What would your childhood look like if you made friends with nature spirits and a giant cat, all of which were invisible to adults?
Studio Ghibli’s My Neighbor Totoro, for the most part a delight, is a movie that loves to play around with this premise, even as the concept’s rich potential doesn’t quite get the attention it deserves. The film’s numerous issues merit serious discussion about how much they hold the movie back, but viewers willing and able to navigate those hurdles will find a lot to like in what is otherwise a fun and adorable story.
The enjoyment comes simply in the watching.
My Neighbor Totoro is, for the most part, a slice-of-life film that focuses more on daily interactions than on plot development. At the same time, the mundane yet enjoyable story of a Japanese father and his family, the Kusakabes, moving into an old-fashioned house is given some neat color by the setting’s aspects of fantasy: Nature spirits exist, some so small as to be mistaken for soot, and adults can’t see them for uncertain reasons. (It isn’t for lack of belief. The father openly believes in these forest spirits, not talking about them “just to play along,” but he can’t see them, either. As for the mother, she is present but unavailable for reasons integral to the story, what little there is.)
Viewers familiar with Studio Ghibli’s works have every reason to expect its films to be visual treats, and some of Totoro’s strongest moments are in those places where it delights the senses. Rolling fields, lush forests, and mystical creatures are lovely to behold, even if later Ghibli films have managed to build on the foundation that stories like Totoro established. The architecture actually stays pretty close to the traditional style Grave of the Fireflies often used (please note that my review of that film contains spoilers). That being stated, the opening and closing credits would have been greatly improved if they were set to scenes of activity, such as everyday life in the setting, as opposed to imagery that is almost static, which makes the credits and their otherwise decent music somewhat aggravating. The imagery does display some cute critters, though, including nice creepy-crawlies that some children might love.
As a warm, friendly father gets his new home set up, his daughters Satsuki and Mei frolic and explore their unfamiliar surroundings while helping out with various household tasks such as doing laundry and cleaning the floors, providing a relaxing sequence of events that the film’s opening was missing. After finding part of the house to be full of mysterious occupants (squirrels? the children wonder), the children scream to scare any unwanted pests away. Whether or not this was fun for the voice actresses, it’s annoying to listen to every time it happens, even as the children are otherwise quite likable. Shots of the children’s bloomers, which were a bit odd if infrequent in Kiki’s Delivery Service, are almost constant here and throughout the whole film.
These “pests,” soot gremlins, have cute little eyes and can fly wherever they please, but as expected, the girls wind up with soot all over their hands. Their new neighbor, a sweet elderly woman who simply asks to be called “Granny,” expresses her own belief in soot sprites and is more than happy to help the newcomers get settled in. The girls go about their chores without complaining, and the movie establishes a peaceful routine of sorts as a few more characters are introduced and Satsuki heads off to school (Mei is still too young, so she stays at home and plays outside). This is disrupted by a wholly unnecessary scene of the father and the girls bathing, and while nothing is shown, Mei’s head just barely covers her dad’s privates while he’s got his legs spread in the bath, which is horrifying. Other than the aforementioned shots of bloomers for viewers not used to those, that’s pretty much the last disturbing thing to be seen in this film, which is otherwise almost too sweet of a movie.
So where on Earth is Totoro?
Eventually Mei gets her first taste of a “ghost,” a tiny white cat-like being that Mei crawls into a hole to chase after, and in no time she also comes across a larger, blue version of the same kind of creature. Finally, after tumbling down a “rabbit hole,” she comes across a gigantic gray cat, sleeping inside of a beautiful forest. In one of the film’s most lighthearted moments, she tries to tickle the creature awake, which reveals its human teeth once it sneezes. Mei names the creature “Totoro” because of its distinctive growl, and the two nap the day away. Also, Totoro roars extremely loudly.
After she meets back up with her sister and father, Mei tries to show the forest spirits to the other members of her family, which is where the movie threatens to enter a bland fantasy territory of Mei trying vainly to convince others of what she knows to be real. Thankfully the plot avoids this, as Satsuki and the girls’ father are actually quite receptive of the idea, which may well run in the family. The movie’s pacing runs slowly in this area, as the forest spirits aren’t always willing to show themselves, but that deliberateness helps to keep the viewer legitimately excited for when the spirits are good and ready to come out.
During one scene when Satsuki is in school, Mei cries to be brought to her while Dad is away teaching (Granny watches her normally), and the two end up walking home in the pouring rain. Kanta, a boy near Satsuki’s age who was introduced earlier in the film, lets the girls use his umbrella; while nothing is specifically declared, it seems evident enough by his mannerisms that something is going on with him on Satsuki’s behalf, which is kind of charming. Father Kusakabe’s incredibly late getting home, and the girls are stuck waiting for him. And that’s when Totoro reappears!
Despite looking like a giant cat, Totoro doesn’t mind being in the rain, and when he is given a spare umbrella to use, he stomps the ground noisily (apparently forest spirits can have weight–a lot of it–and can manipulate physical objects), sending tons of rain crashing downward in one of the movie’s most enjoyable moments. By this point, Mei is asleep on her older sister’s back, which is at once sweet and heartbreaking to watch. Also, there’s a cat that is also a bus, which looks way too much fun to ride in. This ends in a wonderful scene where the three Totoro-creatures lead the girls in some sort of nature ritual, whose results are beautiful to behold and ridiculously well animated. (Oh, and Studio Ghibli should go into interior home decoration, because the level of ability demonstrated is amazing.)
And then this becomes a very different movie.
Satsuki receives a stressful telegram relating to her mother, prompting a call to her father, and the look of utter fear in her eyes is powerfully drawn and almost unbearable to watch. Satsuki and Mei have an argument, resulting in a sharp downturn in mood both for Mei and for the movie. It’s extremely emotional to watch Mei (and eventually Satsuki) cry, but at the level of the individual scene, this is extremely well done. The bigger problem is that this subplot, complete with its “parent’s-worst-nightmare” sequence of events, feels like it violently clashes with the utterly peaceful tone found in the rest of the movie. While it’s understandable that the movie might have needed some sort of plot or conflict to carry it toward an ending, the conflict as is only somewhat involves Totoro, whom one might have reasonably expected to be the star of the production.
While the ending in broad-strokes terms is pretty predictable, it’s incredibly heartwarming, and the film’s mood swings back up quite suddenly compared to its fairly gentle but noticeable decline earlier. The problem with the film’s transition between being happy and being depressing wasn’t so much the speed of doing so, which was reasonable (even more so than the utterly phenomenal Kiki’s Delivery Service), but rather the degree, which might be much too upsetting for some younger viewers.
Even so, My Neighbor Totoro, despite lacking the polish of a number of later Ghibli films, is for the most part a fun and adorable film that can be recommended with some fair warnings for viewers of all ages. Some frustrating stylistic choices in scene-to-scene behavior (children should never be allowed to yell this much for fun in a movie) and to some extent in the storytelling, keep the movie from being as much of a classic it could be, but even as a work that’s not among Studio Ghibli’s best, Totoro is still a good film that’s definitely worthy of at least a chance.