By Noel Vera
My Neighbor Totoro
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
(CAUTION: plot and narrative twists — which aren’t all that much and anyway aren’t the heart of the film — to be discussed in explicit detail!)
HARD TO BELIEVE Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro was seen as a too-risky project, and had to be double-featured in its original commercial run with Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies; both made a modest profit ($6.1 million in Japan and Europe according to Wikipedia), but Totoro on home video became a family favorite, earning $265 million in Japan and the USA (again according to Wiki — you often wonder at their figures). The film eventually became a minor cultural phenomenon: Studio Ghibli adopted the creature as its corporate logo, an asteroid was named 10160 Totoro, a Vietnamese velvet worm was dubbed Eoperipatus totoro.
The film itself is considered a family friendly delight, purest sunshine and cheer. Some fans though would like to make the case that the film is actually darker than it appears, and may be the animator’s (a legend in the industry, known for epic fantasy-adventure features like Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and Princess Mononoke) true masterpiece.
Totoro is definitely well-made. The opening sequence is as quotidian as can be: a family with belongings piled high on a little truck, driving through the Japanese countryside (Tokorozawa City in Saitama prefecture, a former farming community — the film having been set in 1955, more or less). But the background art is breathtakingly intricate (by Kazuo Oga, who has worked on the landscapes in Miyazaki’s films from Kiki’s Delivery Service to Ponyo) and the truck rushes past a field of fresh-planted rice, the flooded paddies reflecting the solid blue of sky, the bright green plantlings rushing by in a startling display of full-motion animation.
Your skin tingles, the little hairs (if you are at all aware of the difficulties of animating anything on film) along your arm rise in excitement; you’re primed for something especially funny or dramatic to happen and Miyazaki rewards you with some 10 minutes of the family — Tatsuo Kusakabe, his daughters Satsuki and Mei — opening up the house they had just bought, moving in their belongings, basically enjoying the creaky old house’s benign spookiness.
Not what folks would consider attention-grabbing cinema. But again Oga works wonders on the backgrounds — the house is all dark shadows and splintered wood, and what are those furry little balls with eyes that scurry out of sight when you open a door? Not roaches or mice — Granny explains that they’re “soot sprites,” little creatures that inhabit uninhabited houses; if they decide you’re good people they’ll leave you alone, perhaps move somewhere else (they like their solitude).
The Kusakabe move in and establish a comfortable rhythm: Satsuki goes to school, Tatsuo works at home, Mei runs about looking for things to gawk at or poke. A natural-born filmmaker, she uses the rusted-away bottom of a water bucket as a rough camera frame to peer at her surroundings, and (the everyday magic of framing, that it can focus attention and reveal details) spots the glint of a shiny acorn (they have been dropping from the house’s ceiling for no apparent reason). She spots a pair of white rabbitlike ears making its way through the grass; out pops what looks like a cross between a bunny and a raccoon — she has found a Chibi (small) “Totoro” (her mispronunciation of “tororu” or troll).
The Totoro runs; she gives chase. The animal scampers under her house’s front steps through broken slats, hides in the crawl space. Mei decides against ducking under the steps, looks for another opening, peers into the dark (she can see — something — moving in there but the little figure seems to have a sack slung over one shoulder). She squats and waits and here a neat example of how Miyazaki likes to frame and stage action: crawl space hole to the left, Mei in center frame; a butterfly flutters in from the right, cuing you that something might happen at that end. Not one but two Totoro — the white one, and a larger blue Chuu (medium-sized) — pad quietly past her, one of them carrying the previously glimpsed sack.
Lovely little sequence melding the precisely observed behavior of a little girl running after an even littler animal with a clever minor plot point inserted: the Totoros — who presumably feed on acorns — have been storing them in the old house; now that people have moved in they’re trying to smuggle the nuts to a quieter place.
Miyazaki presents the various spirits and creatures inhabiting the edges of the film and landscape thusly, and with similar nonchalance introduces the film’s more serious subtext. Tatsuo, Satsuki and Mei take a biking trip, a happy outing with a purpose: they’re visiting Yasuko, Satsuki and Mei’s mother, who is confined at a hospital (her ailment isn’t specified, but Miyazaki’s mother suffered from spinal tuberculosis). The crisis some days later when Yasuko isn’t able to visit their new home as promised; apparently she’s caught a cold and needs to recover.
Mei throws a tantrum. The fissures implied in the hospital visit — Mei, who usually defers to Satsuki, acts a bit like an attention-hungry brat around their mother — have pulled wide open. Satsuki yells at Mei, who screams rage and disappointment (thought the voice acting quite good — the Japanese better than the English — the character animation perfectly capturing the way not just two girls but two closely bonded sisters quarrel). They mope about the house while awaiting further news from their father. Then Mei disappears; she has apparently run away from home.
Satsuki looks for Mei with increasing desperation, and without much fuss or comment Miyazaki dims the sun over the lovely Japanese countryside, suggesting with all the empty fields and silence a forlorn deserted look; occasionally Satsuki meets a farmer working late in his field or another taking his wife on a motorbike ride — they’re polite but not much help, and their presence just emphasizes the emptiness of the landscape. Suddenly news — a child’s slipper floating in a pond! Was it Mei’s? Miyazaki doesn’t pound the ear with dramatic music or have Satsuki shriek in dismay; he simply cuts to a little pink sandal floating in water, arguably the single saddest shot in the film.
Possibly the film’s finest element is in the way Miyazaki folds the fantasy into everyday family busyness. While no one actually contradicts Mei and Satsuki’s assertion that Totoros exist — if anything Tatsuo explains that spirits can make their presence known if they want to — Miyazaki leaves the film open to the suggestion that perhaps these creatures are manifestations of the children’s unconscious feelings and desires. Mei in a fit of boredom — running in and out of frame as her father works in the foreground — dreams up the Chibi Totoro and its blue brother the Chuu Totoro complete with sack of acorns. Later when the father goes to the university to teach (he’s an archeology professor) and Satsuki has to attend school, Mei is farmed out to Granny and throws a tantrum; Satsuki ends up having her sister sit with her in class. Later there’s a downpour and Satsuki and Mei — who notice father has left his umbrella at home — decide to wait for him with his umbrella at the bus stop. Lonely portrait of two kids left to their own devices, waiting for a dad too busy to come home on time… and perhaps Satsuki taking her cue from Mei conjures the sound of big padded feet squishing into muddy ground. Is that a 10-foot-high creature with nine inch claws — an Oh (big) Totoro — standing beside her? A frog across the road croaks assent; yes, this is real and, no, you aren’t imagining him.
For the final crisis with Tatsuo at the hospital and Satsuki left to herself — without even the presence or support of Mei — of course she has to turn to the Oh Totoro, and of course things turn out all right. But consider: we see the mother at the end credits happily hugging her daughters, presumably at home — but this is at best a brief visit, the mother still stricken with tuberculosis, the children still having to do their growing up without her. Miyazaki gives us a brightly tinted childhood of happiness and delight — when the Oh Totoro rises to the air with the children clinging to his chest fur is perhaps the most exuberant moment of flight in all of Miyazaki (considering nearly all his films depict flying) — only to smuggle into the feast like a sack of acorns an unyielding kernel of sadness.
My Neighbor Totoro was released on Blue Ray in 2017.
* Background art in Japanese anime in general is given more care and consideration than in American productions — true even today when most backgrounds are digital renderings of photographed landscapes. Oga has been praised for the photorealism of his work but there’s more to him than just slavish mimicry: the forests in this film seem luminescent, betray a serene inner glow as if shining with a sense of heightened life of sharpened awareness.