2015 is the 30th anniversary of the founding of Studio Ghibli and, according to Hayao Miyazaki, it may also be one of its final years as a studio. Because this is one of my favorite films studios and Miyazaki is one of my favorite artists, who’s made some of my favorite films, I’ve decided to go through the history of Studio Ghibli one film at a time.
If you’re looking for the discussions of the previous weeks:
This does, however, mean I won’t be discussing Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, which was made before the founding of the studio.
I’ll also only be discussing the Japanese audio version of the films, though that doesn’t mean the dubs are bad or not worth seeing. They’re just slightly different. I’ll also be discussing these with the assumption that they’ve been seen by you. So, yes, spoilers are below.
My Neighbor Totoro is distinct from the previous two Studio Ghibli films. It’s actually remarkably different than either one. The only real similarity is that it’s a story about children.
Totoro is also, perhaps, the most famous Studio Ghibli film, or at least the most recognisable. Totoro, the character and image, has become so recognisable and huge that it became the mascot for the entire studio.
Yes, that big furry fellow to the left is one of the most enduring and iconic images in animation and we see him at the beginning of every Ghibli film. Even long after Miyazaki stops making films and Studio Ghibli is just a memory, kids will still know the Totoro theme and will buy stuffed Totoros.
Totoro is everywhere and he endures, but what’s maybe most surprising about Totoro’s popularity is how briefly he’s even in the film. He doesn’t even show up till we’re a third of the way into the film and he only appears onscreen for maybe ten minutes of the entire film.
Despite that, he’s bigger than Winnie the Pooh or Mickey Mouse in Japan. He’s one of the biggest characters in animation history.
But if he’s only on screen so briefly, what makes up the rest of the film? What is My Neighbor Totoro about?
That’s actually not the easiest question to answer, and it makes this an even more interesting film than you probably remember it being.
There’s no real conflict to the film. Or rather, the film isn’t built around conflict.
It’s built around experience.
This makes it a very different kind of animated experience. Laputa: Castle in the Sky is a very classic adventure story and Grave of the Fireflies is a very serious and somber look at life during the last day of WWII. Both have very clear conflicts, with one being quite external and the other being more internal. Seita’s conflict is easily identified and Sheeta and Pazu have very obvious antagonists that live on the surface of the conflict.
My Neighbor Totoro shares none of this. In many ways it’s the most perfect of children films, and in other ways it’s sort of a wonder that it was and remains so popular.
The film, in certain eyes, is about nothing, in the way that Seinfeld was often about nothing.
There are on conflicts, no good guys and bad guys, no running gags. It’s the story of a family. It’s the story of childhood.
Not just the childhood of Mei and Satsuki, but the childhood of everyone.
It’s about the wonder and magic of being a child and exploring a world unimaginably larger and more complex than your brain can handle.
For Miyazaki, childhood holds a special place and children are special creatures in the world. Magic belongs to their world and belongs to them. This is something he’ll return to in subsequent films, but I think it’s stated best here.
It’s no accident, I think, that Mei, the youngest child, is the one to discover Totoro and it’s not a surprise that none of the adults in the community can even see him or the Catbus running across the landscape. By the way, how creepy is Catbus? I mean, it’s kind of a scary thing, yeah? Creepy as it is to me, it’s a loving creature willing to help the girls when they need it.
The story takes place in the fifties, which is the same time period that Miyazaki was a child, probably similar in age to Satsuki. This is a time that I think Miyazaki is most comfortable with. Before computers and phones and the mechanisation and digitisation of life. He doesn’t have a love or interest in the way technology changes. He doesn’t even have an interest in the 21st century, referring to himself as a man of the 20th century. It reminds me a bit of Terrence Malick, who, to date, has only made one film set past 1960.
The story begins with the family moving to a new home, which is out in the country. It’s unclear why they’ve made the move, but it also doesn’t really matter. As soon as the girls enter their new home, we begin to see the magic of the world that only children experience. The little dustbunnies scattering and running everywhere are only visible to Mei and Satsuki but the adults know of them. Yes, they remember those creatures from their own childhoods, now long gone.
From here the film sort of ruminates on life. We see many scenes of their new life in the countryside. Satsuki goes to school, Mei plays in the garden, and their father studies and does work. Here we also see how great Miyazaki is at capturing life and the life of children. Satsuki, the older sister, sort of defines the play for Mei and her. Satsuki performs an action or says a phrase and Mei’s right behind her, trying to do the same thing, say the same words. She looks up to her sister and loves her dearly.
I remember growing up, wanting my older brother to like me, watching my little brother imitate me. It’s what children do. It’s how we learn how to be human. We look to our older siblings and we sort of want to grow up to be them. We use them as a measure for what’s good and bad and cool and stupid. It’s a simple thing and seemingly unimportant, but it’s such a beautiful thing to see unroll on film, and it’s such a difficult thing to do honestly.
And these moments of life without context or looming conflict really allow us to inhabit the characters and their world. Because of how honest and real it all feels, we’re willing to buy into the magic that comes later. We’re already, without knowing it, giving our hearts to these characters.
It’s not until about half an hour into the film that we really discover how deep the magic goes. Mei discovers a world inside our world in her garden while her father works in his study and Satsuki’s busy at school. She sees these little creatures and chases them into the forest, to the gigantic camphor tree growing near the house. As she follows them deeper, she falls into a place only available to children where King Totoro sleeps. She befriends the great furry beast and falls asleep on his chest, only to be found hours later by Satsuki. But now Totoro is gone and Mei sleeps alone on the ground.
