First published by EyeforFilm
Miyazaki Hayao is best known for his sprawling fantasy epics like Laputa: Castle in the Sky, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle – but even if My Neighbour Totoro (or Tonari no Totoro), is a more intimate, personal work on a much smaller scale, it is every bit as magical, adding to Miyazaki’s status as the greatest feature film animator in both Japan, and, indeed, the world.
Eight-year-old Satsuki and her much younger sister Mei move with their father, an archaeologist at the University of Tokyo, into an old house in the country, in order to be near the hospital where their mother is slowly recovering from illness. One day, left to her own devices while her father is working and Satsuki is at school, Mei chases a rabbit-like creature down a hole (in the manner of Lewis Carroll’s Alice). There, she meets a giant woodland spirit called Totoro and spends the afternoon napping in his company. Soon Satsuki is also seeing Totoro and his gentle friends, including a huge, multiple-legged cat that doubles as a bus (with a big Cheshire grin). These new-found neighbours, whether imagined or real, keep the two young girls from growing up too fast in the shadow of their mother’s continuing ill health.
My Neighbour Totoro begins as a sort of ghost story, with the two girls exploring a ‘creepy’ new home that they believe may be possessed by spirits and gremlins – but, as the intrepid Mei articulates quite early on, she is not worried by the house, but rather concerned that her mother might be scared and so not want to come home. For what really haunts both sisters is the illness and absence of their mother and the fear, left unspoken until near the end, that she might die. The ailment that afflicts her is never specified, but it is no coincidence that Miyazaki’s own mother suffered from spinal tuberculosis when he was a boy, and spent nine years in and out of a sanatorium, making this a deeply personal meditation on domestic disruption and childhood anxieties.
If the children’s response is to escape into a fantasy dreamworld, nonetheless Miyazaki has fashioned it to reflect their respect for nature, encouraged and shared by their father. Totoro, for all his loud growling and big teeth, is a benign deity who embodies the spirit of the countryside, with its endless cycles of growth and patterns of weather; and his protective friendship with the children is based in, and projected from, their own joyful enthusiasm for their new environment.
He may provide acorns, he may even help them sprout, but it is Satsuki and Mei who plant and nurture them until they start to grow. It is an investment in a long-term future, allowing them to grow strong, hope for better days and learn the value of patience in appreciating nature’s mysterious course. Whether it is a fertility rite or a coping mechanism is left for the viewer to decide. Nonetheless, the way in which Miyazaki celebrates something so simple, yet profound, as the emergence of a seedling from the soil, is truly exhilarating to behold.
My Neighbour Totoro is a film not so much of big actions as of beautifully observed details. Mei, with her awkward determination, her imitation of her bigger sister’s every move and her infectious giggling, is the most fully realised four-year-old ever to grace the screen and, as if by magic, provokes squeals of excitement and empathy in any viewer of roughly the same age.
Her first encounter with Totoro ought to be terrifying, as the tiny toddler is almost engulfed by the beast’s gaping jaws; but instead, her laughter, innocence and complete trust transform the scene into something richly memorable that seems to capture the very essence of childhood insouciance. Satsuki has prematurely shifted into an adult role to compensate for the absence of her mother, so it seems entirely natural that she should be slower than Mei to see Totoro and company; but when she does, it is as though a burden has been lifted from her shoulders and she is able at last to have fun and be a young girl again.
Their father represents a tower of strength for them, as mighty and immovable as any tree, but in one telling scene, when he is left alone for the first time since they have moved in, he seems to crumple for a second, until Mei brings him some flowers and, without realising it, visibly raises his spirits.
My Neighbour Totoro is a true family film, both about, and for, families and while it is wholly concerned with good, decent, likeable people (as well as endearing rustic entities), it somehow avoids saccharine sentiments or a pat resolution. We simply never know if Satsuki and Mei’s mother will come home (although childlike pictures in the credits suggest her return) – but we do know that the girls will one day grow up, so that for them, as for ‘Granny’ who takes care of their house, the woodland spirits will have eventually become only a distant memory, never to be seen by them again. For what Miyazaki has crafted is an idyll, that most melancholic and nostalgic of genres, where landscapes vanish, innocence is lost and death is as much a part of nature as life.