My Neighbor Totoro (となりのトトロ) is the fourth feature length anime from Studio Ghibli and it became such a cultural phenomenon in Japan that not only did Totoro become Studio Ghibli’s mascot it also made Totoro a character as loved and adored by the Japanese as Mickey Mouse.
My Neighbor Totoro is a portrait of rural Japan of the 50s. A college professor moves in to an old house close to a forest with his two young daughters, while his wife recovers from an illness in the nearby rural sanitarium. Satzuki, the older daughter, is the perfect elder sister. She is caring and loving and is wise and responsible beyond her years. She understands that her mother is missing and takes responsibility for her younger sister- Mei- who is a small bundle of energy and the joy of living.
One day, by sheer accident, Mei discovers the existence of magical creatures in the forest. The Totoro, who is massive, furry and as innocent as the children, who are the only ones who can see him, lives on a gigantic tree that is several centuries old. And thus starts an adventure that is full of joy, discovery and pure poetry.
Totoro is much more though than a simple cuddly creature. He is huge and at first look, could look a little ferocious. He is a symbol for nature, its beauty, its majesty and its mystery. He reminds us of the importance of friendship, love and the simple pleasures of life.
However, My Neighbor Totoro, is not just an adventurous romp through fantasy land. It is a slow and meditative film that looks at nature through the innocent eyes of children. There is an under note of sadness that runs through out the film, as the children grapple with the absence of their mother. Totoro and his band, including the iconic Cat Bus, are what they cling on to when tragedy seems to overwhelm them.
The characters- Mei, Satsuki, the parents, the old helpful neighbor- each and every one is well sketched out and full of depth. You sympathize with all of them and understand their motivations. The beautiful animation makes Totoro come alive, so much so that you wish you had the children’s innocent eyes to see him too, standing next to you in a bus stop on a rainy night.
My Neighbor Totoro is Miyazaki’s greatest ode to nature and the joy of exploring it and losing oneself its simple joys. It is also a beautiful tribute to an era that has passed us by and that we all wish we could go back to. Few films will ever surpass its simplicity, poetry and textured beauty.