Every now and then, you watch a movie that makes you forget yourself and also remember yourself at the same time. It reconnects you with the wonder and whimsy of your childhood, yet at the same time you are consciously aware as an adult that you are watching something objectively and aesthetically GOOD.
My Neighbor Totoro is such a movie.
This film of course comes from the legendary Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki of Studio Ghibli fame. I have been slowly working my way through his filmography and the entire Studio Ghibli collection, having watched classics like Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Porco Rosso and more recent films like Princess Kayuga, From Up on Poppy Hill and When Marnie Was There.
But I finally watched the 2006 English dub of My Neighbor Totoro which was first released in Japan in 1988. This features the story of two young sisters Satsuki and Mei who move to a new house and start encountering the animal spirits that inhabit the forest near their home. Their father is a gentle, reasonable soul and their mother is recovering in a nearby hospital from an unknown illness. Totoro is the titular large, furry monster whom the girls encounter in the forest and (in a delightful sequence) on a bus stop on a rainy night.
This movie breaks all the rules of conventional Western animated films, even the really good ones and my nostalgic favorites from the Golden Era of Disney animation (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King). It wasn’t until I’ve been watching Miyazaki’s movies that I’ve realized how so many Western animated and children’s films are trapped by convention. Convention isn’t bad, but it is certainly refreshing to watch animated films that subvert conventions of traditional Western storytelling.
Adults are not enemies or skeptics, but allies and believers.
In the movie, the youngest girl Mei encounters a tiny totoro, an adorable tiny woodland creature who skittishly tries to evade Mei and makes a beeline for its hidden nest inside a tree grove. When she tells her dad about the incident, the dad does not disbelieve her; rather, he affirms her belief that she did indeed encounter a forest spirit and even accompanies her into the forest to pay respect to the spirits at a tree shrine. In a gorgeously animated sequence the family even takes an impromptu hike into the forest together and we see a family coming together because of belief and wonder, not torn apart by skepticism. Often times in Western animated films, adults come across as enemies and skeptics. I remember being terrified of The Little Mermaid’s King Triton as a child. I mean, he literally comes into Ariel’s treasure cave and blasts her toy to BITS. Or in Beauty and the Beast, nobody believes Chip when he said he saw “a girl in the castle” and nobody believes Maurice who claims there’s a monstrous beast in a castle. Even in the Disney classic Mary Poppins, Mr. Banks snuffs out all imagination in service of duty and propriety and cannot even comprehend the magical journeys that his children have taken with Mary Poppins.
It is refreshing to see parents who are simultaneously reasonable and immediately affirming of whimsy and the supernatural. They not only affirm, but enter into the world of what may lie beyond the woods or come alive at night.
There are no traditional heroes, only ordinary people. There is no conflict, only ordinary life.
Western movies have an over-reliance on the motif of a hero or chosen one who must overcome obstacles or believe in themselves or follow their heart or dreams in order to succeed. This is common in my favorite Disney movies (most notably, Aladdin’s “diamond in the rough” storyline or The Lion King‘s “Remember who you are” pep talk from Mufasa to Simba. In films like Star Wars, a chosen one goes on a hero’s journey to defeat an evil lord. A less favorable, groan-worthy example of this is the recently released Pan storyline of a “chosen one” who must rise up and defeat the evil Blackbeard plot.
There is NONE of that in My Neighbor Totoro. We simply have two girls adjusting to a new home in a new place, laughing and playing in the yard, navigating the whimsical animals they encounter, yet struggling to come to grips with their mom who is in the hospital and can’t quite come home yet. There is something extremely relatable and human about their story. It’s so… ordinary. And yet it’s extraordinary at the same time because of the whimsical, spiritual elements. Whimsy case and point: a key scene features a gigantic, furry cat bus. In case you need proof:
I have enjoyed all of the Studio Ghibli films I’ve watched but My Neighbor Totoro is far and away my favorite. To me, the animation is unbelievably gorgeous and the story is the perfect blend of realism and whimsy. This is my ideal afternoon: falling asleep on a large, furry creature’s belly in a tree hollow, surrounded by wildflowers.
And I now totally understand why Totoro is Studio Ghibli’s logo.