My Neighbor Totoro ★★★★½

What I admire most about this film are the qualities that separate it from everything wrong with the “Disney” (and to some degree “western”) style of storytelling and character that has become the mainstay archetype for animated features for decades. There’s a lot that they get right as well, surely, but the over-indulence in sprawling imaginative set-pieces, for lack of compelling characters that are relatable, has become a challenge that even the geniuses at Pixar constantly struggle with.

When we open our imaginations and craft a story about something magical, we’re prone to fill that story with too much information, too many brave ideas and too little grounding in a reality that audiences can actually connect with. Creating a world so entirely different than our own, one that hopes to immerse audiences within it, has an inherent dual effect of distancing us from it simply by being too different. Think of Alice at the other end of the rabbit hole, in a world where nothing is like in our own - and all we can do is follow her as she stumbles her way through it. Think of Harry Potter in the land of wizards where any object can be magical at any time, and mostly is.

So where’s the balance? Where’s the threshold where characters can clearly exist in the real world, meanwhile magical moments feel like fortuitous and fleeting adventures that temporarily transport us away from what grounds us?

My Neigbour Totoro strikes the perfect balance, and if you actually sit down and plot out the magical moments throughout the film’s narrative, there’s actually a staggeringly small amount of vividly imaginative set pieces. The film’s imaginative moments are distinct and memorable primarily because they are actually not the heart of the story – as endearing as Totoro and his friends are – instead, it's the child characters who are.

Mei and Sastuki jump off the screen with frenetic energy. They are honest exemplifications of the high-points of childhood: playing with freedom, the joy of discovery, naive trust and bold certainty. It’s only through their eyes we see the world of Totoro, they are our gateway to the incredible. But therein lies the other amazing thing about this film: The relationships the adults, especially their father, have with the girls is one of the most loyal, trusting and heartwarming aspects of the film. Bringing this back around to my earlier rumination, this is a very different aspect of narrative to the western approach to storytelling, where a father figure would be defiantly un-believing and even restrictive in the same situation, and his redemption arc would almost certainly involve him needing to come face-to-face with the imaginative world in order to realize the error of his ways. Instead, in this film, Miyazaki realizes that’s not necessary at all - it’s the childrens’ story, and it is served far better by characters who provide consistent support rather than occasional obstacles.

The children provide the majority of comedy in the film, and while there’s no actual jokes or bits, there are countless moments which will make you giggle - others, outright chuckle. And then, there’s everything magical about this film that has obviously become endearing to Japan and anyone else in the world who have had the pleasure to enjoy it. Totoro and his comrades (especially the “cat bus”) are dimensionalized even without ever needing to demonstrate understanding or communicate overtly. They may be some of the most memorable of Miyazaki’s creations, and that may largely be due to the fact that they are used relatively sparingly here, but with great impact.

I’ve seen several of Studio Ghibli’s films, but I think this is my favourite one of all, and I’m a little disappointed that it took me this long to discover it. Visually stunning and imaginatively inspiring, I can’t wait to enjoy My Neighbour Totoro with my own daughter one day.

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