My Neighbor Totoro is pure magic. Though director Hayao Miyazaki’s trilogy of previous films were all terrific, it was with this 1988 feature that Hayao Miyazaki became the legend in animation that he is. My Neighbor Totoro is a film that’s as wonderful as it is unique, and an absolute joy for all ages.
While Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and Castle in the Sky were all epic adventures, Hayao Miyazaki decided to make something more subtle for his fourth feature.
My Neighbor Totoro – originally conceived as a children’s book by Miyazaki over a decade before it became a reality on the silver screen – is not a film featuring action, suspense, or daring adventurers. Instead it’s a film all about the little moments in life, every day occurrences made magical. My Neighbor Totoro is all about childhood wonderment and imagination, and yet is also deeply grounded in real emotion. It’s a film that’s as beautiful as it is adorable.
My Neighbor Totoro tells the story of 10-year old Satsuki Kusakabe and her little sister Mei, two girls who are moving to the Japanese countryside with their father. Their move is meant to bring them closer to their sickly mother, who is in a hospital near the new home. Unbeknownst to the family, their new home is haunted.
Not haunted in any traditional sense of the word. There are no scary apparitions at work here. The house, it turns out, is invaded by Soot Sprites. These small, fuzzy creatures – who would later appear in Miyazaki’s own Spirited Away – simply produce dust in the old house. But an even bigger supernatural presence happens to live next door. Inside of a gigantic camphor tree that stands behind the girls’ new home live the Totoros.
These Totoros are gentle forest spirits who can easily be seen by children, but are more elusive to adults. The camphor tree is home to three such Totoros: a tiny, white one who can disappear. A slightly larger blue one who carries a magic bag full of acorns. And finally, the gigantic gray Totoro – the “King of the Forest” – who can make trees grow, produce gusts of wind by flying on a magic top, and rides around in a Catbus.
Little Mei is the first to meet the magical Totoros, and her sister Satsuki is soon to follow. Together, the two sisters have several amazing encounters with the Totoros as they get accustomed to their new home and deal with their mother’s illness.
There really isn’t a more detailed plot than that, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. My Neighbor Totoro is not a film about a plot (it’s only real conflict doesn’t arrive until its third act). Instead, its story is all about its wonderfully realized characters and their daily occurrences: some mundane, some magical. Some happy, some sad.
Satsuki and Mei are quite likely the most realistically depicted characters in animation. Their personalities, mannerisms and interactions with each other and everyone around them capture an amazing sense of realism. They may be animated, but they’re depicted in such a way that makes them as believable and lifelike as any characters in cinema. Because of their believability, we are able to get all the more emotionally invested in the film. It’s easy to smile in the moments when the girls are playing, and it’s downright heartbreaking to see them argue or worry about their mother.
Their father is similarly memorable. Though he doesn’t partake in the girls’ magical adventures (he’s a busy university professor, and adults aren’t aware of when Totoro is around) he is loving towards his daughters, and completely respectful of the tales they tell him. While any other movie might have adults openly doubt their children, or simply humor them, Professor Kusakabe firmly accepts and believes his daughters when they tell him about their adventures with Totoro or the Catbus. He may or may not fully understand what his girls are telling him about magical forest creatures, but he never once doubts them. The same goes for the girls’ mother, who is delighted to hear that the family’s new home also occupies spirits. While many animated features often feature a conflicting dynamic between parents and children, My Neighbor Totoro’s depiction of family comes across as refreshingly loving.
The girls also encounter Kanta, a neighborhood boy who develops a crush on Satsuki, and his kindly grandmother, who watches over the girls while their dad is at work. These characters also have a strong sense of believability about them, and help add to the film’s realness.
Then we have the Totoros themselves, arguably Miyazaki’s greatest creations. They’re as mystifying as they are adorable. They are capable of utterly wondrous feats, yet are as simple and cuddly as a household pet. They are certainly cute enough to justify their standing as Studio Ghibli’s mascots, yet there’s also a reverent, spiritual quality about them, making for a completely unique combination.
In terms of animation, My Neighbor Totoro remains a captivatingly beautiful film. Though it may not have the same sleekness of Miyazaki’s later features, the backgrounds are as stunning as they’ve ever been, the character designs as unique as any of the great director’s features (and certainly the most adorable), and the film (once again) captures a striking realism with each of the character’s mannerisms.
As beautiful as the visuals are, the soundtrack seemingly pulls off the impossible and equals them. As is the case with every Miyazaki feature starting with Nausicaa, My Neighbor Totoro was composed by Joe Hisaishi, and it is possibly his finest work. Appropriately, the soundtrack to Totoro is equal parts heartwarming and heartbreaking. The film as a whole brilliantly captures the happy and the melancholic, and the soundtrack brings out these emotions all the more.
My Neighbor Totoro is one of the few Miyazaki films to have been dubbed into English on two separate occasions. The first dub (released on home video in 1993 and no longer in print) was distributed by Fox, and is easily the best of the early dubs of Japanese animation. The second dub, distributed by the Miyazaki-mainstays at Disney, is more readily available, and features a more star-heavy cast (with sisters Dakota and Elle Fanning providing the voices of Satsuki and Mei). Perhaps because I grew up watching the original dub, that tends to be my go-to English version, though in many ways Disney’s effort is just as great. Either way, you can’t go wrong.
When it was first released in Japan, My Neighbor Totoro was a revelation, winning numerous awards – many of which were normally reserved for live-action features – and becoming one of the most cherished family films of all time. Though it never saw a wide theatrical release in the western world, its impact has been no different, becoming a beloved classic as much in the United States as it is in its native Japan. It’s acclaim couldn’t be more deserved.
My Neighbor Totoro is a film entirely void of wickedness. There are no villains, and not even the tiniest shred of cynicism. But despite its consistent happiness, My Neighbor Totoro is anything but naive, as it never shies away from the existence of sadness and tragedy. It captures the feelings of childhood better than any film I’ve ever seen, and is relatable to both children and adults.
My Neighbor Totoro is one of the greatest animated films of all time. It finds magic in the mundane, adventure in the average, and depth in the simplistic. And it does so with a sincerity and grace that seems unapproachable to other filmmakers. My Neighbor Totoro is the most gentle, sensitive and sweet film I’ve ever seen.