As I grow older, I find that my memories of my childhood take on a largely rosier tint. I guess it’s not all that surprising, really; aging tends to send some of us on a journey backwards, in vain attempts to perhaps recapture some of that elusive combination of innocence, wonder, and hope that we label the “magic of childhood.” After all, that period of time in any person’s life is a severely limited one: it is but a mere moment, precious and fleeting, gone far too soon.
You know, not to get all florid and poetical about it or anything.
But seeing as how we’re on the subject, films like Hayao Miyazaki’s beautiful anime masterpiece My Neighbor Totoro inevitably send me reeling back into the past, remembering some of those purely magical moments from my own childhood. And therein lies the power of this fascinating film, one that is both fantastical and entirely too real.
Simply put: I love this movie, I love this movie, I love this movie.
The movie has no plot, really, to speak of–it’s simply a snapshot of a young Japanese family at a trying time in their lives, as the mother recovers from an undisclosed illness in the hospital. The father, a professor at the university, spends much of his time buried in books, but still takes the time to ensure that his daughters have settled comfortably into their new home, and allays their fears of ghosts in their seemingly “haunted house.” When four-year-old Mei wanders into the nearby forest one day and encounters a mystical animal called “Totoro,” she and her older sister, Satsuki, befriend the creature and discover just how magical their big, cuddly new pal really is.
Miyazaki’s original story pairs splendidly with the work of art director Kazuo Oga, as the movie is a true joy to behold. My Neighbor Totoro is a visually lively film, with dynamic character designs amidst storybook-like settings that are nonetheless grounded firmly in reality (seriously, the animation in Totoro is almost unreal in its sheer beauty). And while the movie is undoubtedly influenced in some small part by Alice in Wonderland–note particularly Mei’s pursuit of a white rabbit-esque creature, as well as her tumble down a rabbit hole (and tell me that Catbus doesn’t look like a Disney-fied Cheshire Cat)–those recognizable literary shades are mere winks at the audience.
This is a wholly original tale, drawing from Japanese mythology (and some created whole-cloth by Miyazaki) to tell a story that feels at once familiar and brand-new. It has the sometimes gauzy edges of a memory, marked by delightful surprises and–interestingly for such an exceedingly gentle film–a very distinct energy that practically pours from the screen. Everything about this movie is alive, and vibrantly so.
Though Totoro has few truly dramatic moments (Mei’s climactic temporary disappearance notwithstanding), they really aren’t missed. The story meanders along, but with intriguing characters and bits of quirky humor, the film progresses rather quickly.
What’s most fascinating about My Neighbor Totoro is how it portrays the two young girls, who are allowed to just be girls. They are not one-dimensional “plot moppets”: they are giggly and irreverent, quick to temper and even quicker to forgive, prone to worry about the unknown as much as they revel in the relatively careless freedom of youth. In other words, just as delightful and complicated as children truly are.
Totoro depicts that storied “magic of childhood” in both figurative and literal ways. The girls encounter spirits which, according to Nanny, can only been seen through the innocent eyes of a child, and when they tell adults what they have seen, they are not ridiculed or chided, but believed. There’s no cynical twist to the story, no doubt that the girls’ experiences with Totoro are as real as the things that happen in their everyday lives. It’s ALL real, without question. And that’s part of what makes Totoro so very special, because it allows us to embrace that belief wholeheartedly and share a small bit of that magic.
WIthout question, this movie is a breathtaking work of art, one for which I do not have enough superlatives, and one of the masterworks of Miyazaki’s impressive career. For its gorgeous visuals and its pure, pure heart, you really cannot beat My Neighbor Totoro.
Try to watch it without feeling a twinge of nostalgia. It’s nigh on impossible.