As a general rule, animated family films tend to be the most tightly plotted of movies. I suppose Hollywood assumes that all children suffer from ADD and can’t appreciate a story that doesn’t have a song or joke every 30 seconds to hold their attention. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with a fast-paced movie, mind you, but there’s something to be said for those rare films that take away the feeling that we’re outside observers and force us to live and breathe along with their characters.
The first 15 minutes of My Neighbor Totoro are seemingly mundane yet enthralling: two young Japanese girls, Mei and Satsuki, are moving into a new house along with their father. Or more precisely, it’s a very old house. Everything is coated in soot and dust, a flimsy roof covering the porch almost collapses when Mei leans against a pillar, and at night when the winds blow through the landscape the thin walls shake uncontrollably. But as the girls explore their new home in the opening scene, there’s a constant sense that something otherworldly is lurking just out of sight and hiding from them. Neither one is much surprised when an elderly next door neighbor explains that the house is haunted.
When Mei first meets these creatures, the moment of discovery isn’t treated as a sudden shock, but a gradual process of discovery. While exploring her backyard she spies a pair of fuzzy, mice-like creatures that become nervous and frantic upon realizing that they’ve attracted her notice. Mei chases them into a forest and then crawls through a series of narrow tunnels that lead to the center of a huge, hallowed-out tree. And there she finds a gigantic creature she nicknames Totoro (a mispronunciation of the English word “troll”), who looks constructed out of pieces from a cat, an owl, and a panda. He’s taking a nap, but that doesn’t stop Mei from jumping on his belly to wake him up.
Mei’s discovery of Totoro’s home lays the ground rules for how the fantastic is treated in this film: it’s neither sentimentalized nor seen as something incomprehensible and strange. Most children’s fantasy stories in western culture tease us with the question of whether the magical happenings are real or just products of a child’s imagination (Pan’s Labyrinth makes this dichotomy explicit). Miyazaki subtly looks deeper into the relationship between fantasy and real life.
Mei and Satsuki would have good reason to be scared of reality and eager to retreat into a fantasy. Their mother is sick (her illness is never explained but it’s most likely tuberculosis, the same disease Miyazaki’s own mother suffered from) and has been hospitalized for some time now. The girls keep hoping she’ll get better soon, but they’re heartbroken when her health takes a turn for the worse and her homecoming is postponed yet again.
Is My Neighbor Totoro another example of children creating their own private dream world as a refuge from the pain of growing up? I don’t think Miyazaki wants us to see his film through such a narrow prism. Mei and Satsuki’s friendship with Totoro doesn’t help them shut out the real world, but instead, helps them deal with its misfortunes. The film is distinctly Japanese, drawing on elements of the Shinto religion which teach a certain respect for nature and an appreciation for its simplicity and beauty. Totoro would be seen by Japanese viewers as a representation of the forest itself, and his communication with the girls as a metaphor for their changing worldviews. They slowly begin to understand the world around them, able to recognize its wonders and deal with its heartaches.
Thankfully, Miyazaki doesn’t spell this out for us, although there is a reoccurring theme throughout of giving help to those in need. While Satsuki and Mei are waiting for their father at a bus stop in the middle of nowhere, Totoro emerges from the shadows and stands right next to them (he doesn’t even acknowledge them at first – the joke is he’s waiting for a bus, too). It’s pouring rain, and because both girls are sheltered under the same umbrella, Satsuki has an extra one to offer to Totoro. But first she has to explain to him what he’s holding, directing him to hold it over his head. Soon enough Totoro takes off on his wild ride, a giant cat in the shape of a bus with glowing eyes for headlights, and leaves behind a special present: a collection of seeds that seem to grow into massive trees overnight. And later, Totoro offers Satsuki the use of the catbus in order to find Mei, who’s gone missing while trying to walk by herself to the hospital to visit her mother.
I hope I haven’t scared anyone away with my insistence that My Neighbor Totoro is both slow-paced and chock-full of metaphorical importance. It’s one of all-time greatest animated movies because there’s simply nothing else like it, and even compared to the rest of Miyazaki’s oeuvre it’s a one-of-a-kind gem. It’s escapism at its surrealistic best, promising that the creatures out in the dark aren’t scary monsters but weird, furry beasts that are willing to care about us if we’ll show them the same courtesy and might even take us for a ride flying through the air if we’re lucky. Cinematic flights of imagination don’t come more satisfying than this.
Like every other Disney DVD release of Studio Ghibli’s films, My Neighbor Totoro is a two-disc set with a meager helping of special features. The “Behind the Microphone” feature is still just useless fluff since they’re interviewing the voice actors for the English version, most of whom don’t have much to say other than convey general enthusiasm for being employed (the English voice track in general is acceptable, but the original Japanese audio is more subdued and interesting). There’s also the Japanese theatrical trailer and the opening and closing animations presented without the credits on the first disc. The entire second disc is devoted to displaying the film’s storyboards along with audio, in effect creating a rough cut of the animation. Once again, I’m glad that someone thought to include this, but who’s going to sit through 86 minutes of incomplete drawings, no matter how good the finished product? I can only hope there’s an animation school out there somewhere using this as a teaching aid.