Reflections on ‘My Neighbour Totoro’

❉ An appreciation of ‘My Neighbour Totoro’, the heart-warming 1988 cult film from anime giant Studio Ghibli.

“Well, ghosts are a lot harder to see. But when you suddenly move from a lighted room to a dark one, you can’t see for a second, and that’s when the dust bunnies come out.”

‘My Neighbor Totoro’, directed by Hayao Miyazaki in 1988, is a Studio Ghibli animated film for children. It tells the story of two sisters who, with their father, move to the Japanese countryside to be close to their mother who is in hospital. Once there they explore the village and woodland around their house and discover a variety of spirit creatures including the large and gentle Totoro of the title and a cat who is also a bus. Their mother takes a turn of the worse, so Mei, the youngest of the two sisters, sets out on foot to go to the hospital to take an ear of corn to help her get better but gets hopelessly lost. Her older sister, Satsuki, enlists the help of Totoro and Catbus to help her find Mei and to complete her journey to the hospital.

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It’s a magical film, as soft, gentle and charming as Isao Takahata’s ‘Grave of the Fireflies’, another Ghibli movie from the same year, is edgy, profound and unsettling. The creatures in the story, including Totoro itself, a colony of sooty sprites and a giant cat bus, are weird but not creepy in the way that they are in Miyazaki’s 2001 fantasy ‘Spirited Away’. Totoro in particular has that degree of comical charm, for example when he shelters beneath a ridiculously small umbrella, to give him that feeling of safety and to dispel any feelings of threat towards the children. There are hints of Lewis Carroll in the creatures and in the plot, the younger sister at one point literally falls down what could be a rabbit hole and there is something distinctly Cheshire-like about Catbus. However, whilst it doesn’t have the same sinister undertones and the same sense of threat as ‘Spirited Away’, there is still something disconcerting, something alien about the fantasy elements in the film. Part of this comes from Miyazaki’s focus on texture from the soft fur and cavernous mouth of the title creature to the weird, fur-lined interior of the cat. The human characters, at least the elderly ones, appear misshapen, but I get the feeling that this is a cultural dislocation. The rendering of the elderly characters with large features and blemishes, emphasising the passing of time, seems to be a common aspect of Ghibli movies and, whilst to me they feel grotesquely disproportioned and actually a little frightening, I think the intention is, sometimes, merely to celebrate their age and the wisdom that comes with it.

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What I took away from the film though was its focus on nature and the way it created a consistent and believable village for the setting. When the children explore you have the feeling the roads and paths they traverse are planned and mapped by the artists. The consistency extends to the almost Andrei Tarkovsky-like use of rain, water and weather to give the film an extra, elemental texture. Miyazaki goes one step further and uses the relationship between the weather, the health of the mother and the fecundity of the natural world where the children live to provide a commentary on the environment and how we can best protect it.

The landscape and environment from the plan of the village, the distance from the hospital, the layout of the buildings and the way the weather changes from day-to-day has two effects: firstly to firmly ground the viewer in a relatable world, and secondly to make the fantasy realms of Totoro, for example the nest under the tree, stand out. This mixture of nostalgic whimsy and crafted locations means that, unlike any other film I’ve seen and despite the fact it is an animated fantasy, by watching ‘My Neighbour Totoro’, I had the sense of having experienced rural Japan.


❉’My Neighbour Totoro’ is available as a Dual Format Blu-ray and DVD from Studio Canal as part of the Studio Ghibli Collection, boasting a wealth of special features.

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