(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.