Anime Review: Tonari no Totoro (1988)

TL;DR – a father and his two daughters move to the country to be closer to their sick mother, who is in a hospital nearby. The two girls discover a world of nature, forest spirits and untold beauty.

Review (warning: spoilers)

Tonari no Totoro (translated to My Neighbour Totoro) is arguably Hayao Miyazaki’s greatest creation. Many subsequent films have garnered critical acclaim and awards including Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and Howl’s Moving Castle, but it is the magical creature that is Totoro that is Studio Ghibli’s flagship. The emblem of the Totoro represents all things Studio Ghibli has created and epitomises story telling and animation excellence among not only the anime-obsessed Japanese but also international audiences. This bulbous creature is instantly recognisable by all anime fans and is equivalent to Mickey Mouse for Disney, Spider-man for Marvel and Batman or Superman for DC.

The story of a professor and his two daughters, Satsuki and Mei, moving to rural Japan and into a post-war house that has seen better days is not the stuff of legend. It is merely a slice of life captured in animated form with rice paddy fields, lush forests, mountainsides and running creeks (the likes of which Monet and Van Gogh would be proud). There is beauty in every scene as we watch Satsuki and Mei explore their backyard and the various levels of their new house (which some of the local kids think is haunted). Miyazaki captures the curiosity that comes from being a child and everything is an adventure.

The introduction of the Totoro is pure magic, an “Alice in Wonderland” trip down a tree hollow into an underground cavern of greenery, flowers and butterflies where resides a very sleepy forest spirit named Totoro that is a cross between a very round, very large, egg-shaped bear and a cat. Only a child, in this case little Mei, would approach this creature without trepidation. The soft, pillow-like fur of the Totoro’s tail causing Mei to hug it like a plush toy before being lifted up on its belly because he turns over to sleep on his back. I imagine the Totoro is like cashmere, lying on his giant stomach, his warmth and breathing as you rise and fall, causing you to fall asleep as if you’re enveloped in soft down (which is exactly what happens to Mei).

How this movie has transcended cultural boundaries and become a cult phenomenon is beyond me because it doesn’t have the typical edge like Pulp Fiction, Blade Runner or Fight Club nor the so-bad-it’s-good cult status of films like Plan 9 from Outer Space or Who Killed Captain Alex? In this way, Tonari no Totoro, has achieved cult status in a unique way. There’s no twists, no violence, no shocks, and no complex plot. What this film does have is depth, or rather depth in simplicity. The ability to capture everyday life in a magical, non-ordinary way. Whether it’s walking home in the rain, or riding a bicycle, or exploring the attic of a house, there’s something about how Miyazaki presents these that keeps you spell bound.

The flourish of the fantastical is restrained and not done in a way that is heavy handed. Miyazaki’s other films like Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle have the fantastical front and centre, but Tonari no Totoro moves because of its main two characters in Satsuki and Mei, and the relationship they have between each other. The scene where Satsuki has a sleeping Mei on her back (her hands giving her a piggy-back) waiting at the bus stop for their father to return from work, open umbrella over her shoulder as the light drizzle of rain persists, is animated magic. When the giant Totoro arrives with a big leaf on its head in a futile attempt to protect itself from the drizzle, it is nothing short of comical and engaging. The expression on Satsuki seeing the Totoro for the first time is priceless, and when she hands him a spare umbrella, which he manages to open and then finds the rain does not hit his head anymore is so moving, you will wish you had a Totoro at your bus stop too. The fact the Totoro is waiting for a cat bus needs to be seen to be believed.

There’s so much to fall in love with in this film that it warrants repeat reviewing. It’s a (cult) classic that is just as engaging decades on. And like I said, there’s a cat bus. If you ever want a movie to be elevated into greatness, then throw in a cat bus. For audiences of all ages, a must-see.

10 out of 10

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