Satsuki and Mei move to an old house in the Japanese countryside with their father to be closer to their ailing mother in hospital. Satsuki starts a new school, whilst Mei struggles to adapt to the move. However, whilst exploring the surrounding area, Mei stumbles upon a giant, fantastical creature she refers to as Totoro.
At its heart, My Neighbour Totoro is a children’s film, but it doesn’t shy away from dealing with some mature issues. The illness and potential loss of a parent is a topic that some may feel is a little too much for children to fully take on board, but this film tackles it head on, unafraid of asking children to deal with more adult concepts. In fact, examining the way children cope with such issues is at the very core of the film. Are Totoro and friends real, or have the children just created these creatures as a way of coping with their difficult situation? This isn’t an unusual idea; Alice in Wonderland is probably the most famous example of this (Totoro actually has a very ‘Alice’ feel at times), whilst Pan’s Labyrinth is a more recent film that plays with the same idea. However, whilst Totoro feels like a much more child-friendly experience than the aforementioned examples, it exhibits a charm and kindness that can be appreciated by viewers of any age.
Where it does differ from the usual format of children’s films is in its story – as in, there isn’t one. That might be slightly unfair, but there is very little to speak of in terms of discernible plot or conflict for the characters. Some may be put off by this and find the film a little uneventful, but that’s actually part of Totoro’s charm. It doesn’t need to be bogged down by layers of plot; it just exists in its own world and we’re being treated to an insight into that world. It’s not flashy; it’s not complicated; it just is.
As is immediately evident, the animation in Totoro is simply delightful. It’s unmistakably Japanese but feels much more accessible than some of the other Anime or Manga that comes out of Japan. It is beautifully drawn and the colours jump off the screen; every shot is a visual treat and it’s difficult to believe this was made back in 1988 as it still feels so fresh, original and relevant. The odd scene might show its age a little but some (the rainstorm scene in particular) are as beautifully drawn as anything I’ve seen before or since.
Just as the art-style is ‘very Japanese’, as is the film’s culture. It deals with spirits and magical creatures in a very casual way, as if their presence is no big deal. The soot sprites, a fictitious type of supernatural spirit (or yōkai to give them their proper Japanese name), are a prime example of this, as Satsuki and Mei are more intrigued than scared by them, something that wouldn’t likely happen in a Western film of the same nature. The fact that the Japanese have a particular name for these creatures shows how a part of their folklore they are, and whilst it was fascinating to experience a bit of that, it felt as if I was missing out on so much purely because I’m not Japanese. Having said that, I would actually argue that the film didn’t have enough of the weird and the wonderful. Totoro and friends don’t show up nearly as often as they probably should and it would be nicer to see them have a slightly larger impact on the children’s lives rather than too often being nothing more than creatures of fascination.
Totoro is a magical film that champions the imagination and the wistful innocence of children whilst refusing to shy away from more complex issues. It might be slightly slower paced than one might expect but it was a real privilege to experience something as meticulously crafted and full of heart as this.
NB – I watched the dubbed English version of the film, the 2006 Disney version with Dakota and Elle Fanning as Satsuki and Mei respectively. Dubbing non-animated films is largely (always?) horrendous but it works reasonably well with animation and the dubs didn’t really bother me. However, I would definitely like to re-watch it again with the original Japanese language track, as I believe that is how the film was intended to be appreciated.