Oh, how perfectly dull. You’ve filled a column on crazy and forgotten films with a review of a Japanese kids’ cartoon featuring little in the way of conflict, danger or violence. Where’s the assorted menagerie of pan-dimensional creatures? Where are the flying pigs, mutant insects or violent transmogrifications?
My Neighbour Totoro, from animation house Studio Ghibli, is a beautiful tale of humanity brushing against the very gods of nature. There are monsters, but only playful, whimsical spirits, helping those who need it. And these creations sow the seeds of what comes in Ghibli’s far darker Spirited Away.
Studio Ghibli was founded in 1985 by several prominent players in the animation industry. Outside Japan the best known of these is director Hayao Miyazaki. It owes its creation to the success of his eco-parable Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Since then it has almost exclusively produced his films. My Neighbour Totoro was released in 1988 to modest success. Only later, with repeated showings on Japanese TV, was it catapulted to success with the character of Totoro now one of the most popular in Japan. In some parts of the world he has the cultural pervasiveness of some of Disney’s beloved characters.
The slight plot opens with two young girls travelling to the countryside in the back of a ramshackle van driven by their father. They move to a summer house which exists in an indefinable place anywhere from modern day to the late 1800s. Peppered throughout are appropriated Western influences. There are buses and trains idling alongside old-English pastoral vistas and horse-drawn carts. Farmers work the land in peasant gear while younger women dress Little House on the Prairie-style. This post-modern mixing pot of charming styles reminds us that this is fairytale land and ultimately no one is going to get badly hurt.
The girls, Satsuki and Mei, clear out the long-deserted house, bumping into dust sprites (free-floating, sooty balls with eyes) and the initially scary old woman who lives next door. With the place occupied, the dust-sprites secretly process from the house that night, returning to the large camphor tree nearby; the home of the king of the forest, Totoro.
Mei finds him first. With her mother in hospital debilitated by Tuberculosis and her father out teaching, the girls have all day to explore. Finding a tunnel in the bushes, she follows it to the underside of the camphor tree and the home of Totoro. The king looks like a cross between a rabbit, a bear and perhaps a squirrel or a badger; it’s hard to tell. Totoro is characteristically hard to define. His eyes grow and shrink to extremes depending on his mood. The mouth grins toothily and then opens as wide as his own body. This “monster” may not move and act according to our physical laws but he allows Mei to fall asleep on his belly before delivering her, still sleeping, safely back to the family.
The tale treads some well-worn ground while Mei struggles to make herself believed. When older sister Satsuki meets Totoro at a bus-stop in the rain we witness two spectacular sequences from the film. His small umbrella creating a drumming noise as the larger drops of rain fall from the trees, Totoro jumps up and down, laughing with manic glee as he shakes more of these drops loose. They fall satisfyingly down on the umbrella as he revels in the “real-world” magic he has created.
Then there is the arrival of the film’s most wondrous creation, Cat-bus. The design recalls the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland. The grinning face flows into a bus-shaped body with holes in the side serving as doors and windows. Travelling on about 12 small cat feet and with mice for indicator lights, Cat-bus runs through the forest ferrying forest spirits between the trees, invisible to the farmers he runs past. As with the Totoro’s body he stretches and contorts unnaturally.
My Neighbour Totoro is really about two young girls struggling to cope with the desperate illness of their mother. The forces of nature who rise up to help them bring to mind Pan’s Labyrinth and the vulnerable heroine who retreats from horror into a fantasy world. In the end Totoro’s provides real physical and emotional help. It also features some of Studio Ghibli’s strongest character design. The creatures announce their otherworldliness through animation techniques that separate them convincingly and imaginatively from the “real” people.
This film will appeal to anyone of any age and is a perfect demonstration of how a world without any real conflict and danger, un-rooted in any time and place, can charm and stun us with its magic.
Steve Thompson is a writer, cartoonist and film critic. Follow him on Twitter.