When I was very young, like six or seven years old, I had the worst night terrors. I thought there were monsters in my room, in the closet, in the hall, you name it. And I was sure, too, as sure as I am of the Empire State Building or the Brooklyn Bridge today. I grew out of it, of course, but I’ve never forgotten how certain I was that the things I was imagining were real. I’ve never seen a movie that could effectively capture that way that kids can be so sure of the weird things their imaginations kick up. Never, that is, until I say Hayao Miyazaki’s 1988 film My Neighbor Totoro.
The plot of this film is so slight that there’s no point in even summarizing it. You’ll know everything about Sasaki and her little sister Mei (voiced in the English dub by sisters Dakota and Elle Fanning) that you need to know in the first ten minutes or so, and their episodic jaunts into the forest with the magical beast Totoro don’t really follow any rising action or conflict. This is a film aimed at very young children, and even a toddler should be able to understand most of it.
That bears repeating: this film is aimed at very young children. It’s not “aimed at children” in the same way as a Hollywood effort such as the execrable live-action Cat in the Hat, which moves at the pace of a sugar-crazed five-year-old but peppers the adults in the audience with jokes about erections and pop culture riffs. Miyazaki’s film is actually aimed at children in every way, and it hopes to bring the adults along via nostalgia for the sense of childlike wonder that it inspires.
That sense of wonder comes from an ineffable quality that, if it were in a Toni Morrison novel, might be called “magical realism.” Totoro and the creatures that accompany him are fantasies, but it’s never completely clear if the children actually interact with them in the real world. They seem completely real to the kids all the time, which is as it should be. From an adult point of view it could always be a dream or a daydream, just like my monsters were, or it could be that this is one of those movies with real magic and monsters in them. Either way, Totoro and friends have the bonus of being decidedly non-scary.
The animation is merely good. It never looks bad, but the film doesn’t need to be as sophisticated as something like Akira, which was released the same year. When The Last Unicorn (an American film, but animated by a Japanese company) came out it was still possible for a Japanimated film to look really bad, but by 1988 anime had far surpassed Disney or any other American studio, and would continue to do so for a few more years.
I especially liked how Miyazaki trusted his background paintings; in many scenes he’ll actually pan away from some animation in the frame, and instead linger on a beautiful background painting of the Japanese countryside. It’s the sort of shot that you would see in a live-action film, and cinematic touches like that are great for anime because they can really draw the audience into the movie’s world. In today’s animated films, it seems that only Pixar has an equal understanding of how your animated movies can benefit from sharing the camera tricks of a live-action movie.
It’s certainly possible that the plot-light, childlike feeling of this film could turn someone off. Maybe if I’m in the sort of mood where I want to put on Taxi Driver, and you were to somehow switch the Scorsese disc with My Neighbor Totoro, I’d be a bit annoyed. However, if you try to deal in hypotheticals against a master like Miyazaki, you’ll lose. This movie demonstrates such control over unquantifiable things like imagination and nostalgia that most real human beings will find it impossible to resist.
Reviewed by Mark Young