hospitalized for tuberculosis). 

With their father, they gleefully explore the run-down house. The fact that it might be haunted is seen as a bonus. It is in these scenes that the magic of this movie becomes abundantly clear.

Satsuki: "Wow it's creepy!"           Mei: "CREEEEEPYYYYY!" 

You see there are two kinds of magic operating here. 

The Magic of Miyazaki

The first type of magic manifests in the creatures/spirits that start to appear. The first ones we see are the creepy/cute soot sprites rustling around the house (these also make an appearance in another Miyazaki film, Spirited Away).

Mei encounters a Soot Sprite. Cuuuuuuute!
Much of the creepiness is diffused by the light musical score, the girls' curious and delighted reactions, and the adults' gentle reminiscences ("I used to be able to see them when I was your age," neighbor Granny says).

The girls meet "Granny"

The second type of magic operating in this film is the more important of the two and what elevates Totoro above many other magical animated films.

What is this magic?

It is the unadulterated magic of childhood.

This sense of childhood joy and curiosity is apparent right from the beginning credits. Mei marches among dancing insects and animals, along with spiderwebs, rocks, cans, and bottles. Children have such a sense of wonder about the world, and they notice all the little things adults can overlook. Wriggling tadpoles, shiny acorns, a broken bucket are all treasures in their eyes.

Mei marches through the opening credits

I don't think I have ever seen more realistic children in a film. This is the main reason I think Totoro plays well to young and old. The youthful exuberance is contagious. Parents will get a knowing chuckle at the cute exploits of the girls.

This is my life
Four year old Mei is especially engaging and parents and kids alike will be delighted. I was smiling as she ran clumsily behind her sister, copying whatever she said or did in her exuberant toddler way. 

Her interactions with her father also made me laugh. "When's lunch?" she yells from the yard. "What? You just had breakfast." her dad replies.

Mei arranges flowers on her father's desk. "You be the flower shop, okay?"
One aspect of the girls' childhood that may take parents aback a bit is the lack of supervision. Little Mei wanders off several times in the film, boldly following the totoros into the forest the first time she encounters them.

Who's supervising you?!?
Satsuki also comes across as an unusually mature and independent child. She frequently acts as a caretaker for Mei and puts an enormous amount of pressure on herself to hold it all together for her family (she berates herself for yelling at Mei later in the film). She is basically a surrogate mom. 

The children's freedom and responsibilities reflect not only the circumstances in the film (mom in the hospital), but the 1950's Japanese rural setting. Neighbors are frequently looking out for the girls and there is a strong sense of community. I also believe Japanese children today are probably a lot more independent and responsible compared to their American counterparts (at least from this American mom's perspective), a cultural difference reflected in this film.

One other cultural difference that may be worth noting, comes in a scene where the girls are bathing with their father. The scene is entirely innocent of course, and you may be unfazed by it (I know many people who also bathe with their children), but I'm just pointing it out. I know how kids can sometimes get when someone's NAKED.

Here ya go

The Totoros

I mentioned above in my short review that this film is very light on plot. In fact, you may be surprised upon first viewing how gentle the pacing is (I was). This is less a magical adventure with Totoro than a slice-of-life film mostly grounded in reality that also happens to have some magical creatures.

Mei follows the little totoro
The first glimpse of the totoros (a mispronunciation of to-ro-ru, or troll, in Japanese) doesn't happen until a third of the way through the movie. And King Totoro (never explicitly named King in the film) only appears in a handful of scenes.  

Totoro's so cute and fluffy I want to DIE!!!!!!
The first scene is a classic. In her explorations, Mei follows the small, rabbit-like totoro into the woods. It is here she tumbles down the rabbit hole (a deliberate Alice in Wonderland reference) and meets "a HUGE" totoro in a wonderful scene of discovery (one of the most memorable in the movie). 

Like the soot sprites, Totoro is 2% scary and 98% cute. He lets out huge roars that Mei is more than up to the task of imitating. The two cuddle and exchange greetings, before Mei falls asleep on his large, fluffy belly.

My, what big teeth you have!

Miyazaki himself has said this about Totoro: "[he's] not a spirit: he's only an animal. I believe he lives on acorns. He's supposedly the forest keeper, but that's only a half-baked idea, a rough approximation."

