Asian Cinema Month – My Neighbor Totoro

My Neighbor Totoro (1988, dir. Hayao Miyazaki)

Hayao Miyazaki, Japan’s answer to Walt Disney, is mainly concerned with the rural and natural settings of Japan, rather than bustling metropolises. He can go very dark with this message (Princess Mononoke) or light (Ponyo), but he always returns to the ideas of children in an environment populated with copious vegetation and mystic animals. Once again, the children of the story need the help of a being from the forest to overcome the troubles of their lives and its all told in the type of lush animation you expect from Miyazaki.

Satsuki and Mei have just moved to a country house with their father to be close to the hospital their mother is staying in. The first day in the new home they are enthusiastic to explore, and encounter soot spirits, ashy ghosts that skitter away into holes in the wall when light enters. Little Mei explores further while her older sister is at school and follows a couple of magical rabbit-like creatures into the forest where she meets a gigantic sleeping furry beast. The creature identifies himself with a series of yawns which Mei hears as “Totoro”, the name she assigns him. The two girls eventually deal with a crisis moment involving their mother’s health and Totoro comes to the rescue to help diffuse the pain they feel with some lighthearted fun.

What I liked about the film was its rejection of the American fantasy formula. The drama here is kept very minimal and in the background. An adult audience is going to understand the mother’s condition as being a dark point in the picture, but it is presented in such a way that it won’t upset younger viewers. Miyazaki is able to tell stories for children, and adults not yet swallowed up by cynicism, in a way better than Disney ever has. The Disney films never feel like a real world, merely a construct and complete fantasy. Miyazaki infuses his worlds with details that make it feel like a place that could really be out there. They are the type of simple fantasies a child would truly dream up.

There is no need for princesses in Totoro. These are real little girls, captivated with simple things and vulnerable when it comes to the idea they might lose a parent. The creatures are never frightening and the children rush into the unknown without a sense of fear. It’s incredibly refreshing to see this kind of animated film, a style we see little of in the States.

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