When Grave of the Fireflies was first released, it was actually paired with My Neighbor Totoro as a double-feature bill. Talk about your mood whiplash. My Neighbor Totoro is an entirely different kind of film to Grave of the Fireflies. Whereas Grave of the Fireflies deals with gritty, depressing reality, My Neighbor Totoro is about the story of two girls and their magical adventures with the strange mythical creatures that live in and around their new house. The film is light-hearted, though there are a few serious moments, and it’s just a lot of fun. Totoro is the face of Studio Ghibli and features heavily in their merchandise; to Japanese children, Totoro is the equivalent of Winnie the Pooh for British children. In many ways, Totoro has become symbolic of Japanese animation and his frequent cameos into other animated films (including Toy Story 3) are a testimony to how iconic this character has become. So whilst I wouldn’t say My Neighbor Totoro is the best Studio Ghibli film in their repertoire, it has certainly become a cultural mainstay and the character of Totoro is highly recognisable and celebrated for a reason.
At the start of the film, a father takes his two young daughters Satsuki and Mei across the country to move into a new house which is rather derelict and old, in order to be closer to their mother who is in the hospital. Whilst exploring their new home and local area, the girls encounter lots of strange and mystical things. Through it all, we watch as the girls adjust to their new life, watch their visits to the hospital to see them mother and overall, we passively absorb the kind of lifestyle that these two girls lead.
The first strange creatures that the girls meet, whilst exploring this dusty wooden home, are soot sprites. They scamper up and down the walls, disappear through impossible cracks in the wooden boarding, and hide away from the sight of humans. Here, we see Miyazaki’s flawless execution of that intimate childlike wonder. The girls giddily talk about these mysterious soot sprites, only to be dismissed by their father in a joking way; when they talk to an elderly neighbour about them, she mentions that she used to see them as a child but that adults can’t see them because they don’t believe anymore. It’s a classic fictional trope which is beautifully captured by the looks of wonderment and excitement on the two girls’ faces.
The same thing happens when Mei, the younger sister, meets Totoro, a creature so called for the roaring noises that he makes when he first meets Mei. Despite her subsequent attempts to find Totoro and show her older sister, something magical seems to warp the surroundings by the house which make it impossible to find him again. Again, the innocence of children is highlighted. Mei’s frustration at being unable to prove her findings to anyone must remind all of us how convinced we were as children about our fantasies, and the constant frustrating dismissal from our elders.
The main ‘conflict’ in the film comes when Mei and Satsuki’s mother takes a bad turn in the hospital (she suffers from an unknown chronic disease) and has to remain in the hospital for longer than expected. Upset, Mei runs away from the house in order to bring her mother an ear of corn at the hospital. Upon noticing Mei’s disappearance, Satsuki initiates a search for her younger sister, even recruiting local villagers to help search. There is an incredibly tense moment when a villager fishes out a small pink sandal from the river. Without spoiling what happens, Satsuki enlists the help of Totoro who summons a Catbus and together they go searching for Mei.
Of course, all of this is accompanied by lovely hand-crafted animation, which really emphasises the beauty of the Japanese landscape. Swirling rice paddies are next to incredibly green and dense woods which feature small crystal clear ponds with delicate lily-pads, and in the background, small wooden and unassuming houses where the people live in harmony with nature. It’s certainly a very idyllic view of Japan, and it often feels like it is harking back to simpler times.
At times, it can also seem very Alice-in-Wonderland-esque, especially the Catbus whose huge grin reminds me of the Cheshire Cat. What I mean by this is that the magical world and reality blur together in this film to produce that sense of childlike wonderment embodied by the two young protagonists. The story, at its heart, is very simple and there’s no real overarching deep themes. Sure, it deals with sisterhood, family bonds, childhood versus adulthood and imagination, but it never feels like the film is trying very hard to push any particular view. Instead, it is simply an enjoyable experience, full of good feelings and gorgeous eye-candy. Even the plot is not particularly forced upon the audience. We get the sense that we are just following the lives of this family, partaking in their rural village life and getting an idea of how living in modest rural Japan would be like.
But it’s this simplicity that makes it such a heart-warming film, and its modesty in its ambitions means that every moment is carefully and lovingly crafted. Initially, it can seem like the movie is just a medley of random scenes, featuring odd bouts of magic, but by the end of the film, the culmination of all this beauty makes sense. It’s a film which celebrates childhood, imagination and creativity, and it does it a rather mature way which will appeal to both young children and adults.
No wonder the figure of Totoro is such a celebrity. Totoro embodies a lot of what Studio Ghibli is about. The exploration of nature, the blurry line between reality and the enchanting, and the innocence of children, are all themes which crop up in other movies by the studio. In fact, I think Studio Ghibli consistently creates incredibly strong and compelling children characters, and My Neighbor Totoro is no exception. A lot of media portrays children in ways which make them seem like really dumb adults who just look cute by virtue of being small. Studio Ghibli however, gives children real personalities, real strengths and weaknesses, and develops children characters to an extent unparallel in anything I’ve ever seen. Mei is adorable, but her stubbornness and perseverance are also a big part of her character. Satsuki is the nurturing, older sister who steps into her new role as surrogate mother to her younger sister with no complaints. The two children together make a formidable duo, and they are incredibly relatable. It’s a film which does not patronise children; instead, it celebrates them and it reminds us as adults to respect and acknowledge the contributions that children can make.
Overall, My Neighbor Totoro is a simple and charming film full of beauty and curiosity. Although I prefer the Ghibli films which deal with harder hitting themes, My Neighbor Totoro is a refreshing gust of wind which is perfect for a relaxed and happy evening. At first I thought it was crazy to bundle Grave of the Fireflies with My Neighbor Totoro, given their incredibly different genres, but perhaps what you need after watching the tear-jerker of Grave of the Fireflies is a film that is guaranteed to put a smile on your face: My Neighbor Totoro.