(Japan 1988 86 min)
Director / Writer Hayao Miyazaki; Voice Acting Noriko Hidaka (Satsuki) Chika Sakamoto (Mei); Art Direction Kazuo Oga
by Stephen Russell-Gebbett
Satsuki (ten years old) and her younger sister Mei (four) are moving to the countryside with their father. There they can be nearer to their mother who is being cared for in a hospital nearby. During the day he goes to work, Satsuki goes to school and Mei stays with her Grandma.
Surrounded by paddy fields and dense woods their new home is a young girl’s idyll. They frolic and play act, revelling in the freedom of the land. It’s a joy to watch their hyperactive and elusive skittishness. Nothing can contain their innocent excitement, symbolised beautifully by the tadpoles Mei fails to catch in her hands. Quickly the sisters discover the hidden, enchanting wonders of the natural world – first soot sprites and then the giant cuddly Totoro, a wood spirit, and finally the mischievous-looking, eager-to-please Catbus – a cat that’s a bus.
Miyazaki understands these girls in this difficult period when their mother is ailing. The wonderful and infectious fantasy elements of the story are not a mawkish narrative contrivance but a soft light to shine on their thoughts and feelings, so meticulously and truthfully played out. They are an extension of the innocent and imaginative play of children. What is important is that these magical creatures don’t help the girls to forget their troubles but help them to cope with and confront them. Totoro and the Catbus reunite the family when Mei runs away to the hospital and take the girls to visit their mother. They help them to be the good daughters they want to be, providing them with a chance to explore rather than escape.
It is very easy, especially when leading up to a revelation of the best of the best, to write about the number one in terms of what it has that the others don’t and the flaws they had that it doesn’t. Yet what other film gives us scenes as transporting as the arrival of Totoro and then the Catbus in the nighttime rain or the sweet and honest pleasures of two young girls doing cartwheels simply because their new home is falling apart :
What other film is so limpid, so sincere and realistic in its portrayal of young love (the boy, Kanta, rendered mute and brusque by the pretty Satsuki) and loneliness (Mei feels home isn’t home without her mother). In what other storyteller’s hands would a parent trust his children so implicitly, not ridiculing their fantasies but understanding and enriching them: “You probably met the king of the forest. You’re very lucky”? Is there any other film that holds the fragile world of childhood so lightly in its palms, all that curiosity and awkwardness, fear and sparkling happiness?
No cynicism, no condescension, no patronising of an undigested grief that no amount of fun could hide.
What stays with you the longest though is those moments of pure, incredible make-believe: when the lights of a bus in the dark begin to hop and leap through the puddles or when the girls and their magical companions, in the dead of a moonlit night, urge Totoro’s seedlings to grow and flourish out of the ground. I love the feeling of a wet afternoon under an umbrella. I love the beaming smile of the boy as he flies his toy plane, remembering the girl he likes. I love that the Catbus can choose whatever destination he likes – not only ‘Hospital’ but ‘Mei’! I love the sense of relief when a shoe in a lake, believed to be Mei’s, turns out not to be.
Going out into the streets, into the wide world, having watched My Neighbour Totoro you understand what it means to have a song in your heart and a spring in your step. It is a burst of light, a fit of giggles and the greatest animated film I have ever seen.
Animation Countdown – The Final 50
1 My Neighbour Totoro
2 The Simpsons
4 Paranoia Agent
5 Whisper of the Heart
6 Spirited Away
7 Yokohama Shopping Log
8 The Hand
9 The Mascot
10 Patlabor 2 The Movie
12 Feeling from Mountain and Water
13 The Plague Dogs
14 Hedgehog in the Fog
15 Perfect Blue
16 The Adventures of Mark Twain
17 Le Nez
18 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
19 Early Abstractions
20 The Snow Queen
21 Porco Rosso
23 The Battle of Kerzhenets
24 Pleasures of War
25 Allegro Non Troppo
26 Story of a Street Corner
27 La Joie de Vivre
28 Only Yesterday
29 Firing Range
30 Space Ghost Coast to Coast
31 The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia
32 Batman Mask of the Phantasm
33 Sinking of the Lusitania
34 The Many Adventures of Winnie The Pooh
36 Serial Experiments Lain
38 Le Roi et L’Oiseau
39 Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind
40 Stoppit and Tidyup
41 The Metamorphosis of Mr Samsa
42 Street of Crocodiles
43 Swinging the Lambeth Walk
44 House of Flame
45 The Old Lady and the Pigeons
47 Sky Blue
48 Sleeping Beauty
49 A Picture
50 Yellow Submarine
and the ‘Nearlies’ : https://wondersinthedark.wordpress.com/2010/11/03/the-animation-nearlies-100-51/
The Top 50 – Entrants by Country
5 United Kingdom
1 China, Estonia, Germany, Italy, New Zealand, South Korea
Many thanks to Sam and Allan for giving me the opportunity to conduct this countdown on their site. I have thoroughly enjoyed it. Thanks to anyone who made suggestions or recommendations before and during the countdown and to those who left comments. I hope I could introduce people to some things that are new and worthwhile. Thanks too to Mr Y. Tube without whom none of this would have been possible – whether tracking down rare short films or posting them here.
Images from the Nearlies
What’s your favourite animated film?