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.
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 we, the adults, cannot.
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
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.
(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.
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.
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.
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.
wonderful movie. At times curious, funny, poignant and sad, and
always deeply nostalgic.