My Neighbor Totoro (Tonari no Totoro is the original title) is a 1988 animated film directed by the legendary Hayao Miyzaki. For the thirtieth anniversary of its release, I was lucky enough to enjoy it at the cinema the past weekend and I decided to write about it here on the blog! I found it interesting to read that it bombed at the box office when it came out, both at home and abroad, while now the feeling is that it has been widely re-evaluated and it’s well regarded by most critics and audiences. But since it’s the first time I write about Miyazaki, let’s start from him.
Who’s Hayao Miyazaki? Now he’s the famous Japanese director who even won an Oscar and who directed memorable movies such as Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (Kaze no tani no Naushika, 1984), Princess Mononoke (Mononoke-hime, 1997), and Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi, 2001). But in 1988 he was best known for having worked on some wonderful animated series like Lupin the Third (Rupan sansei, 1971), Future Boy Conan (Mirai shonen Konan, 1978), and Sherlock Hound (Meitantei Holmes, 1984). I grew up with these three series, so I basically have Miyazaki in my DNA, it’s practically impossible for me not to like something he’s made. And My Neighbor Totoro is no exception, of course!
In Totoro we find most of the usual themes of our favorite Japanese director: colorful and beautiful drawings, a dynamic animation that makes everything on screen feel full of life and energy (the grass, the people, and even the machines), living a simple and natural life, a touch of fantasy, a young protagonist (in this case the two sisters Satsuki and Mei)… in short, all things that shouldn’t surprise you if you are familiar with Miyazaki’s works.
Let’s sketch the plot. Satsuki and Mei move with their father Tatsuo, an archeologist at the university, to the countryside outside Tokyo to stay close to their mother who’s in a hospital due to an unnamed illness (there’s a biographic element here, since the director’s mother suffered from tuberculosis for years and had to spend a lot of time in hospitals). Little by little, Satsuki and Mei discover that the rural world is populated by fantastic beings that can only be seen through the eyes of children: small balls of soot that live in abandoned houses, some sorts of bears/raccoons of various sizes like Totoro and his friends, and even a huge cat-bus that goes around at a crazy speed! In fact, there’s no plot at all: we follow the two adorable screaming girls (they scream all the time!) for a few days in this world on the border between fantasy and reality.
The film is very sweet, but without being sickening. It has a relaxed pace, but it doesn’t bore. Miyazaki’s imagination surprises without overdoing it. In short, it’s a joy for the eyes and for the soul, a film which will reconcile you with humanity and above all with its younger part, the children: we cannot but marvel at their imagination, their innocence, their desire to do good and to help everyone else. The only thing I didn’t enjoy much is the music, which being recorded in 1988 has the Eighties’ sound that I don’t like very much. But I still came out of the cinema humming Tòtoro, Tòtoro…!
And then, more generally, I find it beautiful that the Ghibli studio, founded by Miyazaki in 1985, is still releasing fully hand-drawn and animated films, always maintaining an excellent quality in all its products (even if some CGI is present in The Wind Rises, Kaze tachinu, from 2013). The reason? As stated by Miyazaki in 2008, he doesn’t know how to use the computer, Pixar already makes beautiful movies using computer animation, Nick Park makes beautiful things using the stop motion technique, thus he can only work with rubber and pencil! Dear Hayao, I wish you to continue working (so well!) for another 50 years, ciao!