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Glimpses of the 1988 anime My Neighbor Totoro have caught my eye for almost as long as I can remember. Only recently however, did I finally sit down and watch the famous film by the acclaimed Studio Ghilbli which is based out of Koganei, Tokyo. Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, this unique animated movie is one that I wish I had paid attention to much sooner. On the other hand, it's been special for me to discover this story with my children and how it sparks their imagination. Make no mistake, although little ones will enjoy it, My Neighbor Totoro is a masterpiece for children and adults alike.
The story begins with young Mei and her older sister Satsuke Kusakabe moving to a small village in the Japanese countryside to a new home with their loving and committed yet oblivious father. Their home is a bit of a fixer upper, but the girls love it just as well. They adore their new home and exploring the surrounding nature. Their life is pleasant and innocent with only one major shortcoming. Their dear mother is sick in the hospital with a long term illness. Despite this, their family remains tightly knit and make the most of their time together. Dad and the girls go to visit their mom in the hospital often, and the three of them have plenty of fun together along the way. Their mother isn't bedridden, but she can't go home just yet. The doctor keeps saying that she'll be able to come home soon, and everyone is excited. Their happiest times are when they're all together.
While exploring every corner of their new home, the girls open a locked door that leads into the bathroom and find countless tiny black creatures living there, and they vanish into the walls as soon as they're seen. It shocks the girls, leaving them stunned in disbelief. They're fearless again shortly after they regain their composure however, and continue to explore the bathroom further. They tell their father, but he isn't able to see them. He suggests that they're dust bunnies, or soot gremlins as he calls them. The girls giggle as they shout at the top of their lungs in order to call them back. Mei and Satsuke have endless energy as they happily search the rest of the house for those mysterious creatures.
Eventually they find the attic and it's pitch black inside. They call out yelling to the dust bunnies asking them to reveal themselves. "Come out, come out wherever you are!", they shout. They're startled by the soot gremlins unseen but felt presence and tell their father that there's something there. He replies enthusiastically that it's great, that he's always wanted to live in a haunted house. Little Mei puts her finger into a crack in the wall, and the soot gremlins come surging out all at once and disappearing into the walls again just as quickly. The neighbor who takes care of the house is called Granny. She tells the girls that soot gremlins live in old empty houses, and that she used to see them when she was their age.
The girls' father works hard much of the time from home and at the office. As a single parent, he just doesn't have the capacity to focus on what his children are up to. One day, Mei goes out exploring on her own while Satsuke is at school. She keeps finding acorns near the forest, and sees a strange yet cute translucent bunny-like creature heading from the forest to under her house. She sees the creature with a bag of acorns running back into the forest, so she decides to chase after it. Once inside, she's led to a humungous tree. As she grabs for an acorn, she falls down a great hole in the tree. At the bottom, she finds a large fuzzy creature fast asleep. It is lazy and cute. She pokes it and tries to wake it up. The creature has sweet eyes, whiskers like a cat, and a powerful growl. Mei names the creature Totoro and instantly becomes attached to it. Totoro's sleepy energy causes Mei to fall asleep on it's belly.
When Satsuke comes home from school, she asks her dad about Mei. Unsure of her whereabouts, they both go looking for her and find her unconscious at the forest entrance. She asks for Totoro, and Satsuke assumes she must have just been dreaming. Mei goes back into the forest to show her dad and Satsuke exactly where she found the Totoro, but she keeps getting confused and ends up back at the forest entrance each time. Her father says that he believes her, and he decides that they should all greet the forest spirits. They soon find Totoro's tree but the hole she fell down is no longer there. Her dad says that the tree has been around since long ago, and that when he first saw the tree, he knew it would be a great place for them to live. The story that unfolds from here is nothing short of completely bizarre and downright beautiful all in the same breath.
Aside from the lovable characters in the story, perhaps the most compelling reason to see My Neighbor Totoro is for its absolutely stunning art style. The world in which the film takes place is nothing short of gorgeous, with everything just how you wish it was. The sky is the perfect shade of blue, clouds are fluffy, and lush greenery is everywhere. You'll wish you existed in this place of picturesque landscapes and classic Japanese aesthetics. It's even worth pausing the film every now and then just to appreciate the hand drawn visuals. The attention to detail in every scene is almost unbelievable. From the textures, to the lighting, to the colors. It's the work of a master painter in motion. Director Hayao Miyazaki deeply understands what makes life beautiful and worth living. Not only that, but he has a deep sensitivity to real life and was somehow able to harness it into this cute and strange anime. The movie's timeless aesthetic choices are inspiring, and will undoubtedly be appreciated by art lovers for generations to come.
It takes more than just pretty pictures to make a captivating animated movie, and thankfully the sounds of My Neighbor Totoro match the visuals. From the pitter-patter of rain dropping, to the gentle chirping of crickets at night, you'll feel comforted throughout. The soundtrack is equally lovely from start to finish and totally catchy.
My Neighbor Totoro is not a story about good and evil, yet it isn't boring. Not even close. Rather, it's one of fantasy and family, with creatures and locations that are shrouded in mystery. The themes are both simple for young children to be captivated but also layered enough that adults will find the story satisfying. You'll be sure to ask yourself, is Totoro actually real or just part of the girls' vivid imagination? Totoro only appears to the Mei and Satsuke when their parents aren't around, which is often as their dad is oblivious to what goes on around him when he's working. The only true evil in this movie is the disease their mother is faced with. The film hints that their mother's illness might be tuberculosis, but it's never fully revealed. Satsuke is troubled by this, and little Mei knows something is wrong but she's too young to fully comprehend.
Hayao Miyazaki really knows the heart of children, as My Neighbor Totoro humanizes Mei and Satsuke's childlike innocence. He deeply understands a child's imagination and energy. It's all beautifully captured in the story, and I see my own kids when I watch this movie. The film also provokes a sense of nostalgia and comfort in that it takes place back when life wasn't so complicated. A time long before cell phones and internet connectivity. It's the simple things in this idyllic rural Japanese life that will make you wish for a simpler time.
And you can't help but fall for the all powerful Totoro. His shape, his eyes, his fuzziness, sleepy energy, and protective instincts make for a heartwarming hero that will leave you smiling. Totoro has a special connection to the earth, and has special powers that he uses for good. At times, the girls aren't even sure if what they're seeing is a dream or not. Other extraordinary magical creatures throughout the film make for a story that audiences won't stop watching. It's all so creative that you'll wonder how on earth they thought of it. It can be confusing at times too. How? Why? It's all so wonderfully strange.
My Neighbor Totoro is equal parts beautiful and unusual, and you've never seen anything else like it. I applaud Studio Ghilbi for creating such an original idea that is also worthy of multiple viewings. You'll want to get lost in the world of Totoro that's been created for it's beauty and simplicity. Everything feels safe and as it should be. Be sure to curl up on a rainy evening with a cup of tea and enjoy this one as you escape to another world of magic and wonder. We never quite know the whole story, but it's nice that way.