My Neighbor Totoro review – An enchanting story that’s a snapshot of Japanese culture through a child’s eyes

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

2 thoughts on “My Neighbor Totoro review – An enchanting story that’s a snapshot of Japanese culture through a child’s eyes

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  1. Yay! So glad you loved this one too. Can’t remember the exact first time I saw this but I was definitely in my 30s & to this day it still makes me happy like a child whenever I see it. Started my daughter on this when she was very young (so she started with the dubbed version first) and she’s still a big fan too. It’s just so calming – I’ve put it on sometimes when I’ve been very stressed. Makes me want a real life Totoro! 🙂 Something about the “otherworldliness” of Ghibli films is very relaxing to me (along with the scores).

    1. Can we order two Totoros, please, so we can each have one?! I understand what you mean about it being calming. I think your enjoyment of this film is how I’m starting to feel with Ponyo – a few times now I’ve just watched the opening titles or fast forwarded to a random scene to see what point it’s out.
      I’m really enjoying these films so far. Thank you for convincing me to finally watch them!

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