MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO (1988)
aka: TONARI NO TOTORO

TOTORO MON AMI

The writer/director of this lovely little film, Hayao Miyazaki, was just hitting his stride when he released this animated movie in 1988. He started his career in 1963, working as an animator at Toei Douga Studio. From the beginning, he was respected for his superb artistic ability, and his creative and imaginative writing. His reputation today has built upon his many talents—his breathtaking animation, his interesting characterizations, and his entertaining adventurous plots. He has directed sixteen films at present. He is well known for hand drawing his animation cells—one frame at a time. His films have been labeled as “visually enchanting”. He tends to use bright primary coloring, with a watercolor look to his backgrounds.

He created, and runs, the Ghibli Studios. He collaborates on everything with his partner and fellow animator, Isao Takahata. He works within the framework of the traditional Japanese anime drawings of character’s faces—all large eyes, pokey hair, and mouths that can vacillate from a mere pinpoint to opening wider than their head. I personally don’t respond too well to that convention. A lot of junk Asian Anime uses that convention. In Miyazaki’s more recent films, like SPIRITED AWAY (2001), he has allowed some of his characters to have more human features—more recognizable physiognomy.

He is known as the Japanese “Walt Disney”—a title he does not like much. Walt Disney, from his perspective, did less actual drawing of the animation and more of the production and merchandizing of his films and his empire. He hired and trained other artists, like Carl Barks, to draw most of the actual animation cells. One thing, though, Miyazaki and Disney did have in common was their striving for perfection. They both took years to prepare each feature. But Miyazaki does the majority of the artwork himself. I have read, however, that on his most recent film he has begun to play with some computer animation as well. Regardless, the folks at Disney love his Japanese films, and they have functioned as the American release organization—allowing the videos and DVD’s to reach the Western public.

Miyazaki films are heart-warming, with credible protagonists and believable antagonists. He seems to really love flying. This has become an active part of the action in many of his films. He is an old plane enthusiast. This was clearly evident in his film, PORCO ROSSO (THE CRIMSON PIG) [1992]. He likes to have his characters enter strange lands that are forbidden or inaccessible to most—like the floating islands of CASTLE IN THE SKY (1986), the magical dark forests of MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO and PRINCESS MONONOKE (1997), and the ghostly dimension within SPIRITED AWAY (2001). He often spends more than a year drawing and preparing his features. There was a two-year gap between CASTLE IN THE SKY and TOTORO. There was a four-year gap between PRINCESS MONONOKE and SPIRITED AWAY. Then it has taken him three more years before he released his newest film,

HAURU NO UGOKU SHIRO, or (HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE) [2004].

As I watched MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO for the first time, I felt that it had several sweet and imaginative moments—but I was a little disappointed in it. Miyazaki’s later films that were brimming with spectacular innovative plot twists, and hauntingly beautiful painted backgrounds, with creatures that were very original and extremely well drawn, had conditioned me. TOTORO seemed a little understated, simplistic, somewhat mundane and less significant to me. Then I watched it a second time with “new” eyes, and what I viewed was a magnificent “early” Miyazaki effort—that clearly contained the vital seeds that would bear fruit in future as creativity.

Roger Ebert reviewed the film in 1993, probably when it was finally released in America. He adored the film, writing of it,” the movie has become the most beloved of all “family films”, and it has done so without any promotion, or worldwide campaign. (Just by word-of-mouth).” It has already become a best seller on video and DVD formats. The IMDb rates it as the fifth best family film of all time—ahead of SHREK. The copy I viewed was dubbed in English. Timothy Daly did the voice-over for the Dad. Young Dakota Fanning voiced Satsuki, the older girl, and her own little sister, Elle Fanning, voiced Mei, the younger girl. I was surprised to find out in my research that Totoros were never Japanese mythological creatures—rather they were completely invented by Miyazaki for this film. For me the Totoros were unforgettable characters. I will always retain the image of the King of the Forest, the larger one, the Ototoro, on the inside edge of a stout upper limb of a great deciduous tree—with the smaller one, the Kototoro, alongside him on the outside edge of the limb, silhouetted against a full moon and a warm ebony sky.

The setting for the film is the countryside of Tokorozawa, Saitama—near Tokyo. The story was supposed to be taking place in the late 1940’s or early 1950’s. There is absolutely no hint of Japanese politics, neither Imperialistic or Industrial chaos. There is just the representation of the solace of the farmer’s fields, and the deep green of a nearby forest—and a small automobile crammed full of a family’s belongings. A father is driving, and his two young daughters are hanging out of the windows, laughing and enjoying being children. The Dad is a professor for a college in the city. They have rented an old house in order to be nearer the Mother, who is ill. It is never stated what her “illness” is. She is in residence at a hospital, or a sanitarium nearby.

This sets up a very realistic scenario, which is rare in any animated family film. They are the Kusakabe family. The older daughter, Satsuke, is about ten years old—pre-pubescent but still playing mother hen for the Dad and her younger sister. The youngest daughter, Mei, is about four years old—naturally precocious and energetic, still filled with a sense of wonder as she processes the world around her. One critic wrote,” Both girls are credible kids—bright, energetic, silly, and helpful. They are never smart alecky or cloyingly saccharine.”

It was refreshing to have the protagonists be two girls—not a boy and a girl, or two boys, as in most “G”-rated tales. It was also imaginative to not have the children be searching for a way to usurp parental authority, or to defeat the “stupid adults”—as in most American family films. In this movie, family is portrayed as something loving, compassionate, understanding, and supportive—as a “safe haven” against the adversity outside.

