My Neighbor Totoro is a perfect film. Even for very young viewers, its visuals and vibrant characters will delight regardless of language comprehension, but the older you get, the more powerful this masterpiece from the legendary Hayao Miyazaki becomes. It’s a ravishing portrait of childhood virtue characterized by unyielding imagination; yet at the same time, My Neighbor Totoro constructs its whimsical storytelling with a compassionate, reflective eye for how dreams penetrate into real life, as well as how these fantasies become a temporary cure for the eventual collapse of youthful innocence.

When the film begins, it’s a flashback to better times, real or imagined—to a point in time with the absences of COVID, bullshit politics, inequality and hate, where there was joy to be found in the absolute simplest of things and seemingly nothing could tear us down. That’s childhood for you, and Miyazaki zeroes in on these ephemeral moments in our lives and makes it feel as if they will last forever. Because back then, it truly felt that way.

Our two protagonists, Satsuki (Noriko Hidaka) and her younger sister, Mei (Chika Sakamoto), are introduced as they move into an old house in Japan with their father, Tatsuo Kusakabe (Shigesato Itoi). The house is falling apart, but that fact doesn’t deter the girls. In fact, it makes them squeal with joy. They run around the yard and the house, exploring as curious children often do, and they soon discover creatures called “susuwatari” (basically, dust bunnies). But this simple collection of dust becomes an almost spiritual experience for the girls, as well as one of pure pleasure. The early moments of Miyazaki’s classic showcase this effortlessly—the absolute ecstasy we used to find in the little things.

And there’s also the study of imagination in general, materialized in the eponymous character as Mei accidentally stumbles upon the creature in the hollow of a large camphor tree. It’s unclear in the end whether Totoro is actually real or not, but does it really matter? To Satsuki and Mei, Totoro is as real as the air they breathe. The midsection of the film is an ode to the imagined, as Totoro engages with the girls in ways that are both humorous and beautiful (the iconic umbrella scene, the magical dream of a giant tree sprouting from seed recently planted by Satsuki and Mei).

But then, of course, there’s reality. We learn, eventually, that the reason for the family’s move is so they could be closer to their mother, who is recovering in the hospital from a long-term illness. It leads to the work’s most powerful image—Mei, tearful, clutching an unpeeled ear of corn, determined to bring it to her mother in belief that it will make her better. As Mei disappears in an endeavor to locate the hospital, the film’s final stretch finds Satsuki desperately searching for her sister.

This third act is the film’s emotional highpoint, with Mei’s sorrow and determination becoming our own. And then the imagination finds a way to offer escape from the pain, as the girls ride a Cat Bus (or do they?) to the hospital and leave the corn on their mother’s window. Again, it doesn’t matter in the long run if these fantasies are truly fantasies at all. Everything in this film ends up feeling wholly authentic, including its eventual poignancy and triumph. My Neighbor Totoro is yet another work by Miyazaki that proves his prowess to appeal to everyone. It’s that rare piece of cinema that completely transcends age; it will succeed just as effectively for a child as it would a person on their deathbed, yet for completely different reasons.

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