Damn Classics: 'My Neighbor Totoro'
This is the first of a (likely irregular) John Serba At Large feature in which I dig into a film that's enjoyed a lasting impact in movie culture, and, more personally, enhanced my appreciation of the form. These films are Damn Classics.
Totoro does not repeat a catchphrase, sing a pop song, consume a marketable product or do anything we expect the star of an animated film to do. He doesn’t speak at all, is only in a few sequences, and his true nature is an enigma. (He’s a lot like Godzilla that way. Someone arrange a meeting, please.)
“My Neighbor Totoro” isn’t his story, although he plays a key role, of course. The film, an ageless classic from 1988 written and directed by Japanese master storyteller Hayao Miyazaki, appoints Totoro the guardian of two young girls, Satsuki and her four-year-old little sister Mei, who have just settled into their new countryside home with their father. It’s postwar Japan. Their mother is in a nearby hospital, and her recovery and release are open-ended.
Imagine the worries these girls must burden. Their father is a good man, goofy at times, sweet with his children, but sometimes flighty and preoccupied with his work as a university professor. He certainly offers them assurance, love and guidance. When he oversleeps, Satsuki steps up and cheerfully makes lunches before going to school. While he pores over his books and papers, Mei explores the environs, and disappears into the neighboring forest, rendered with gorgeous, hand-drawn animation resembling watercolors. He’s too busy to notice. She chases a pair of curious creatures, rabbitlike of course, through a tunnel in the thicket, then plummets Alice-like into an odd wooded chamber where the nocturnal Totoro slumbers.
It’s soon clear: When Dad isn’t present by necessity, or is overwhelmed or distracted - understandably so - Totoro is there, a quiet presence, but a big one. So big, Mei naps on his enormous belly. He resembles a combination of an owl, a rabbit, a badger and, probably coincidentally, my very large grey cat. Note when he opens his mouth and emits a hulklike roar, his teeth are dull and flat like an herbivore’s. His size may be intimidating, but his disposition is kind. His eyes sometimes betray a knowing twinkle; sometimes, they’re wide and innocent; sometimes, they’re the empty stare of a wild animal. They contain no answers, only suggestions.
His name isn’t even Totoro, but that’s what Mei calls him, roughly translating one of his roars. Close enough. He doesn’t object. He just blinks.
I recently saw “My Neighbor Totoro” for maybe the 20th time, but also the first time. It’s long been a staple of our family DVD player, especially after my son, now three years old, was born. The last time I saw it was on the big screen, in a public theater, with many children in attendance. Like my son, the kids didn’t always stay seated, and occasionally spoke loudly. They giggled and expressed awe when Totoro was on the screen. “Don’t worry, Totoro will help her,” was one of the sentiments my boy shared during the movie’s climactic moments.
This, I realized, is how the film should be experienced. I wondered how many in attendance were seeing it for the first time, or, like us, the 20th. It doesn’t matter - it’s delightful either way.
Notably, “My Neighbor Totoro” has very little conflict, if any. It’s keenly observational and, per Roger Ebert, it’s “a little sad, a little scary, a little surprising and a little informative, just like life itself.”
One of the film’s most beloved moments is certainly one of mine - not just from this film, but any film. Those familiar with the movie know the sequence: the bus stop. Satsuki and Mei stand beneath an umbrella in the fading twilight, waiting for their dad. It’s a wooded, rural road. A lamplight blinks on. A frog crawls slowly nearby. The girls are weary. Satsuki holds her sister piggyback-style, and Mei dozes off. The rain pours down. Stooped by the weight and peering from beneath the umbrella, Satsuki sees a pair of large, clawed feet come to rest beside her.
Until this point, Satsuki hadn’t seen Totoro, only hearing her sister’s story about napping on his belly. She never once expressed her disbelief. (Neither did Dad. How often do you see movies in which parents aren’t skeptical of their children’s extraordinary claims?) She looks from beneath the umbrella, and Totoro stares straight ahead, a leaf a de facto rain hat on his head. Annoying drips of water tickle his nose. She offers him an umbrella, her father’s. Totoro accepts, holds it above him, and bristles with glee when droplets from the trees above spatter the umbrella fabric. He roars, and a multitude of large drops fall on the three of them. A simple joy. Totoro is ecstatic.
Totoro’s roar also summons his grand, crazy ride - the magnificent Catbus, a large psychedelic creature with a dozen legs, headlight eyes, and a wide, toothy smile inspired by the Cheshire Cat. Totoro’s big, triangular grin is both crazy and reassuring. He boards the Catbus, which scampers off into the night, its wild headlight beams cutting playfully through the dark. Satsuki and Mei stand in silence, mouths agape, their fear and concern replaced with curiosity and wonder. The rain stopped, and they barely noticed. (Neither did we.) Their father’s bus finally arrives, and he disembarks. The girls jabber excitedly as they head home. Miyazaki closes the sequence with a shot of the frog, their only corroborating witness. “Errrrrp,” it croaks.
The Catbus returns for the climax, to comfort and aid the girls in a moment of concern. This plot development isn’t a crisis, but a life occurrence, a problem to be persevered, not solved. Their mother’s scheduled weekend trip home is canceled due to a complication - she’s caught a cold. Mei runs away, and Satsuki elicits Totoro’s help to find her. He summons the Catbus to transport Satsuki to her sister. It dashes across the countryside, local farmers oblivious to its existence; it cuts through the woods, the trees bending out of their way. The Catbus defies physics as it zooms along, distorting reality around it.
A third Totoro sequence is just as odd, beautiful and captivating. Roused from slumber, Satsuki and Mei join him and two smaller Totoros as they dance over acorns planted in the girls’ garden. Thrusting the gifted umbrella in the air above him, Totoro inspires the seeds to burst with life, and a massive tree sprouts, shooting into the sky. He spins a top, hops on the humming toy, invites the girls to hold onto his fur, and flies them through the crisp nighttime air. They come to rest atop the tree, and make music, blowing into hollowed-out acorns.
Was this treetop adventure only a dream? Is Totoro a true forest spirit? Or does he come from a realm between waking and sleeping? Again, Miyazaki is wise in offering suggestions over concrete answers. They should hang in the air like many of life’s big mysteries. The film is certainly a celebration of the imaginary friend, a classic storytelling mechanism typically inspiring wonder in young audiences and nostalgic melancholy in adults. (Comic-strip artist Bill Watterson tread similar territory with “Calvin and Hobbes.”)
“My Neighbor Totoro” acts contrary to the assumption that children need an onslaught of noise, color and movement to entertain them. The idea is seductive, but silly. My son paid the same amount of attention to the kinetic zip of “Incredibles 2” - which is great for altogether different reasons - as he did to Miyazaki’s gentle film. Its appeal is rooted in Satsuki and Mei, who are relatable, naturalistic characters, not hyper-designed facsimiles of real children. Also Totoro himself, a character who appears to be a manifestation of pure whimsy, but also something bigger than stuff of the material world: imagination, nature, optimism, playfulness. See the film on a big screen, where Totoro’s great, silent virtues fill the room. And bring a kid if you can.