And then we don’t see Totoro for quite a while. Nearly another third of the film goes by before he appears again.
But what is Totoro?
In Shinto, the indigenous religion of Japan, there are spirits called kami. There’s no real translation for the word in English, but we commonly call them gods, even though that’s not really an accurate translation. They’re sort of like elements of nature, bound to the earth, which, in Shinto, is also sacred. In fact, humans, kami, and the earth all descend from the same gods, which makes all things sacred, in a sense.
Totoro, to me, feels like that. He’s an elemental force with great power that has a limited capacity. He’s the god of the forest there.
It says something interesting that only children can see and physically interact with a creature like this, but maybe that discussion can go in the comments, as all of this is sort of an aside that has more to do with my interest in mythology and religions than it does with the film itself.
But after discovering Totoro, we come to a much darker element of the film that’s never fully explained. Their mother is at a hospital in Tokyo and it takes the family several hours to go visit her. We don’t know what the illness is and it first it doesn’t seem entirely serious, but time also continues to march on while she remains in the hospital, away from her family. Months and months, really.
The girls put on a brave face and on one really mentions the illness, but she’s still gone and by the time the film ends, she’s still not home.
The next time we see Totoro is in the rain. This is maybe one of the most iconic images from the film and from any of the Studio Ghibli films. Totoro standing next to the girls at a bus stop while the rain falls. There’s no explanation of why he’s there at that moment.
Satsuki gives him an umbrella, which pleases him so much that he literally stops the rain. The the Catbus arrives and he walks on it, umbrella still in hand. Satsuki kind of just blinks, mouth agape, and says that he took her umbrella.
It’s a pretty funny moment.
And that humor is something else worth mentioning. This isn’t really a comedy or a drama. It doesn’t fit easily into any genre category. There are amusing moments, but it’s not full of jokes or laughter. It’s quieter than that. And it certainly isn’t a drama, though it deals with some very serious realities about life. It falls outside of all this.
I suppose the best description is that it’s a slice of life film. The beginning and end of the film are sort of arbitrary, because there’s not a real narrative arc or even narrative movement. It’s a film that wholly reflects life, which also reminds me a great deal of Terrence Malick’s films, which are more about people and moments and life itself than they are about narrative progress.
From the reintroduction of Totoro, we get more and more magic. A forest grows overnight into an enormous tree, but is then gone by the morning. They fly through the sky with Totoro and become his friend. These are some of the best moments Studio Ghibli’s ever made, I think, and they’re so awesome and wonderful and beautiful that I can’t really describe them.
And then cold hard reality hits. Their mother is meant to finally visit them at their new home for the weekend, but a telegram arrives telling the family that she’s taken a turn for the worse and will have to remain at the hospital. This is where the real heart of the film lives and you’ll find yourself moved more than you’d ever expect to be.
You discover how dear these girls are to you and how much you care about their happiness. When Satsuki breaks down and cries at the water pump, it takes everything in you not to start crying too. It’s a powerful moment that blindsides you.
And that all comes from the brilliant construction of this film. Miyazaki just lets us live with them and experience the wide eyed wonder and beauty of childhood with them. We’re thrown back into our own childhoods, our memories and the echoes of those sensations swirling within us, though we’re unaware. And then when reality throws a punch, it knocks the wind out of us, drops us to our knees.
Unwilling to accept that they must wait for word and not see their mother, Mei sets out on a journey to visit her. Being only four years old, this doesn’t go well.
Lost in the wide world, the entire community scrambles to find her and they work together to ensure she’s safe. A shoe is found in the pond and our hearts stop as we fear Mei may have drown. The pond is swarming with adults diving into the water to find the body that may or may not be there.
Satsuki and the community sigh with relief as it turns out to be nothing, but then she seeks the help of Totoro.
In the Catbus, they discover Mei and then Catbus takes them to their mother so they can see that she’s okay.
And she is!
But it doesn’t mean our hearts didn’t break in between.
And that’s another perfect example of childhood. How things matter so much at that age, and certain things can break you in half. Just not knowing, not understanding, being stuck in a world so grand and strange can be terrifying.
No, it is terrifying, and the real truth is that it never stops being terrifying.
No matter how old we get or how intelligent we think we are, we’re still living in an impossibly bizarre world that will never really make sense to us.
And then the film’s over.
If we’re to summarise the film by what happens it would go something like this:
- The family moves into a house.
- The girls discover magical creatures living nearby.
- They visit their mother at the hospital.
- Totoro sprouts the trees they planted and they go on a magical night time adventure.
- Their mother becomes even more ill.
- Mei gets lost.
- Totoro helps Satsuki find Mei and visit their mother.
And that’s really all that happens. But this film isn’t about the individual events or even their combination. It’s about those quiet moments in between.
My Neighbor Totoro is a nearly perfect film but it succeeds in a way that few films even try to exist. Especially children’s films. Can you even name another children’s film that doesn’t have an overt conflict? Can you name one that doesn’t have a clear obstacle to overcome?
My Neighbor Totoro stands alone and is a seriously huge step in Miyazaki’s growth as a storyteller. It’s where he discovered what makes a film transition from great to unforgettable. He discovered how to make a story a part of our anatomy and personal history.
This is a fantastic film and it’s the kind that will be shown to children long into the future. And it’ll be enjoyed by adults just as long. It stands above everything Disney’s ever done.
This isn’t where Studio Ghibli begins, but it’s where Studio Ghibli becomes a global phenomena.
Next week we discuss Kiki’s Delivery Service.