It has been 30 years since the release of My Neighbor Totoro, and it’s safe to say that no film, animated or otherwise, has ever come close to expressing the same unique sense of wonderment and joy. There simply is no better film for children. In terms of animated movies, perhaps Kiki’s Delivery Service comes close in depicting the anxieties of growing up, or the Toy Story trilogy in showing the pain of giving up childish things, yet My Neighbor Totoro succeeds due to its purity of form. This is animation at its most delightful, impish and beguiling, a film that melts the heart of anyone who watches it.
The setting is 1958 Japan, a world where the Second World War seemingly never happened. A university professor named Tatsuo Kusakabe (Shigesato Itoi) has moved to a new house in the countryside with his two daughters in order to be closer to his wife, who is recovering from an unknown illness. When one of the children sees a rabbit-like creature dashing through the grass, she chases after it, before discovering the Totoro, a giant furry animal with a huge smile and a ferocious yawn. Subsequently, the creature comforts the girl’s fears about the health of their mother, and shows them a world of seemingly infinite possibilities.
It is a simple, hand-drawn tale, where very little happens in terms of plot, but a whole world is created that can be revisited again and again.The conventional wisdom of children’s movies is that they need to be full of action so the little one watching it won’t get bored. My Neighbor Totoro undoes that wisdom. In fact, for children, My Neighbor Totoro’s relative lack of dramatic tension means that it can be revisited again and again, much like putting on a favourite record, simply to be filled with joy upon watching the Totoro.
It put Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli on the global map. Released as part of a double bill with the late Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies, it came out during a rocky period for animation worldwide. The Disney Renaissance was yet to occur, with arguably the most notable American animations of the decade belonging to the House of Mouse’s breakaway Don Bluth. While Miyazaki had already shown promise with the mesmerising Castle in the Sky and the heavy Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, My Neighbor Totoro represented a step up in confidence for the director. Together with Grave of the Fireflies, animation would never be the same again.
My Neighbor Totoro introduced elements into anime that drew on classical Japanese cinema, most notably the pillow shots of Yasujiro Ozu. A cutaway to scenery or a piece of furniture, it was used to add a sense of poetry to his stories, to slow the viewer down and contemplate what is being shown. Miyazaki continues this tradition by adding cutaway shots to clouds floating in the sky, frogs croaking, and even a plastic bottle floating along a stream. These kinds of small yet meaningful details are what make My Neighbor Totoro more than just a children’s film, but instead assert it as a work of art that stands up against any live-action movie, including the work of Ozu himself.
You have to be really confident in your own artistry to make a film as patient as this. Miyazaki understood that when you have characters as memorable as the Totoro and the CatBus, simplicity is strength. By nearly disposing of all the extraneous elements other films (and screenwriting professors) may consider essential such as plot, character development and rising conflict, My Neighbor Totoro becomes incredibly pure. While the mother’s illness is a crucial part of the girl’s coming-of-age, the movie doesn’t depend on it for its power. Instead, the movie garners its unique effect through the lovingly hand-drawn natures of the creatures themselves and the awe they inspire in the two girls.
One of the most crucial, perhaps under-looked, elements of the film is the soundtrack. The core melody, which bounces cheerily along before being almost permanently lodged in one’s head, elevates key moments in the movie (most notably, the ride on the CatBus). This is courtesy of Joe Hisaishi, the composer for all of Miyazaki’s films, whose style represents a luscious mixture of both Japanese and European romantic classical traditions. His instantly recognisable melodies, popular enough to spawn their own subgenre on YouTube, make him as essential to Miyakazi as John Williams is to Steven Spielberg. If you have seen the film before, and now have the key theme stuck in your head, you probably know what I’m talking about!
The influence of the Totoro has spread all over the world, making him a truly iconic figure. When I visited Prague last year, I simply had to go to the Momoichi Coffetearia and Bistro, a cafe that models itself on Studio Ghibli, serves steampunk coffee, and even has large Totoros for sale. Perhaps as a side effect of being constantly surrounded by the creature, the waiting staff were some of the most cheerful I had ever met. In his native Japan, he is considered the most famous of all fictional creations — as big as Paddington in the UK and Bugs Bunny in the USA. One example of his enduring popularity in Japan are the Totoro snowmen sculpted by talented Japanese children every Winter. I wouldn’t be surprised at all, if in another thirty years, My Neighbor Totoro still retained the title of the greatest children’s movie ever.