Miyazaki Spotlight Week 2: My Neighbor Totoro

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All this month I’m featuring films directed by Hayao Miyazaki. This week I’m featuring one of his most charming films. From 1988,it’s My Neighbor Totoro. The late Roger Ebert’s Great Movies essay gives the best description of the film,

Here is a children’s film made for the world we should live in, rather than the one we occupy. A film with no villains. No fight scenes. No evil adults. No fighting between the two kids. No scary monsters. No darkness before the dawn. A world that is benign. A world where if you meet a strange towering creature in the forest, you curl up on its tummy and have a nap.

In the film,Satsuke (Noriko Hidaka) and Mei (Chika Sakamoto), two young girls who have recently moved to a new country home,find out is located in a mystical forest inhabited by mystical creatures called Totoros. They befriend O Totoro, the biggest and eldest Totoro, who is also the king of the forest. As their girls’ mother lies sick in the hospital, O Totoro brings the sisters on a magical adventure but also helps them to understand the realities of life.

Last week I wrote about Princess Mononoke. One common thread between the films is an ecological message. In fact,it’s a common theme in many of Miyazaki’s films. Satsuke and Mei befriending the Totoro creatures is another way of showing through film how many can develop a deep bond with nature. The adventures the girls have with the forest creatures are a great deal of fun,but the whole film isn’t fun and games. My Neighbor Totoro deals very openly with the illness of a parent. The whole reason Satsuke and Mei move to the new house is because their mother has been moved to a hospital in the area. The film handles that whole subplot with great delicacy. Another great thing about the story is that the girls’ father isn’t the stereotypical deadbeat or absent father. On the contrary,he loves his two girls very much. When they tell him about the Totoro creatures,he doesn’t write them off. That’s what many a lesser animated film would do. Instead,he actually believes them. The family dynamic is one of the best constructed in a live-action or animated film.

And how about the look of the film? Par the course for Miyazaki,the visual style is absolutely enchanting! Miyazaki draws everything by hand,and you can feel his distinctive touch. Aside from the main Totoro creatures,there are also sorts of artistic wonders. One of my favorites is the cat bus.

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I will never tire of that image. It’s a little odd but also beautiful. If I saw one of those at a bus stop I would get on in a nanosecond. The whole film has great moments of visual magic like that. There’s also the iconic scene of Totoro hanging out at a bus stop in the rain with one of the girls. As with Princess Mononoke,I could sit here and discuss the incredibly animation all-day. It’s that good.

My Neighbor Totoro is a triumph on so many levels. The animation is striking,the story has things for kids and adults,there’s a great ecological message,the adventures with the creatures are delightful,and,for once in an animated film,the kids and adults have a positive relationship. Far too many films today dramatize dysfunctional families. Yes,they do exist and those stories should be told. But not all the time. This film proves you can have a story where kids are dealing with a difficult real-life situation (in this case the illness of a parent),but it doesn’t have to give the whole film a tone of gloom and doom. Such situations can be dealt with as a part of life. My Neighbor Totoro never condescends to its audience. It assumes people watching it are intelligent. More films should give that a try.

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