Today I watched My Neighbor Totoro, directed by Hayao Miyazaki in 1988. After I saw the whole movie, I was upset that I never saw it as a kid. I hoped that it had been directed when I was "older". Nope. The year I was born, of course. This is the kind of movie I would have loved when I was little. It is also still an incredible movie, and by far, more than any other film that tends to make people nostalgic for childhood, made me nostalgic. I loved the beautiful animation in this film, the plot, the characters, and the whole tone of it. I feel like every (American) animated film I've seen, I write about how scary it is and awful for children. Not this. This is a children's movie I would actually show to kids...and to all adults that I know.
I feel like I always talk about how scared I was (as a kid) by all movies geared towards children. I didn't like E.T. because I thought it was too scary (even now, haha!). I didn't like pretty much any Disney movie, because there was always a traumatic death or loss, and it was too much for me when I was a kid. In my post on Pinocchio, I wrote about how my mom still seems to be upset by the movie Bambi, and never let me see it growing up as a result. I just was so affected by how sad or frightening movies were to watch that I never feel nostalgic for them - I just remember how scared I was during them.
However, Totoro is so different. It's about Satsuki and Mei, two young sisters, and their father, as they move to the country to be closer to their mother. Their mother is ill and in the hospital, but she is recovering and hopes to be home with them soon. Their new house is old and sort of creepy, and a young boy runs by and tells them that it's haunted. They meet some soot sprites, but those aren't mean and scatter in light or when they hear laughing. Mei is only four, and she plays outside while Satsuki is at school. One day, she notices some odd creatures in the grass, and she runs after them. Suddenly, she falls down part of a tree and lands near a snoring, fat, totoro (he's cute, as you can see in the poster). He seems soft and cuddly, and when he roars at her, she roars back, unafraid. They nap together. When Mei tells her father and sister that she saw a totoro, and they all believe her, which I didn't expect! The totoro is a friend and guardian to them, helping them during any times of trouble in their lives.
There are so many things that this movie gets right. I loved the relationship between Satsuki and Mei. Mei usually does and says exactly what her sister does and says, which is often how siblings are. It made me think of myself and my younger cousin, although we only had a two year age difference. As an only child, I was always shocked and annoyed when she would "copy" me, but now, I was delighted to remember those days. I really loved that the movie included something so realistic. I also really liked the relationship that the father had to his daughters. As I said, I was surprised when he believed them, because it seems so rare that adults react in that way to their children. He both trusted them and encouraged their imagination at the same time.
I also really enjoyed the fact that the movie was not an action-packed or scary film. There were not villains or monsters. There were tense moments, and there were realistic parts that made me nervous. I liked that there was always something to help them through these moments, though. Satsuki, during the film, is learning what an adult concept of death is. She worries about her mother, and worries that the adults in her life aren't telling her the truth. But she has people there to support her as she goes through this, and if the adults around her cannot help, she has totoro.
More than anything, the film reminded me of how I felt when I was a child. Mei really made me nostalgic. I remember being a really curious and nature-loving child. I would go for walks and spend more time picking up stones, sticks, and acorns, than actually putting one foot in front of the other. Mei seems fascinated by the huge, beautiful, natural world around her, and I remember feeling that way. Where simple things are magical, and everything feels so big and you have the opportunity to explore it. I guess I was lucky in the fact that my childhood was not full of Disney-caliber fears or scary moments (that I can remember). At the very least, I liked to watch things that made me feel better about life. I liked that this shows kids that they aren't alone when they go through struggles. Maybe that isn't always realistic, but I thought it was a good message. Instead of "you'll be scared on on your own in foreign territory", there was an message of "you might be scared, but in the people around you or inside yourself, you can find strength." At least that's what I took away from the more tense parts of the film.
I don't know what else I can say without starting to repeat myself. Ebert brings up how so many American films have a kids-versus-adults vibe that is wonderfully absent here. It seems like the best family film ever, really. I love how realistic and beautiful the relationships between the characters are portrayed. I really was in awe of the animation - it is all hand drawn and looks incredible. I loved the story, how it was not scary but optimistic and charming. I liked the message of the film, and how nostalgic it made me. I hope that you'll give this movie the chance that I gave it. Also, there is a cat bus. I always had a hard time seeing animated films as "legit", and couldn't see how they could be realistic, but I've really changed my mind since then. Let me know if you check this movie out!
Ebert's Great Movie Essay on My Neighbor Totoro
Buy it on Amazon