September 5, 2004
Back in February, I was fortunate enough to catch My Neighbor Totoro at the Oak Street Cinema. The theatre was packed with eager grownups, their children and their grandchildren. It was a wonderful, joyous experience, full of wonder and awe and that special kind of laughter that only comes from remembering your own childhood. Oh, and I’m sure the kids loved the movie, too.
My Neighbor Totoro is the finest children’s movie ever made. It is the one animated film that captures the spirit of the best children’s literature, like Joel Silverstein’s poems or Where the Wild Things Are or Anne of Green Gables or Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz books. It has that quiet pulse, that willingness to pause and reflect on the moment; two young girls can sit, enraptured, as they spy tadpoles in a brook, or a giant camphor tree. Their imaginations can run free in a way that the adults cannot.
The only American program that I could really compare this to is A Charlie Brown Christmas. The beloved 1965 cartoon looks simple, is crude, but it’s the best animated program ever made in our country because of its spirit. Charles Shultz rejected the tired clichés and told a personal story that reflected on his own beliefs and childhood; he never talked down to the audience, but respected their intelligence. The result is a classic beloved by generations of all ages.
Is Totoro a kids’ story? No more than Charlie Brown. Both are ageless, timeless, speaking (as Miyazaki later described his Spirited Away) to ten-year-olds and anyone who ever was a ten-year-old.
This movie is often described as being about the Totoros, mysterious animals who live in a camphor tree and befriend the two girls who moved there, but that’s not really accurate. It’s really about the girls themselves. It’s about their summer spent in the countryside, where their family resides while their mother is in the hospital. My Neighbor Totoro, at its core, is about exploration and discovery, about running through a new house, chasing after soot sprites, picking flowers and corn. It’s about childhood.
For Hayao Miyazaki, the writer-director, this represents a major shift in his work. He built his career on cliffhanger serials like the 1978 TV series Future Boy Conan, and the style migrated into his movies. As great as his first three films are – Castle of Cagliostro, Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind, Castle in the Sky – they are essentially serial adventures. My Neighbor Totoro is radically different in its pace and tone. It is slow, casual, reflective; his first work that feels like cinema. Miyazaki has always shown a quiet side before, influenced greatly by his mentor and colleague Isao Takahata, but now his quiet voice takes center stage. For those of us reared on Disney movies, this is something of a revelation.
American fans often define Totoro as the “not-Disney” movie, although, strangely enough, most movie critics originally panned the film for the very same reasons. Here is an animated film without song-and-dance numbers; without a melodramatic, “evil” villain; without cloyingly cute talking animals; without preachy moral lessons; without parents who never indulge in their children’s imaginations (what parent in an American movie would believe that their five-year-old spent an afternoon with an eight-foot-tall cat?). The children themselves - ten-year-old Satsuki and five-year-old Mei – are neither hip wisecrackers nor syrupy and dull, but wise portrayals, thoughtful portrayals. Who can watch the kids in this film and not recognize themselves?
Oh, and there aren’t loud, obnoxious boys at the center of everything. Why must everything in America be at the emotional level of Barney the Dinosaur, the Care Bears, The Lion King 6 7/8ths? Can’t we trust audiences with anything beyond commercial-driven pabulum? The public accepts these clichés because they honestly don’t believe they deserve any better. But they do.
Miyazaki (and especially Takahata) believes animation is capable of far more, and not just on a visual level. My Neighbor Totoro is a triumph of personal filmmaking (if I can borrow a phrase). Miyazaki drew from his own childhood in the 1950s, living in the country as his own mother was hospitalized. A subtle theme of nostalgia lingers throughout, as he looks back to the post-war days before Japan became an industrialized world power. He wants to remind audiences of what they once had, and perhaps what they may be losing. That nostalgia is a common theme in most of his later films, and his love of the environment has always been there since the beginning.
Totoro is visually lush and vibrantly detailed from the first frame to the last. The wonderful painterly scenery is a staple of Studio Ghibli; it’s practically their calling card. Notice the attention to detail, in the wide spaces and narrow streams. Notice the wonderful sense of imagination Miyazaki brings to the Totoros themselves. The film’s best moment, the scene where the girls wait for their father at the bus stop as Totoro lumbers by in the rain, is a masterpiece of comic timing. And, of course, the scene ends with the appearance of the Cat Bus, which owes something to the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland.
Can you believe this great picture was almost never made? Miyazaki was only able to pursue his personal project after Takahata agreed to direct Grave of the Fireflies. Because that movie was an adaptation of a famous book, Studio Ghibli was able to secure the funds to make Totoro and Fireflies at the same time (Yoshifumi Kondo did the character designs for both). Those two movies are polar opposites, yet both are masterpieces that hail from the same movie studio.
Finally, let’s not forget the wonderful efforts of the voice actors, without whom all this would never work. Saccharine cartoon overacting can ruin even the best movies, and the cast is allowed the space to play as themselves. You may even recognize the voice of the mother, Sumi Shimamoto, who previously played the love interest in Castle of Cagliostro and, of course, the lead in Nausicaa. Let’s also pay homage to Joe Hisaishi, who wrote the wonderful musical score for Totoro and all of Miyazaki’s films since Nausicaa. He’s one of the great composers of cinema, capable of writing those melodies that stay in your head forever.
A wonderful movie. At times curious, funny, poignant and sad, and always deeply nostalgic.