Director’s Series: Hayao Miyazaki: My Neighbor Totoro

Spoiler Warning: As usual, I’ll be discussing key events and themes from the film, although there is less to spoil in this case than in others. If you haven’t seen the film, I would not recommend reading this review.

If animation is something of a religion to me, Hayao Miyazaki is one of its own true gods. As far as I’m concerned, he is the undisputed master of Japanese animation (or “anime”). I cannot think of a single bad or even mediocre film in his filmography, although I have yet to see his most current and apparently final film, The Wind Rises. The news that he would retire (for real this time, as he’s threatened it before) saddened me deeply. But for this director’s series (which you will notice is not in chronological order, because…well, it’s my blog), joy will be the primary emotion felt, especially with this entry, My Neighbor Totoro. Which is one of the happiest damn films I’ve ever seen.

Set in late 1950s Japan, it tells the story of two young girls, Satsuki and Mei Kusakabe (voiced in the 2005 Disney dub by real-life sisters Dakota and Elle Fanning). They have moved with their father (Tim Daly) to the countryside to be closer to their mother, who is in the hospital with an unspecified illness. They pass the days by cleaning up their house, going to school and encountering strange creatures known as Totoros. And…that’s pretty much it. One of the charms of the film, actually, is that aside from some brief drama late in the film when Mei goes missing, is that it has such a relaxed, languid pace. There are no villains to be conquered, no artificially pumped-up conflicts (the girls lash out at each other over Mom’s illness, which leads to Mei going missing, but it’s treated realistically), and the creatures are friendly, wise and just plain fun to be around. The giant Totoro and the Catbus in particular are instantly memorable characters.

It is tempting to call the film episodic since it relies more on incidents and individual scenes than a typical three-act structure, although I’m sure you could find some form of that if you dug deep enough. But I think it’s more about mood and character than story. Satsuki and Mei are two of the most realistic little girls I’ve ever encountered in cinema. I particularly enjoy how Satsuki almost wants to grow up too fast, and is more aware of the potential trouble of her mother’s illness, while Mei is younger and still cheerfully unaware of life’s complications. Their father is also wonderful, and while it’s tough to tell if he REALLY believes the girls’ reports of fantastical creatures, he loves them enough to trust and encourage their imaginations.

And Totoro….god, what can I say about this big guy? He’s almost more childish than the girls despite being so huge. There’s an absolutely magical scene where he stands at a bus stop that the girls are waiting for their father at. It is raining. Satsuki notices that Totoro only has a leaf to protect him from getting wet, so she hands him an extra umbrella. He doesn’t know what it is (there’s a delightful bit of animation where he turns it around in his paws, practically going “Huh?”). So she demonstrates, which he copies. A stray drop of water from a tree hits his umbrella. Then another. And a few more. He grins, then jumps and SLAMS into the ground to create a downpour from the trees. Totoro ROARS with joy at this delightful new game. There’s a similarly enchanting scene when Mei first meets Totoro, snuggling on his belly and imitating his roars.

It seems like I’m gushing, but that’s the spell this movie puts me under. I have a big-ass grin on my face for pretty much the entire running time. The immaculate craft of the movie, be it the perfectly paced animation and direction or Joe Hisaishi’s delightful score, is in the service of some of the most enchanting creatures I’ve ever seen. The film has been dubbed twice, but I prefer the 2005 Disney re-dub. The Fannings, especially Elle, are perfectly natural, sweet and funny as the sisters, and the effortlessly noble Daly (he WAS Superman, guys) is great as the dad. Pat Carroll (Ursula from Disney’s Little Mermaid) does some nice work as an elderly neighbor who takes the family under her wing. And Frank Welker, that voice acting deity of both human voices and animal noises, puts in some great roars and growls for Totoro and the Catbus.

This is the kind of movie you can curl up next to with a nice cup of hot cocoa and a big fluffy pillow. If I ever have kids, this will be one of the first films I show them. I can only hope they love it as much as I do.

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