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Oct 3, 2013

Review: My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

Voice Cast: (Japanese)
                                               Noriko Hidaka, Chika Sakamoto, Shigesato Itoi, Sumi Shimamoto, Hitoshi Takagi, Naoko Tatsuka, Tanie Kitabayashi and Toshiyuki Amagasa


                    Hayao Miyazaki

Note:- If you guys remember (highly doubt you will), I started a Studio Ghibli marathon more than a year before but somehow couldn't review all of the movies? Well I am doing them now. The ones I have already reviewed might not actually be up to my current standards of writing but what can I do? Maybe I'll re-review them in the future or something but for now, I am continuing right from where I left.


                 Master Miyazaki has made many movies where relatively younger protagonists, mostly female, are put up against something that they need to fulfill, experience, learn from and grow up. Many of his movies has fantasy worlds or elements that works both for the characters in the movie and for us to learn so much about. None of those are distractions or excuses to make the movie as far from reality and as near to eye popping animation only while forgetting what its actual purpose is. One of the many thing I have come to love about him and Studio Ghibli in general is that in an hour and a half, we go through an experience that is both life-changing and offers so much to think about and evaluate while the animation remains strikingly gorgeous. So far, from a famous adventure character movie to a relatively heavy handed/overbearing if beautiful animation and a full of adventure and intrigue action/fantasy film, Miyazaki did quite much. I am a big fan of "Castle in the Sky" which has everything an animation fan would want to watch and experience. That was his first film for Studio Ghibli. Now coming to his 1988 fantasy animation which is one of his most famous and beloved, 'My Neighbor Totoro'. A very simple movie which has two young daughters of a professor in the postwar rural Japan, moving into an old house so that they can be near to hospital where their mother is recovering from some unnamed illness. There are some friendly wood spirits in that area who interacts with the youngest daughter without any harm. It still puzzles me how such a simple premise can give you one of the most extraordinary experiences of your life. I had this giddy feeling in my stomach every time Totoro, the title character of a giant troll like creature would appear. Oh! and the Catbus. How I became a child all over again and wanted to own all of those creatures. How this movie takes you back to your childhood, how it brings you right back to where you are but with a new perspective of where you stand now. It is only the master himself who can create such feelings, deep deep feelings through his supreme visual aesthetics and strong storytelling command.

                 The year is 1958 and we meet the Kusakabe family who are moving in to a house that is very old in the rural part of the country. The father is a university professor named Tatsuo and his two daughters are Satsuki and Mei (ten and four years old, respectively). Moving through different rooms, the daughters find that the house is inhabited by small dust creatures which are called susuwatari. They are house spirits apparently and are only seen immediately when a dark room is lit up. After some time, they leave the house to drift away in the air once the family is comfortable and adjusted in their new house and are happy. Discovery of the main set of fantasy creatures happens once Mei is playing outside and she sees two white ears in the grass. As she follows them under the house, she discovers two small magical beings called chibi totoro and chu totoro (small and medium totoro that is). They lead Mei through a briar patch, into the hollow of a camphor tree where she meets the larger version of the similar creatures she just met. He is this large troll like creature who makes different sounds to identify himself. Mei is very easy around him since he himself is very innocent and child-like creature. She lies on his back and belly and plays with these new found friends of hers. My Neighbor Totoro takes these fantasy elements and blends them with real life in a way that never feels too much. In Miyazaki's latter efforts, specially "Spirited Away", the entire movie happens there and it takes you deeper and deeper inside that world. Here however, it goes hand to hand in a way that is very seamless and not much effort is needed for both of them to work. It is as if these spirits co-exists with the real world, never overwhelming each other. The children can only see these wood spirits but they themselves can observe everyone. They want the happiness of others the same way they expect people to be friendly and kind to them by never harming their natural habitat.

                 By that, I don't mean that this is a cautionary tale on the protection of ecosystem but it beautifully conveys that message in a subtle way. I had some issues with "Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind" which was a great experience visually but never engaged me at all in its story which was filled with themes rather than anything substantial enough to smoothly offer us both those things without making it too overbearing for us. Here, it is evident in the way the entire rural part of the country at a certain time period is shown and portrayed. Beautiful natural place, people live a peaceful life, they work and they have fun. Sorrows exists too as they are a part of life but we have to learn from them and move on. My Neighbor Totoro is not sentimental, neither is it too cheery or campy. Subtlety and smoothness is felt throughout. It makes you smile (which is for the most part, even after the movie ends), it makes you cry as well. Heartbreaking to see the affect of a tragedy that is the illness of the mother. The daughters, specially the older one who has an understanding of such things, senses that her mother might never get well. Death is as true as life. Spirits that plays with these children have also died first of course. It makes up for a learning experience for these children for the future that it is a reality so one can only hope for the good. The goodwill, as with any child of that age is shown through Mei and how she believes a certain thing can cure her mother so much as to actually want to walk all the way on her own to give it to her. That is the part which always tears me up. Innocence is power to me, you are less prone to reality which differs your perspective on things because you know they are what they are and everything else is rubbish. Children believe in things we don't, they want things we know can't happen but still, we should learn from them. You have these mix of emotions, both sad and happy towards the end when the catbus along with Totoro, takes both the sisters to give them a peek of their mother in the hospital. Reassuring their hope and believe, helping them out. I joyfully shed some tears during that moment. Still, the movie is never too sentimental but it evokes such feelings in you with its subtle and innocent foreshadowing of such realities as seen and experienced by these children.

                 My Neighbor Totoro lacks a big plot, not much really happens if you look at it. There is nothing too complicated about it. What this movie does is evoke feelings in you, it is based on feelings. This movie to me is never boring or slow, it is a fascinating look at innocence and childhood. I mean you cannot expect a movie based on such little children to have great conflicts and good vs bad tension. As I said earlier, it is about experiencing life through and as children. Visually, My Neighbor Totoro is beautiful. The warmth and spellbinding natural and spiritual feeling in those beautifully drawn images of trees and village are magnificent. Nature meets spiritual world, awe-inspiring and evocative. The characters are designed beautifully, they are given very distinct features. The human comedy can be enjoyed, the twisted world of the beyond and the realities of living in a world, everything. This is one of the greatest animated films ever made. My Neighbor Totoro has beautiful score as well, like any other Ghibli movie. There are some of the most memorable moments that happens in the movie. If you just talk about one memorable image, than for me that would be the sisters and Totoro waiting at the bus stop while it is raining. That very moment is so surreal, sensory, melancholic and beautiful that it cannot really be reduced down to mere words. A beautiful take on a family for family viewing. It inspires us to live our life fully without mere existing. It evokes sensible feelings for our family, children, spiritual world, spirituality for every age and of course, respect for nature. The whimsical inclusion of beautiful characters makes you happy and presents vision of a playful imaginative mind of children. The emotional undercurrent via 'life' and troubles that it has, keeps it as much grounded in reality as fantasy sets it fly. It is simple, it is beautiful, it is peaceful and it is something everyone should experience no matter what age. Believe me, this is one of the most ambitious works in animation history just for how well-delivered the sense of innocence it has and how Miyazaki succeeds in presenting an entire movie on that alone. An extraordinary achievement.

Grade: A