Hayao Miyazaki’s greatest film, My Neighbour Totoro is also one of the treasures of world cinema. Its plot is storybook simple but rich in resonance and deeply personal for the writer-director. While their mother recovers from illness in a hospital far away, Satsuki and her little sister Mei are taken by their father, Professor Kusakabe, to live in an old house in the country. Magic stirs, as “dust bunnies” take flight the moment the girls set foot inside their new home. Lost in the woods, Mei discovers a family of fluffy, rotund, forest spirits she dubs “Totoros” (mispronouncing the word “troll” from her storybook), the largest of whom is guardian of the forest.
Satsuki encounters big Totoro too, one rainy night while waiting for her father’s bus, and lends him her umbrella. He repays Satsuki’s kindness with a gift of enchanted acorns and takes both sisters on a magical, midnight flight where they help perform a ritual that makes trees grow. When her mother takes a turn for the worst, Mei runs away to the hospital, but becomes lost. Fearing the worst, the adults search in vain. Desperate, Satsuki calls on Totoro who enlists the aid of his inimitable friend, Catbus…
My Neighbour Totoro contains moments of wide-eyed wonder equal to anything by Disney or Steven Spielberg. Its set-pieces are among the most celebrated and beautifully animated in the Ghibli canon. There is Mei’s crawl across the slumbering giant Totoro, as she inches closer and closer to his gaping mouth. Totoro’s sudden appearance beside Satsuki at the rainy bus stop became an iconic image, and is very Spielberg in the way it slowly builds from tiny details into one big, magical moment. Mei and Satsuki’s spine-tingling flight across the stars on Totoro’s back, and the climactic chase aboard the multi-legged, maniacally grinning wonder that is Catbus will leave you feeling like a kid on Christmas morning.
Drawn from childhood anxieties over his own mother’s struggle with spinal tuberculosis, Miyazaki mixes flights of fancy with the minimalist drama of Japanese masters like Yasujiro Ozu or Kenji Mizoguchi, and insightful observations of how children behave during troubled times. For Japanese audiences, the film functions on multiple levels. It is an ode to childhood, a celebration of the warm, nurturing countryside, and a hymn to the values of yesteryear. Many of the countryside communities were vanishing quickly during the boom-time Eighties, and My Neighbour Totoro had a big influence upon Japanese eco-politics. In many ways, this is Japan’s It’s A Wonderful Life (1946). Not a big success on its initial release, as part of an ill-advised double bill with Isao Takahata’s excellent, but harrowing Graveyard of the Fireflies (1988), Totoro filtered into the public consciousness and grew and grew to become a universally beloved screen classic. Even blood and guts provocateurs, like ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano and Shinya Tsukamoto go all misty-eyed at the memory of Joe Hisaishi’s lyrical theme music. Totoro’s surface simplicity is deceptive. At heart it embodies issues of family, community, spirituality and the environment, all seen through the undaunted, unquestioning optimism of a child.