My Neighbor Totoro (1988), the fourth feature film by Hayao Miyazaki, drops the rote fantasy structure of the director’s previous two movies while foregrounding his distinctive brand of gentle surrealism. Interestingly, the film’s plot doesn’t revolve around conflict, and there are no attempts to turn any of the characters into heroes or villains. Though Miyazaki’s first feature length work was the excellent, action-packed Castle of Cagliostro (1979), it seemed that he had mostly lost interest in the adventure genre by the time he made Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984) and Castle in the Sky (1986), where the adventure movie plots seemed to exist mostly because the director needed some sort of recognizable frame to support his gorgeous animation. Totoro eschews the conventional plotting of Miyazaki’s early work in favor of an immersive, relaxed pacing that evokes the wonder and confusion of childhood in a way that very few family films even attempt.
Totoro’s plot is very simple. A father and his two daughters move into a new countryside home in order to be closer to the hospital where the girls’ mother is recovering from an (unspecified) illness. While playing outside one day, the younger girl, Mei, wanders into the forest and winds up on top of a large, bear-like creature. When Mei asks the creature what its name is, it lets out a series of roars that she interprets as “Totoro.” Eventually Totoro makes himself known to Mei’s older sister, Satsuki, and he winds up helping the girls through some potentially scary moments in their lives.
And that’s about it. There are none of the expected scenes of adults telling the girls to stop making up stories, and no scenes where angry townspeople misunderstand Totoro and try to harm him. There are no moments that seem designed to amp up the melodrama or manipulate the viewer into having a heightened emotional response. Though Totoro is aimed more directly at children than any of Miyazaki’s previous work, it seems to trust the intelligence of the audience more than those earlier films did. Aside from an annoyingly saccharine ballad that plays over the opening and closing credits, there is nothing in Totoro that feels like a generic example of filmmaking for kids.
By keeping overt plot mostly out of the way, Miyazaki ensures that there is plenty of room for his finely honed sense of charm to dominate the proceedings. Satsuki and Mei are spirited and likeable in the way that real-life children often are, and their sisterly bond seems genuine precisely because it is so understated and well-observed. Totoro’s appearances are fairly sparse, but Miyazaki makes them count; his most memorable scene occurs at a bus stop during a rainstorm, where he is delighted to share the girls’ umbrella. The furry creature’s friends, such as a many-legged half-cat/half-bus, are imaginatively conceived and impressively realized. But the oddball, fantastical touches share equal screentime with enjoyably quirky characters like the neighbor boy who is so shy around girls that he becomes speechless when he is in their company.
Perhaps My Neighbor Totoro is a bit too slight to be considered a truly great film. At times the film’s aimless plotting and lighthearted tone make it feel almost too gentle to be really special. Miyazaki could perhaps be accused of soft-pedaling the mother’s illness; nothing has been done in the animation of the character to even make her look sick, and it basically just turns out in the end that she isn’t doing so badly. Then again, the point of Totoro is not to show a family in a dramatic, life-and-death situation, but to show how an imaginary friend/teddy bear/Totoro can help kids deal with everyday stresses. Miyazaki’s fourth film may be a relatively minor work in the grand scheme of things, but by turning away from traditional good-and-evil action and focusing on small charming details, the great animator has made a major breakthrough in his own aesthetic and has finally fully honored his unique voice.
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