I promised yesterday an article on the Blu-Ray release of the greatest animated film of all time. All those of you who were waiting for a review of Happy Feet 2 may be disappointed. So here it is, My Neighbour Totoro, which, in fairness, ties with The Lion King for the spot as my favourite animated film ever. The latter has nostalgia value which may, from time to time, give it a boost. But Totoro is a film that I have been nuts about for years and now it’s out on Blu-Ray. There’s a risk when writing reviews of long established favourites that it will just become hyperbolic fawning. Whilst this will probably be a very, erm, enthusiastic review, I’ll try to explore exactly what makes it so great. If you haven’t seen it, go watch it straight away (it’s on DVD, too).
To people of a certain generation, the giant grey forest spirit Totoro may look like nothing more than a Snorlax from Pokemon. Older people won’t even have that frame of reference, and they wouldn’t recognise a Totoro if it got on a bus with them. Yet in his native Japan this fuzzball is a national icon, as big as Mickey Mouse and with a line of merchandise to match. He’s the figurehead of animation powerhouse Studio Ghibli, and a growing popularity in the West has seen him become a more familiar site here, too, even turning up for a cameo in Toy Story 3. Yet there are still many for whom Totoro is undiscovered, waiting, asleep, for yet another unsuspecting viewer get lost in the forest, and to fall inside the camphor tree and meet this happy creature.
The plot, or as close as the film has to one, revolves around Mei and Satsuki, who move with their father to the Japanese countryside to be near their mother, who is in hospital with an unspecified illness. When there, Mei follows a tiny translucent creature and its bigger, more opaque companion into the forest, where she discovers the biggest creature of them all. These Totoro are forest spirits, who then turn up at crucial times in the girls’ lives in the country. They grow giant trees overnight, help them when they get lost and, in one unforgettable, iconic scene waits with them at the bus stop, although not for the kind of bus you might be expecting. It’s clearly not a film driven by narrative, favouring instead to simply observe the two sisters as they interact with the Totoro and experience the magic of nature and of old houses.
Clearly, then, the usual tropes of a children’s cinema are abandoned; there is no conflict, and only one scene of what the BBFC would call ‘Mild Peril.’ After the dramatic fantasy adventures of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and Laputa: Castle in the Sky, Hayao Miyazaki wanted to make something more personal and intimate. He saw a trend in culture towards fast cars and violence, and so went completely in the opposite direction, making his most tranquil, event-free film to this day. This was also his first film that was set in Japan, as an encouragement to a younger generation that their country was beautiful and worth exploring. The result is a film filled with a sense of exploration; a curiosity that is evident in Mei’s fascination with tadpoles, or the way she will amuse herself outdoors for hours merely playing with rusty buckets and flower heads.
Mei and Satsuki are perfectly realised child characters, not precocious or self righteous, just kids happy to roam and play. Their mannerisms and movement feel natural and believable, and their relationships with each other and their father are beautifully observed. The result is that the first half hour of the film plays out like animated realism, content to linger on every day scenes of family life. Yet what makes this a truly special film is that even before Totoro turns up there is a palpable sense of magic in the air; not some cheap tricks but the magic of childhood and of imagination. Dust sprites skitter through the dark spaces of the house, acorns seems to appear from nowhere and the wind carries firewood soaring into the air. The house and surrounding area are stunningly drawn, and the atmosphere is set for something quite extraordinary.
When the titular Totoro turns up, however, the film reaches new levels of wonder and happiness. The giant furball has entered into Japanese popular culture (and increasingly ours, too) for a reason: he’s a loveable, hilarious creation and, crucially, he is as curious and as fascinated by the world as the two human protagonists. As he is a creature largely without language (he yawns a lot, and can kind of say his own name), some of the best scenes in the film are wordless. The most famous section of the film sees the creature joyously discover the sound of rain on an umbrella, and it is as entertaining for us as it is for him. But this carefree curiosity is also seen when he first meets Mei and the two stare each other down and learn about each other just by looking; you can also see this when he roars with delight as they soar through the night sky. His two smaller companions are simply adorable – look out for the tiny white one doing a tiny roar alongside his big brother. Aside from one unnerving sequence when Mei gets lost trying to find the hospital, Miyazaki doesn’t force any narrative drive into the film, which means that the adventure lies in our own back gardens. This joie de vivre that permeates the film is what makes it such an unforgettable piece of story telling.
Miyazaki makes the most of this exploratory, wondrous tone of the film by matching the children’s playful spirits with playful film making of his own. So when Granny talks about the soot sprites having a conference to discuss their future, he cuts to them doing exactly that. The catbus – based on the idea of a transforming cat in Japanese mythology – similarly displays this inventive, carefree direction. It’s one of his most bizarre and brilliant creations, a giant, lumbering animal/vehicle hybrid that is somehow able to balance on electricity wires and move through the hilly countryside at great speeds. It’s headlamp eyes will undoubtedly be slightly sinister for those who don’t really like cats, but its such a fun, memorable addition to the film that even the most feline averse should be won over. Joe Hisaishi, Miyazaki’s regular musical collaborator and genius composer – matches the wondrous visuals with a score that is equally playful. Big bass notes accompany Totoro as he joins the girls at the bus stop, and the strings soar as the catbus races round the countryside. It’s a light, frolicsome score that perfectly complements the happy tone of the film.
Ultimately My Neighbour Totoro is such a huge success as a film because every element works together to create a film that is quite unique. It’s Miyazaki’s most intimate film, simply observing the life of a family going through a time of transition. Yet unlike his counterpart Isao Takahata‘s realist films, the family drama of Totoro is infused with a carefree, wondrous spirit that revels in exploration and discovery, revolving around his most winning, memorable creation ever. Some may accuse the film of being slight and having nothing to say, yet this is a film that treasures imagination and childhood, and suggests that life is there to be enjoyed. It’s eighty minutes of joy, stunning to look at and uplifting to experience. It is, quite simply, a masterpiece.
Extras: The brilliance of these extras is that the man himself, Hayao Miyazaki, is present and correct, giving candid interviews about the creation of Totoro and the processes behind it. He comes across as a humble, fascinating man and it’s great to see him talking about his work. There are lots of little snippets for you to dig into, about the creation of the characters, the inspiration for the film and all sorts. Each clip presents a new little nugget about the creation of the film, and it’s all gold for the Totoro devotees out there. The highlight is a segment about the composer Joe Hisaishi, who is a crucial part of Miyazaki’s work and here you see why.
There’s also a longer, informative documentary about real locations in Japan that inspired the film. It’s not especially gripping but shows exactly how good the art work of the film is by contrasting it with real life settings. Then there are trailers, textless credits and storyboards for the real hardcore fans.