My Neighbor Totoro: Big, Fluffy Fun for the Family

Copyright © 1988 by Studio Ghibli

Back again for another dive into the ethereal, breathtaking world of Hayao Miyazaki’s animation. This time, I’m finally getting into one of his classics. One of the most popular films in his collection, and the one that gave Studio Ghibli its big furry mascot.

Set in 1958, My Neighbor Totoro tells the story of Satsuki and Mei Kusakabe, two sisters who move into a new home with their father, a university professor with a heart of gold. As the girls adjust to their new surroundings, they discover far more than they anticipated. Soot sprites litter their empty rooms, and outdoors, the girls find nature spirits like the Catbus and the large, friendly giant that Mei names “Totoro.” Satsuki and Mei do their best to navigate their new lives in town and their new connection with the local spirits, with little to no serious conflict along the way.

It’s a common enough staple in Miyazaki films, but here, I could get a sense that the girls Satsuki and Mei were genuinely children, both in their animation and their voice acting. They were high-spirited, energetic, obsessive, and curious about the world. Just within the first five minutes, you can feel their energy as real kids, and not just as some adult’s idea of what kids might say or do. Their performance fit in well with the whole dynamic of Totoro and the other spirits they meet.

One aspect that kept throwing me was how long it took before we actually got into the stock weirdness (or central premise) of the story. We don’t meet the famous Totoro until about 40 minutes into the 90-minute film. A lot of scenes in between encounters with the wood spirits are active and engaging all by themselves, but they also drain most of the energy from the rest of the interactions between Satsuki, Mei, and the adults in their lives. I know Miyazaki’s style was to focus more on compelling visuals than on a consistent plot, but when the compelling visuals of Totoro and the other spirits weren’t onscreen, I had to fight off a sense of boredom with the rest of the movie.

I will admit that there’s a nice contrast between the plot involving Totoro and the girls’ subplot of parental issues. Between their hardworking father and their mother who’s in the hospital for a long-term illness, the kids are often left to their own devices. More specifically, Satsuki oscillates between the responsible sibling and another carefree child like her little sister Mei. It’s no wonder that they would want to seek out the joys and magic of life with Totoro instead of confront the harsh world waiting at home, where Moms disappear and Dads are too busy.

While I don’t have the same fond memories of this movie as so many other people do, I do see why it’s so popular. It’s not a film that demands a lot from its audience. Instead, it offers a quiet, whimsical tale set in the countryside, where we can forget the bigger world and be kids again, if only for 90 minutes or so.

The English dub of My Neighbor Totoro is available through Disney Movies.

Bibliography: My Neighbor Totoro. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Produced by Toru Hara. Edited by Takeshi Seyama. Perf. (English) Dakota Fanning, Elle Fanning, Frank Welker, Tim Daly, and Lea Salonga. Studio Ghibli. Toho (distributor). Original release date: April 15, 1988.

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