My Neighbor Totoro

My Neighbor Totoro ★★★★

Ghibli Journey #5

Ghibli Ranking:

Both halves of the odd 1988 Ghibli double-bill have benefited greatly from my respective rewatches, seemingly from an adjustment of expectations. Going into My Neighbor Totoro knowing that it has next to no plot, and that the magical elements are drip-fed rather than omnipresent (the opposite of the first Ghibli I watched, Spirited Away, which definitely set the bar for the rest) helped me tune in to its unique rhythm very quickly this time and bask in its nostalgic, childlike wonder.

Where Grave of the Fireflies shows children stripped of their innocence, Totoro displays that very innocence in all its glory, to the tiniest details that a kid’s imagination can transform into marvelous discoveries. From staring into the darkness that lies beyond the attic stairwell, to rejoicing when seeds planted and tended in the back garden finally sprout, Miyazaki’s keen eye captures moments of fear, celebration and curiosity with remarkable clarity and specificity. Satsuki and Mei’s distinct movements and facial expressions (not to mention those of the hilariously prideful yet shy Kanta) prove the master’s firm grasp on the inner and outer lives of kids. 

And that’s without even mentioning the creatures of the forest - in Totoro the line between the mundane and the fantastical is almost non-existent. As the girls wait for their father at the bus station in the pouring rain, heavy footsteps are heard in the mud, and suddenly two massive, furry, clawed feet about over the edge of the umbrella. Totoro - his mouth either a tiny circle, a wide, toothy grin or a gaping chasm depending on the circumstance - and his various friends don’t so much step into the girls’ world, as emerge naturally from their minds, much like a gigantic tree emerges from the ground during a midnight ritual. 

My issues on my first viewing a couple of years ago, while now minor, still irked me. The conflict that abruptly arises in the last stretch of the film is quite jarring, after an hour with almost no conflict at all, and the movie ends so quickly after it’s resolution that there’s no time to process or internalize it’s impact. Maybe I prefer subjective children’s films that literalize the characters’ inner struggle more clearly, like E.T. or Where the Wild Things Are. The soundtrack is hit and miss - at times mysterious and enchanting, at others painfully dated (that awful, unbearably catchy ending song being the prime example). I suspect, however, considering the way these problems took such a backseat on rewatch, that on future viewings they could cease to bother me. 

My Neighbor Totoro left me feeling as light as air. While it may not have the dramatic heft of some of Miyazaki’s later works (or it’s brother on initial release, the aforementioned Grave), the film never aspires as such - rather it wishes to key into those wonderfully peculiar (peculiarly wonderful?) moments of childhood that any viewer can recall, and in that mission it succeeds with flying colors.

Yeah I wanna have a nap on Totoro’s stomach. The review could’ve just been that sentence.

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