1988 – Japan
Director – Hayao Miyazaki
Words – Christian Abbott
Some have called this the gateway film into the works of Studio Ghibli, Hayao Miyazaki, even Japanese animation itself, and it isn’t hard to see why.
This is a film about, and a celebration of, child-like wonder. It’s about the power of imagination, discovery, joy and spirituality. It is the essence of what a family film should be. There is no conflict, villains or terror – just family and fantasy.
It’s no surprise that Totoro himself has become the iconic mascot for Studio Ghibli.
Since its release in 1988, it has managed to build a massive following across the globe. Its simplicity and earnest qualities make it relatable to almost anyone. Those unfamiliar with the works of anime will still recognise the characters and creations of this astonishing piece – a true testament to its longevity and quality. Critics and audiences alike have consistently called this one of the greatest animated features – often siting it high in rankings for best of all time.
The mastermind behind it all is Hayao Miyazaki, the man that hand-crafted the film lovingly frame by frame. The attention to detail is astounding – little moments like a leaf in the air or the grass swaying in the wind are what bring this already beautiful film alive. Miyazaki creates scenic vistas with the familiar anime style of bold, caricature-esque people and creatures to bring all the expression and nuance to the storytelling.
We follow two young girls, Satsuki and Mei Kusakabi, as they move to a new home with their Father to be closer to the hospital their Mother is in. The story is a far cry from the narratives of animation in the West; it is a simple story of a family making the best of an uncomfortable situation, and still finding happiness. Illness is something rarely tackled in animated features but Miyazaki did so here with grace and subtlety.
The new home the girls move into is quickly found to be haunted, but this haunting is benevolent. Little black dots of soot invest the house, scurrying through the darkness away from the light – what sounds scary actually is used to bring more levity, these spirits are as innocent as the girls chasing them. On top of it all, the Father encourages the girl’s faith in the spiritual world, helping them to grow their imaginations and their humility.
But it isn’t all about the family; there are also the creatures of the forest that inhabit this strange and wonderful world. Totoro, a spirit animal of Miyazaki’s creation is no monster – he is a big, fluffy sloth-like giant that sleeps as long as his smile is wide. His friends, two small creatures, one being closer to a bunny and the other a smaller version of Totoro – all help the girls along the way in one form or another. Of course, Cat Bus is the other amazing creature here, a massive twelve-legged cat with a hollow inside so Totoro can get around town. There really isn’t anything else like it.
The world of My Neighbour Totoro is a quiet and peaceful one, utterly benign. The characters that inhabit it are all kind, helpful and endearing while remaining complex enough to invest in. This is a pure example of how narrative doesn’t need darkness to create tension or suspense. Ironically, with all the majestic outlandishness the film offers, it shows how the stories of our lives are the most compelling. The heart of this film grows as you watch it, from moment to moment there is so much love between family, friends and nature.
Over the decades that Miyazaki has been creating and perfecting the worlds of animation, he has remained consistent in the creativity and dexterity of his work. The brilliance of animation is what it allows artists to do, there is no limit except the imagination – it costs no more to draw a battle as it does a landscape. Miyazaki has consistently given us world after world of pure fantasy, with this being a standout in a career of exceptionality.
There has been an ongoing debate for decades now, to watch world cinema with an English dub, or with subtitles for the original voice acting. For me, there is no contest. The original Japanese dub will always be superior – it provides all the nuance and subtle inflections of speech that just become lost in the translation. There is something wonderful about listening to the original actors bring their own emotions into the writing Miyazaki perfected.
Miyazaki has gone on since the release of this film to create some of the most iconic and endearing films of all animation. From the Oscar winning Spirited Away to Howl’s Moving Castle, from Ponyo to The Wind Rises – My Neighbour Totoro will always be his most pure. It is a film that never fails to make you smile, and if you are new to Miyazaki, there is no better place to start than right here.