If Spirited Away was Hayao Miyazaki’s Alice in Wonderland, then My Neighbour Totoro was his answer to Winnie the Pooh: a simple, beautiful, moving testament to imagination, family and childhood in a magical rural landscape.
Satsuki (Dakota Fanning) and Mei Kusakabe (Elle Fanning) move with their father, Tatsuo, to the countryside, so they can be nearer to the hospital where their mother, Yasuko, is fighting a serious illness. While playing one day, Mei winds deep into the nearby forest where she comes across a colossal, cuddly creature whom she names Totoro, based on the strange roars it makes. So the movie unfolds at it’s quiet, peaceful pace, showing the new life the girls lead and the adventures they have with Totoro and the other woodland creatures.
Apart from the beautifully lush hand-drawn backgrounds and the lively animation, the first thing that struck me about this film was how refreshingly different the relationships between the characters were, particularly the inter-generational relationships. For one thing, while many American family films contain only one living parent, in My Neighbour Totoro, both parents are alive and kicking; and although the mother is in hospital, Mei constantly yearns to be with her, and Satsuki writes to her about all the adventures herself and Mei have been getting up to with their magical friends. The presence of Yasuko Kusakabe is warmly felt when on screen, and sorely missed when off, not just by the characters, but by the audience.
The same goes for the Mr Kusakabe. I’ll draw a comparison between Mr Kusakabe in Totoro and King Triton in The Little Mermaid as the stock American film father. King Triton is an ignorant, narrow-minded brute who holds unfounded fears of the outside world and, out of “love” for his daughter, essentially imprisons and abuses her. Triton is an extreme version of the dominating father, but you can see less extreme cases of this character in everything from Finding Nemo to Frozen.
However, the girls and Mr Kusakabe spend as much time as possible together (featuring a scene that will likely make some viewers uncomfortable but is in fact completely innocent), an entire segment of the film is dedicated to the girls being worried about him being late home from work (he’s a professor, by the way), and he has no problem with Mei, his youngest daughter, playing by herself! I think the general difference is that while American cinema worships youth and considers parents to be ignorant jailers who don’t understand their kids, Japan promotes a culture of respect for one’s elders, and I found it truly beautiful to see such tender relationships being portrayed on screen.
Not only did Miyazaki create strong parent-child bonds, but in the characters of Satsuki and Mei, Miyazaki has succeeded in making characters who are credible and likable as children without any artificial precociousness. Mei has all the playful, adventurous spirit one could ask for her in a leading character, but she is still not old enough to fully comprehend that she can’t always get what she wants, particularly when it comes to seeing her mother. And Satsuki makes for a mature guide and friend to her younger sister, but neither is she mature enough to accept that Mei doesn’t see things in their fullest sense, and that her sister may need more attention than she knows how to give. These flaws in the girls’ character not only make them more credible as children, but also helps us as an audience to empathise with them all the more, and gives way to several heartbreaking scenes on an emotional level I haven’t seen in a family film since E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.
But what, you may ask, is the film actually about? There’s little promise of drama as none of the characters seem to have any goals (drama does arise, but in different ways than we might expect). Doubtless many people will finish Totoro, or indeed most Miyazaki films, completely bored, and it’s hard to blame them. Miyazaki’s films tend to be quite episodic, this one especially so, and they take their time on seemingly inconsequential scenes.
However, in order to appreciate this film, we need to widen our notions of what a film is about. American cinema, much like the culture that sired it, is a goal-driven one, and we’ve gotten used to the idea that a film must be about a character following a goal along a cause-effect path of logic. There’s nothing wrong with this, but there are other things that a film can be about, and how it can be about it. Miyazaki is a director of utmost importance in this regard, as his films, with their universal appeal, have helped popularise Oriental styles beyond the niche market of anime consumers and into the mainstream.
At it’s core, My Neighbour Totoro is about childhood, growing up, and life. Miyazaki shows us the beauty of parent-child relationships, the clumsy steps of first love, and through Totoro and his friends, the magic and adventure possible, as Willy Wonka once said, in a world of pure imagination. If you allow it, My Neighbour Totoro will have you laughing out loud, weeping for sorrow and hugging yourself for joy as you realise that your inner child never truly went away.
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