There are no villains in My Neighbor Totoro. No violence either. There are monsters of a kind, but when Mei the precocious four-year-old meets the largest and scariest looking one, King Totoro, she laughs then bounces on his belly and takes a nap. The adults are all generous and good. The father is neither a bumbling fool, nor hateful and sarcastic like so many fathers in feature films these days, but rather thoughtful and kind. When his children tell him they saw strange little black things crawling around his house or a giant owl-like magical creature in the forest, he doesn’t belittle them or roll his eyes but indicates he believes them and takes part in their adventures.
My Neighbor Totoro is a film brimming with kindness. It's filled with the magic of childhood and the stuff of life. It's true there isn’t a whole lot of plot. There isn’t any real conflict and not a lot happens. Director Hayao Miyazaki allows the film to take a leisurely pace. He’s not afraid to stop for a moment and simply observe life, to ponder a quiet moment out in nature. That is not to say it is boring, not at all. There are moments of humor and great wonder.It is filled with magical creatures like soot sprites that look like dark dust bunnies and leave the house they’ve been haunting when they discover the new occupants are good people. There’s Totoro and two smaller ones that follow him around, plus a catbus with eight legs that smiles like a Cheshire and takes you wherever you want to go.
The story begins with Mei and her older sister Satsuki moving to a country house with their father so that they can be closer to their mother who is sick in hospital. Her illness isn’t a plot point but rather another fact of life. Her diagnosis isn’t great but everyone upholds positive spirits and she speaks sweetly of her life and family. The father often works from home but when he heads off to Tokyo to teach, the children are looked after by a kindly old neighbor woman. The children wander about the forest and meet the magical creatures. There are adventures and a bit of drama but mostly, it's just the life of children filled with joy and excitement.
The film gets children perfectly. It understands how they think and behave. It gets their actions just right. I watched Satsuki sprint from one location to another and chuckled as I thought of my own daughter doing exactly the same. Part of the magic of the film is how utterly different it is from American animated films aimed at children. They are loud where this is quiet. They are filled with meanness and action where Totoro is kind and gentle. This is funny with a hint of sadness but busting out with joy. It is a magical film.
I was lucky enough to see it on the big screen through a limited run presented by Fathom Events and GKIDS as part of the Studio Ghibli Fest 2017. There is one more showing of My Neighbor Totoro (in Japanese with English subtitles) showing Monday, June 26. Fathom will be showing other Studio Ghibli films all summer long details of which you can find on their website.
Included in my showing were two short animated films. The first, The Pocket Man, is a French film about a little man who lives in an old suitcase on the street. Tired of having an old man knock his suitcase over every day, he hatches a plan to catch him only to find a true friend in the end. The second short film was Snack Attack about an old lady who is angered by what she thinks is a bratty younger man stealing her cookies but who finds that things are not always what they seem. Both films were wonderful made and a lot of fun to watch.
It is an absolute joy to get to watch Studio Ghibli films on the big screen. I can’t wait to see them all as the summer rolls along.