In the film, Mei's father comments that she "must have met one of the spirits of the can't always see the spirits. You can only see them when they want you to."

Ultimately, it doesn't matter exactly what the totoros are. I believe they do really exist in the universe of this film (and other Ghibli films) as gentle guardians and forest protectors. 

A little totoro and a bigger totoro
Having said all that, many of the scenes with Totoro are very dream-like and a bit surreal. The Alice and Wonderland imagery is not accidental.

Down the rabbit hole
In another classic scene, Totoro appears at the bus station as the girls are waiting for their father. Satsuki offers him an umbrella which delights Totoro (he loves the sound of the raindrops).

Heehee- Raindrops
He then calls for perhaps the most surreal element in the film: the Catbus. Why a Catbus? I'm not sure, but it's awesome. I mean, LOOK AT IT. 

All aboard the Catbus. It has mice headlights!!!

The theme of environmentalism (which also occurs in many of Miyazaki's films) is very strong in Totoro. The girls' father comments that King Totoro is the protector of the forest. He suggest that they give the spirits a "proper greeting" at the enormous camphor tree where Totoro lives.

He says: "It's been around since long ago. back in a time when people and trees used to be friends. When i saw this tree i knew this would be a good place for our family to live...thank you for watching over Mei and for making us feel so welcome here. Please continue to look after us."

Humans in harmony with nature appears thematically throughout the entire film. King Totoro gifts a parcel of acorns, treasure to the girls, which are planted in the garden. I see them as representing a sense of hope and optimism: that mom will come home from the hospital, that life will go on as usually. Mei waits patiently by the garden every day, hoping the seeds will sprout.

A gift of acorns from King Totoro

The totoros stop by one night to help the acorns out a bit by performing a sort of ceremonial dance. In a magical sequence, the dance pulls the sprouts up through the dirt and helps stretch them into a towering tree. Totoro then flies Satsuki and Mei to the top branches to play music into the night.

Helping the seeds sprout
It's not entirely clear how much of this was a dream or not, as the girls wake up the next morning to find the giant tree gone but the seeds sprouting through the earth. They exclaim: "It wasn't a dream! It was real!" I believe them :) 


Real Life Conflicts

Visiting their mother in the hospital
Miyazaki's films often lack a traditional antagonist (there are no magical bad-guy creatures here). The main source of conflict in this film is whether the girls' mother will come home from the hospital. Late in the film Satsuki learns of a message from the hospital saying her mom has a cold and won't be able to come home that weekend.

In a heartbreaking scene, she breaks down to Granny expressing her fears about the possibility of her mother dying.

"What will we do if she dies?" Satsuki sobs
These is a heavy scene, but represents a very real and very common childhood fear. What could be worse than your parents dying?

Mei and Satsuki argue about the bad news. After seeing her sister break down, Mei decides to run off to deliver an ear of corn to the hospital; a present which she hopes will help her mother get better. 

Unfortunately Mei gets lost, which leads to some truly gut-wrenching scenes as Satsuki frantically tries to find her. The most upsetting scene is Satsuki hearing that a sandal was found in the lake, the implication being that Mei has possibly drowned.

As a parent, I found this scene truly upsetting, and it is a rather tense few minutes. Luckily, the sandal is not Mei's and we soon see her safe.

Sandal found by the lake

Satsuki frantically runs to the camphor tree to call upon King Totoro who is delighted to help. Once again the Catbus is called and carries Satsuki over hills, fields, and power lines to a scared, but unharmed, Mei.

Mei is able to deliver her corn to the hospital (with the help of the Catbus), where she sees her mother and father laughing and smiling. The film ends on a positive note as the girls see their mother is okay, Granny tearfully embraces an unhurt Mei, and the totoros sit peacefully in the top branches of the great camphor tree.

Mei is found
The happy ending continues into the closing credit sequence, in which we see the girls' mother returning home from the hospital. We also hear the one of the catchiest songs EVER (try to get that "Tooo-to-ro, To-to-ro" out of your head).


Enchanting, sweet, optimistic, and magical: 
My Neighbor Totoro

Let me know what you and your kids think. 

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