In my opinion, Hayao Miyazaki’s beloved film, My Neighbor Totoro (1988), wondrously envisioned through the eyes of two young Japanese girls, is the most imaginative and ecologically conscious “children’s” film ever conceived. I’ve placed “children” in quotation marks, because I really do feel that Totoro is a film for all people. Unlike the chaotic pacing and bad manners of so much of what passes as children’s entertainment, Totoro offers a warm, often funny, and subtler approach to the imagination. Simply put, the plot involves the Kusakabe family and their move to a new home beside a mysterious forest. It is there that they (Satsuki and Mei) encounter Totoro and his friends (including the very cool Cat Bus).
Last week I had the chance to watch a beautiful print of the film at TIFF, which not only looked fantastic, but also did justice to the great soundtrack by Joe Hisaishi. The same wide-eyed wonderment that I felt watching the film when I was a kid was hardly diminished; if anything, it was enhanced by a greater appreciation of the simple beauty illumining every frame. In a world—and not to judge, I live in downtown Toronto by choice—where technology rules supreme, where music, video, and pornography are available on our phones, and where you can microwave your dinner in a minute and a half, Totoro is a folk tale about a return to a time when, as Tatsuo (the girls’ father) says, “Trees and people used to be good friends. I saw that tree and decided to buy the house. Hope mom likes it too.” Of course, there is a somber element to the film, as the father and two girls move to the country in the first place to be near their ailing mother. We never find out why she is sick; rather, the film focuses on the love, wonder, and bond the family share during this difficult time.
Without a major conflict, or an antagonist (unheard of in 99.9% of films), the film teaches us that wonderment is often enough to sustain hope. As Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the film (and inclusion as a Great Movie) in 2001:
Here is a children’s film made for the world we should live in, rather than the one we occupy […] “My Neighbor Totoro” is based on experience, situation and exploration — not on conflict and threat […] It depends on a situation instead of a plot, and suggests that the wonder of life and the resources of imagination supply all the adventure you need.
It’s a shame that more children’s films lack the wonderful, cooperative, and imaginative spirit that charges through Totoro. Most animated films require a suspension of disbelief, but something about Totoro feels particularly natural, which makes the leap into enchantment easier. The film is beautifully handcrafted, long before CGI and Pixar, and the scenes feel very naturalistic, as do the interactions between the girls and their loving father, another positive portrayal in the film. The film is drawn the classic way, frame by frame, with Hayao Miyazaki contributing thousands and thousands of frames himself.
Set in a period that is both modern and nostalgic, Totoro is a fable that captivates with little tension or plot twists, working against the mythology of the evil troll. Rather, forest spirits or trolls represent the bond that used to (and still could) exist between humans and spirits in a traditional village. In this way, Totoro is not just about conservation of the forest, but also of a certain way of living that is slowly disappearing due to urbanization. Few animated films have had the impact on me that Totoro has, other than Miyazaki’s phantasmagorical Spirited Away, and the haunting anti-war film, Grave of the Fireflies (a Studio Ghibli production that played with Totoro as a double feature). Set in Japan during World War II, Grave of the Fireflies, like Totoro, but for entirely different reasons, will challenge you to reconsider the possibilities of animation to convey a deep message.
Globally, the impact of Totoro has been enormous. For Japanese children Totoro is as famous as Winnie-the-Pooh is for children in North America. Like Winnie-the-Pooh, and a few select animated characters, Totoro reminds us of the human capacity to imagine a world that is more creative and loving. Sadly, Miyazaki announced on September 1, 2013 that The Wind Rises will be his final feature-length film. Totoro, along with his large catalogue of films, will continue to live on in the collective imagination.
Totoro, along with other Studio Ghibli films in various versions (dubbed, subtitled), is playing at TIFF until January 3rd.