Delightful, playful, with just a dash of anxiety thrown in to anchor it to the real world, My Neighbor Totoro is Miyazaki’s most accessible movie. Although I was recently reminded that it’s clearly set in midcentury Japan, it could be an enchanted fairyland in any country. Though the Totoro is referenced by the movie’s characters as if it’s a traditional Japanese spirit, it’s actually one of Miyazaki’s inventions—you won’t find it in folklore. So the movie’s appeal is universal.
The first shot is of a bucolic, near-silent rural landscape. After years of seeing Studio Ghibli’s production values, I always think I’ll no longer be surprised by such vistas. I’m always wrong. Miyazaki treats the natural world as holy ground. Here, rice paddies and clear ponds reflect the billowing clouds. We see minnows at the bottom of a stream, along with a discarded soda bottle. The vista is cut into, gently like a knife through butter, by a rattling, hiccupping truck laden with furniture. A young man and his two girls are moving into the village.
The man, a professor, is clearly a city slicker. When he helps the movers unpack his huge radio and boxes of books, it’s clear that he’s in the way more than anything. He’s a nature lover, though, and he’s respectful of his new environment. His girls, Satsuki and Mei, take to the new place even better than he does, and it’s their story that we follow.
Satsuki’s about ten, and Mei’s about half of that. They’re very close. Totoro tracks their relationship exquisitely, from their squabbles to their happy adventures. They don’t move with the same mind but they could finish each other’s sentences.
Almost as soon as they walk into their spacious new home, they see an acorn drop from the ceiling. There’s no rafters or cabinets from which it could have fallen. A rustle fills the air. Satsuki opens a door, and packs of dust bunnies—with eyes, they move in coordinated groups—rush out of the room.
In any other movie, soot sprites—as a kindly old neighbor calls them—would be cause for concern. Miyazaki, however, sees spirits as part of the natural order of things. The father might believe his daughters are making up imaginary creatures; he might believe the sprites are real—Miyazaki leaves this tantalizingly unclear. In any case, he respects the tales Satsuki and Mei tells him. “I’ve always wanted to live in a haunted house,” he says. “It’s been a dream of mine since I was very young.” It’s hard to imagine any other filmmaker writing that line without irony.
Indeed, ghosts run throughout the house and grounds. They turn out to be totoros—furry creatures that look like crosses between flying squirrels and bears, with the mannerisms of middle-aged cats. The smaller ones carry bags of acorns and can turn invisible. The largest one flies on a spinning top and roars with joy. The creatures never speak but their movements give a full sense of their shy, funny personalities. They’re sneaky imps—you get the feeling that they delight in good pranks against humans—but are ultimately sweet.
Whenever Satsuki and Mei runs into one, they tell the adults. The adults take it in stride, and the movie’s charm works whether you believe the totoros exists or are figments of fretful imaginations seeking comfort. Or perhaps because of this. In this sense, they remind me of Calvin’s relationship to pet tiger/stuffed animal Hobbes—the totoros are real enough to us to matter, but disappear whenever adults draw nearer. They leave enough clues of their existences—the big one gives Satsuki a wrapped bundle of acorns; another totoro, a cat bus (exactly as weird and wonderful as it sounds) helps her find Mei in a moment of crisis—for us to believe.
Then again, there’s good reason for the girls to seek solace in imaginary friends.
Their mother is ill and in the hospital. We never find out exactly what she has, which only adds to the suspense. The family seems happy but, in the margins, we see that they’re struggling. No one knows when Mom is coming home for good, or if her condition is improving, though Dad tries valiantly to put a good spin on things. Still, he’s forced to leave Mei with a caretaker while he works and Satsuki is in school. Satsuki makes lunch for everyone when Dad oversleeps. We often see Dad, deep in his books, struggling to concentrate; his mind’s clearly elsewhere. When a telegram reports that Mom is too sick to come home for a weekend, Mei tries to run to the hospital, which is three hours from home. The family’s surviving in Mom’s absence, but just barely.
Totoro, and here I mean the big one, provides the loving mother the girls need but don’t have. Whether he exists or not, I think Dad wants—no, needs—to believe in him. This makes Totoro touching as well as charming. Totoro turns out to be a good neighbor. He lives in the huge camphor tree adjacent to the house, which turns out to be the reason Mom and Dad wanted to buy the property in the first place. His seeds, which the girls plant, are the first new things that grow in the yards, as if he’s giving the girls permission to grow and become rooted to this new, strange place. In a dazzling night scene, he flies around and makes the wind blow. He’s the hooting owlsong the family hears in the distance, at night. He’s the engine that makes nature run, that gives the girls the environment they need in order to live and prosper.
We see this in the movie’s greatest sequence. It’s raining. The girls decide to meet Dad at the bus stop he gets off at, to walk home with him. The day turns to night but, in Miyazaki’s gentle hands, we’ve learned not to fear night so much. A bus rolls by, stops. Dad’s not on it—he’s running late. The girls wait quietly, illuminated only by a streetlamp and the light’s shimmering on rain puddles. Mei rides piggyback on Satsuki and falls asleep Big sister holds Mei up, wielding the umbrella under her arm.
Suddenly, Totoro creeps into view. He’s waiting for the bus, too—in Miyazaki’s world, even mythical creatures and gods are rooted in our world; they buy groceries, too. Satsuki offers him her umbrella. He’s so delighted by the patter on raindrops on it that he jumps up. His landing shakes the tree branches so thoroughly that the shower that falls on the three is louder and wetter than the actual rainfall. Totoro grins maniacally. It’s the simple things that give pleasure. To show his gratitude, he gives Satsuki the wrapped bundle of (maybe magic) seeds. And then his bus arrives—a cat with eight legs, with eyes that light up like headlights, glowing mice as taillights, and fur-lined seats that shiver as Totoro touches them. Totoro gets on, and they’re off.
The next shot pans up from up from the ground to Satsuki and Mei, frozen and slack-jawed, in the rain. It’s maybe the funniest double-take I’ve seen in a year. “Did he take Dad’s umbrella?” deadpans Satsuki. It’s amazing how we latch onto the familiar when we glimpse the inexplicable. Hilarious, too.
Seconds later, the regular bus arrives, and Dad steps off. He explains that he missed the last train, but the girls no longer care. “We saw Totoro! We saw Totoro!” they yell. But these are yells of joy, not fear. There’s a lesson there.