My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

Written & Directed by Hayao Miyazaki

The Studio Ghibli journey, which started two weeks ago with Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, a film that is not technically a Studio Ghibli release, was always going to lead to this, the third film in the marathon. My Neighbor Totoro is the essential Ghibli film. Even for those who have no clue what Studio Ghibli is, they are likely to have heard about, or seen something from, My Neighbor Totoro, whether they knew it or not. The title character has become so iconic and popular that he even made a guest appearance in Pixar’s Toy Story 3. See, I told you you have seen him whether you knew it or not. But even through the many classics released by Ghibli since Totoro, and even if this is not your favorite in their canon, it remains that it is the most well known, most well respected, and nearly universally liked for its ability to spread joy, laughter, and happiness, by being charmingly imaginative.

Simply for it’s ability to transport the viewer to a time and place and tell a certain story of childhood innocence, joy and imagination, I consider My Neighbor Totoro a great film, but there are countless more elements to the film which add rich depth to an otherwise simple and fairly short (a mere 86 minutes) film. The Kusakabe family is moving to the countryside, to an old home which needs some love and upkeep, in order to be closer to the matriarch of the family, who is recovering from an illness in a nearby hospital. The two daughters, Satsuki and Mei, find pleasure playing in the house and yard. But when Mei discovers a hidden thatch which houses a giant creature named Totoro, the girls discover they have met a new friend, a forest spirit who will protect them.

If the plot description sounds short, slight, and anything but a fully formed narrative, you’d be fairly right. However, you would be wrong to criticize it, as master Hayao Miyazaki shows us just what it means to live in a world that includes Totoro for even just an hour and a half. Not really spoiler alert, spoiler alert: It means the world. My Neighbor Totoro is less a story of what happens to these characters than it is just simply about the characters themselves. As we get to know and spend time with Satsuki, Mei and Totoro, we are simply spending time with friends. Miyazaki aims to capture the essence of childhood and the wonder and imagination children have, which makes Totoro the type of film that will entertain not only children for its whimsical wonder, but also nostalgic adults who hold tightly their childhood wonder, and long for the ability to experience it again, if even for just a few hours during this film.

As this marathon is just starting, with this being the third entry of Studio Ghibli, one of the things that I have noticed most from the first three films from Ghibli and director Hayao Miyazaki is the incorporation of music in the films, and the central role music seems to play into the success of the films. None have been more apparent than this film, which features an enchanting and truly memorable score from Joe Hisaishi, a contributor we will continue to see as this marathon continues. For a film with such a slight narrative that depends on the viewer buying into the imagination and landscape in which the film takes place, the film’s score is central is being able to transport the audience to this time and place, to immerse them into an imagined land with imagined friends. Listening to his score as I write, I can tell it is timeless and just hearing the notes of the themes so beautifully composed brings the delightful images of the film immediately to mind.

Of course, while Hisaishi’s score may have quickly become one of my absolute favorite film composition works of all time, the heart of the film is in its creator, Hayao Miyazaki, and his ability to craft characters and creatures we truly care about, in a world grounded in the reality of childhood we can all relate to in some degree. While Totoro is less fantastical than the adventure films Nausicaa and Castle in the Sky, the character of Totoro is likely the most staggering and impressive creation in Miyazaki’s lauded career. Miyazaki takes time in Totoro to spend with Satsuki, Mei and Totoro, building the relationships between them so that the audience can do the same. My Neighbor Totoro is a special, unforgettable film, and one which will always bring a smile to my face, even when I merely hear mention of its name. Truly a masterpiece in perhaps the quaintest possible way.

**** – Masterpiece

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