In any discussion of anime, there are very few names that are spoken with almost unqualified awe and pleasure. There is Osamu Tezuka, "Anime no Kami", the founder of the industry in many ways. One could make a case for Leiji Matsumoto, creator of Space Battleship Yamato (Star Blazers), Galaxy Express 999, and Space Pirate Harlock.
And there is Hayao Miyazaki, sometimes called the "Japanese Disney", creator of some of the most wonderful, magical films ever made (which I will review later), including Laputa: Castle in the Sky, Kiki's Delivery Service, The Castle of Cagliostro…
… and My Neighbor Totoro.
Totoro is my choice for the most pure family sense-of-wonder film ever made. It is at once a close, quiet family film and a magical series of adventures that takes an ordinary village and makes it a mystical realm.
The Kusakabe family – Tatsuo and his two daughters Satsuki and Mei – move to a house in the country to be near their mother (recovering in a nearby hospital; based on time period and symptoms, I have always suspected tuberculosis, but it could be any long-term, slow-recovery illness that leaves no obvious visible effects). Even on their first day, they encounter what appear to be mysterious little spirits – dust or soot sprites that inhabit old houses. But the dust sprites leave once it's clear they've settled in, and life appears to be turning to a quiet stay in a country house, far from the city.
But then Mei, wandering in the back yard, sees something moving through the grass… something that isn't like any animal she has ever seen…
My Neighbor Totoro is a modern rarity, a film without direct conflict at its core. Emotional development and wonder are the heart of this film. No one is ever in physical danger (though it is thought, for a short time, that Mei is), and the mysterious supernatural happenings that Satsuki and Mei encounter, while sometimes somewhat "creepy", are harmless and, in fact, often helpful and inspiring.
Totoro himself, that gigantic, fluffy nature-spirit, is never seen by the adults, but sufficient evidence exists to show that this is not a matter of pretend, but a real, magical being who has decided to watch over the children whose mother is ill and who have come into his domain. It is unclear how much he continues to interact with them after the events of the movie, but it appears that his presence continues for at least some time.
While there is no direct physical conflict or enemies, the movie avoids saccharine sweetness (at least for me) through realistic emotional reactions. Now that I have had children of my own, I'm even more impressed by Miyazaki's work on Totoro. Satsuki and Mei are believable children. They act as girls of their age should; Satsuki's attempts to be an adult, with emotional swings tied to her mother's condition (which sometimes worsens without warning), is all too familiar, and Mei's stubbornness and sudden decisions to do things that are beyond her ability, but not beyond her comprehension, is very, very much what little girls of her age do; I look at Domenica and see someone very much like Mei.
The climax of the movie – with Mei lost and Satsuki desperately searching, to finally go to the one last hope she has – Totoro – is a heart-wrenching, yet wonderfully touching sequence, with Satsuki blaming herself (she had shouted something rather hurtful at Mei while worried about her mother) and determined to find her sister at any cost, running until her feet are bleeding and she stumbles, exhausted, into Totoro's lair… and Totoro, awakened, understanding what is needed and letting loose with an earthshaking, awesome call that can send chills down my spine.
The detail in My Neighbor Totoro is – as one expects from a Miyazaki film – incredible. This is a film that is as visually beautiful as it is perfectly scripted, with a beautiful, enchanting soundscore that complements every aspect of the movie.
I don't give many works of anything perfect scores… but My Neighbor Totoro is one of them.