When an old lady, who will be their new neighbor, tells them that their old house may be haunted—the girls immediately go crashing about it, opening windows and shutters, scampering up and down stairs, and waving at their father out upper porticos. The house is actually inhabited by “dust bunnies”—little black fuzzy whirling quarter-sized critters. The old lady, who will become the children’s nanny, called them “soot spirits”. They often moved into empty houses, she said, but they vacate once they begin to hear the sound of laughter.

Early on, there is a family-bathing scene, with the father and both daughters bathing together in a wooden Furo (soaking tub). Some viewers were shocked by this open family nudity. In Japan, there are those who have suggested that Miyazaki was portraying a tradition of the past—some fifty years ago. Even though there are still Sentos (Bath Houses) in Japan today, public bathing is less popular than it once was. Japan has been somewhat Westernized like many other countries that make the bulk of their livelihood off the West. Even back in the 1960’s, I used to think that it was clever of the Japanese, who are after all a nation of nudists—to profit from the West’s prudish notions of morality.

On a warm spring day, while Satsuke is off at school, and the Dad is working hard at his desk, Mei was playing in the yard. She spied the small totoro—about the size of a rabbit. She gave chase, losing her ribbon- hat as she pursued it deep into the thick foliage and brush, finding a worn tunnel to travel on. Soon the little totoro disappeared into a large tree, and Mei followed it—only to find herself tumbling down an inner tunnel chute. She fell out of the end of it, and landed softly on the immense fur-covered tummy of the sleeping giant Totoro. Without fear, Mei snuggled up, and joined him in a nap.

Later in the afternoon, the father and Satsuke were searching for Mei. They found her spring hat, and soon they found her sleeping peacefully on the cold ground. Waking, she told them excitedly of the magnificent Forest King, about the giant Totoro and the baby totoro. At first it seemed like they disbelieved her. But the father held his tiny daughter, and he assured her that he did, in fact, believe her. The magic of the Totoro had begun. Soon, even Satsuke, who was on the edge of her believability sphere, could see the Totoro as well.

The movie is full of incredible scenes—presented simply and without fanfare. At one point the girls planted seeds that Mei had brought back from the forest in their small garden. The seeds were slow to germinate and to grow. The children become impatient. So one night, while they were dreaming, Totoro came to them, beckoning them to come outside. They all danced in the dark around the family garden—and the magical seeds began to sprout fat and healthy. They began to grow like Jack’s beanstalk, shooting up hundreds of feet, blocking out the pale clouds and the sliver of silvery moon. Totoro produced a large spinning top, and with the two girls clinging to him, he mounted the whirling top and they were all transported high up into the evening sky, gliding over the fields and huts and villages. The sun rose, the girls rushed outside to find the garden without a giant tree—just as it had been prior to their dreaming.

I was fascinated by the gentle benevolence of the Totoro. Even though it never spoke, it communicated a kindness, a loyalty, and a protectiveness that was wonderful to behold. Totoro only manifested for the children within the framework of the film. But as an adult, I felt that the Totoro was a verification of every terrific invisible companion we have ever had. Totoro was a little bit scary. It was so huge, and it could roar like a lion or a bear, but it was never a threat to the children. The only thing that they ever really had to fear was that their beloved mother’s “illness” (it may have been respiratory) might worsen.

My favorite scene occurred when the father was late returning from the hospital, where he had gone to find out how much of an emergency existed relative to his wife’s illness. The girls were bored and worried, so they hiked out to the bus stop in the rain, to wait for their Dad. They had one umbrella spread out over both of them. They stood there a long time. Mei was finally exhausted, and Satsuke had to pick her up and hold her piggyback. While Mei slumbered, the giant Totoro quietly appeared at their side, as companion and protector. His friendly growling roar did not wake Mei. Satsuke loaned him their umbrella, and he played with it, swirling the raindrops. Finally bright headlights appeared on the horizon, dipping and bumping along that country lane, as the bus approached them.

When the tall bus finally arrived, there in front of them, it was revealed not to be a conventional vehicle. It was a magical Neko bas, the bright yellow Cat Bus—with its great eyes as headlamps, with four legs on each side, and a huge bushy tail. The girls boldly boarded the Cat Bus, and its eight quick paws soon propelled it up into the sky—for it too could fly. As it passed overhead adults only thought of it as the wind—a noise without substance. They never actually could see its shape or peculiar parameters. I really enjoyed the image of this golden feline transport streaking through the night sky, with the girl’s delightful faces pressed against its windows. I mean, I loved the Totoro, but I adored the Cat Bus.

“A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world”--- Oscar Wilde

One critic wrote,” The movie is a little sad, a little scary, a little surprising, and a little informative—just like life itself.” The film seems to be powered by the notion that the sheer wonders of life, and the boundless strength of pure imagination—the richness of the human condition and the enormity of the human spirit—could supply all the adventure we need. The story hinged on action that was situational. There was no dark or convoluted twist in the plotting. I found that this great little animated feature has inspired an environmental group to purchase the “Totoro Forest Preserve” in the Saitama Prefecture, where the film was supposed to be set.

“I offer you peace. I offer you love. I offer you friendship. I see your beauty. I hear your need. I feel your feelings. My wisdom flows from the Highest Source. I salute that Source in you. Let us work together for unity and love.”---Mahatma Gandhi

I gave this movie a rating of 3.5 stars
Glenn A. Buttkus (2005)