My Neighbor Totoro

MyNaborMy Neighbor Totoro is not your average kids film. Slow, observant, and just a bit funny, it lacks villains or conflict. Children are not in danger, and they don’t lie to parents. Very little happens, and it may be the best children’s movie ever.

Our heroines, Mei and Satsuki (whose name is May in English), are going to their new home in the country. Dad works at the university, and Mom is recovering in a hospice from some illness. As they move in and explore the new surroundings, they discover that the house is haunted.

Dad is happy. He’s always wanted to live in a haunted house. This familial interaction is one of the great things in the movie. Dad’s not too busy for the girls, and he doesn’t condescend to them. He loves them, and he’s glad they’re coping with the new situation.

The film creates a very real, very warm sense of family. Setsuki, the older sister, is quite serious in a girlish kind of way, even though (or because) she’s a kid. She’s stern with Mei, because she wants to make sure her sister is a good girl. Mei is young, cute, and carefree. When she sees a rabbit-like thing vanish in front of her, she’s not scared. She follows it home.

Here she meets Totoro (Mei’s way of saying “troll,” which, transliterated from English to Japanese, is something like “totoro”). Totoro is a cross between a raccoon and a bear — huge, fuzzy, and with great herbivore teeth. In some ways, he’s a Shinto-ist Arslan, with certain virtues of the mild animism of Japan’s native religion. Totoro is a living Kami, avatar of the big tree he lives in and a general good fellow. He could be ferocious, but he likes to sleep and play his ocarina instead. He gives little presents, too.

One present leads to the most awe-inspiring sequence in this most awe-inspiring film. When Satsuki finally gets to see Totoro, she lends her dad’s umbrella to keep out of the rain. In return, he gives her a tiny package of seeds. They plant it, and Mei waits impatiently for the trees to grow. One night, after they’re squared away beneath some mosquito netting1, the girls wake to find Totoro and two little totoros dancing around the field of nascent trees, leaping and floating. As the girls join in, trees burst through the soil, stretch up, and grow into one giant tree. Then Totoro takes the girls flying through the countryside. “We’re the wind,” Satsuki says, and that’s how it feels to watch this wonderful sequence.

When the girls wake up, they find their trees haven’t grown into the cyclopean tower they pulled out of the ground. However, the trees sprouted. Our girls dance, once again, laughing joyously. It’s in these moments that the pure exuberance of the film — towards family, nature, and life — is one of those great rewarding cinematic creations.

1The scene with the netting is one of those masterful little details that give Miyazaki’s films so much life and vibrancy. The girls are on top of the netting. When their father pulls it taut, they get flipped. It’s a small scene, it leads to nothing, and it exists for no other reason than it is joyful.

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