A truly great movie can trigger feelings with uncanny depth. MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO captures, in beautiful detail, what it felt like to explore nature as a child. It's a movie where moments of pure wonder are followed by total acceptance — where, rather than becoming commonplace, fantastic discoveries become a part of daily life. It's a warm, utterly charming movie about learning how the world works.
MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO is the work of writer/director Hayao Miyazaki, who went on to make incredible films like SPIRITED AWAY, PRINCESS MONONOKE, and THE WIND RISES. Even if he had stopped after TOTORO, however, he might still be considered a master of his craft. Now the film is playing on August 25, 26 and 28, in both English subtitled and dubbed forms, as part of the Studio Ghibli Fest 2019, from GKIDS and Fathom Events.
The plot of MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO is delightfully simple. A professor and his two daughters move to a new countryside home, so they can be nearer the hospital where the girls' mother is in care. Don't worry — this isn't (spoiler) a sad story about the loss of a parent. But mom's infirmity adds a note of uncertainty to the story, and that is a big part of what makes MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO WORK.
The two girls, pre-teen Satsuki and the younger Mei, take in their new environment with wide-eyed wonder and simple acceptance. Even in its most mundane moments, this movie never panders to their point of view, and it refuses to over-explain anything. We get to experience new discoveries with Mei as she meanders through the woods around her new home. In this movie, natural spirits live in houses and forests — or we are invited to fantasize along with the girls that they do. One of the beautiful aspects of MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO is that we never know whether some of its characters are real or not.
Mei certainly thinks the two small woodland spirits she follows into the hollow of a camphor tree are real. And she believes, utterly, in the giant grey creature she finds within. This large spirit does not really talk, but when it roars, Mei adopts the sound as a name for the creature: Totoro.
What is Totoro, exactly? Does it matter? Being near Totoro is like standing at the feet of a giant gray cat that can use an umbrella… and which can use an actual Catbus to get around. (That is, yes, a bus that is basically a giant cat with space for passengers — it's best not to think too much about it. Just enjoy the delightful sight.)
Like Elliot the dragon in both film versions of Disney's PETE'S DRAGON, Totoro responds to kindness, and can be extraordinarily helpful. The spirit gifts the two sisters with seeds that grow into a giant magical tree — or perhaps just into some nice plants. (Again, there's a blurry line between reality and fantasy.) The being helps mend a schism between the girls, and puts their minds at rest about a question that is troubling them. There's a sense, too, that Totoro could be dangerous if approached with bad intentions, but MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO has no interest in exploring that sort of story. This tale is as pure and simple as can be, but that does not mean it is small or empty.
Totoro's magic is that the creature is not entirely knowable. There's no way to understand exactly what Totoro is all about. Which is nature in a nutshell, really. Miyazaki's film is gently instructive; it pulls kids and adults alike into a world tinged with magic, where we constantly want to see what could be just over the next hill.
All images courtesy of GKIDS.