In a landscape dominated by multi-picture franchises, CGI effects and multimillion-dollar budgets, watching a standalone film with no real plot or defined character roles can be a lovely way to give your mind a break and relax.
Set in post-war rural Japan, My Neighbor Totoro explores a few weeks in the lives of sisters Satuski and Mei who have recently moved to a new house with their father. Their mother is in hospital, for reasons we’re not privy to.
As the sisters start to explore their new home and the forest that neighbours the house, they meet various spirits, including the gentle giant Totoro and the mysterious dust bunnies.
I’ve never studied film, but after watching thousands of films (Letterboxd tells me I’ve logged over 1,100 films since setting up my account nine years ago) I have a good handle on the various elements that make up a film.
For example, I know you nearly always have a protagonist and usually an antagonist too. Most of the time there’s a plot, and a lot of films are set up in three acts (setup, confrontation and resolution).
My Neighbor Totoro beautifully rejects these conventions. Who is the lead character, is it Mei or is it perhaps Totoro? This isn’t clearly defined, but that’s not an issue in the slightest.
Renowned director Hayao Miyazaki simply gives us an enchanting glimpse into the lives of an ordinary Japanese family. We don’t know why they’ve moved house and why don’t know why the sisters’ mother is in hospital, but these factors are inconsequential.
What matters is that we’re experiencing a few short moments of childhood and the uncertainty that comes with moving home and being separated from a parent through the eyes of Satuski and Mei.
We experience their nervousness as they explore their new home and start spotting fuzzy black ‘dust bunnies’, and we see their wonder and joy at meeting the forest spirits, especially the enigmatic grey spirit they call ‘Totoro’.
A beautiful, atmospheric soundtrack by frequent collaborator Joe Hisaishi accompanies the film, and the sublime animation that fans now come to expect of Studio Ghibli was being perfected; My Neighbor Totoro was the third feature film released by the production studio.
To use a phrase coined by tidying expert Marie Kondo, watching My Neighbor Totoro ‘sparks joy’. As a thirtysomething adult it made me smile. Films are meant to entertain, of course, but My Neighbor Totoro did more than that: it made me feel happy.
My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Starring: Hitoshi Takagi, Noriko Hidaka, Chika Sakamoto
“When two girls move to the country to be near their ailing mother, they have adventures with the wondrous forest spirits who live nearby.” – IMDb