“My Neighbor Totoro” was released in 1988. Thirty-four years later, it has opened — as a play — in London. It will certainly come to America, for the simple reason that it has been a gigantic success everywhere: $41 million in theaters, $277 million in home video sales, and $1.1 billion in merchandise sales. Reviews for the London production are rapturous. Time Out: “an endless cavalcade of sweet, strange joy.” The Guardian: “a thing of beauty… There is no Disney ending. The future remains uncertain, but the girls carry on believing in all things magical and unseen, and the lessons for life are kindness, hope and community. As one character says, talking to each other and listening to each other’s stories is ‘simply the best use of our time.’” You get the idea: this is not a movie only for children. To experience it is to have a brush with joy. And who doesn’t want that?
When I met our then eight-and-a-half year-old at the camp bus, I’d ask about her day.
A pointless exercise. Perfunctory answers escaped her ecosystem. But not much more. This is, after all, a girl who used to say her favorite sport was “getting into bed.”
So it was quite the surprise when she rushed off the camp bus, mouth engaged, face flushed. They’d had a film at camp. The best she’d ever seen. Couldn’t wait to see it again. [To get a senses why our daughter loved the movie, watch the trailer. And maybe a second trailer, in English.]
Miyazaki is best known for “Princess Mononoke,” the 1997 film that was the first animated feature to win Japan’s Best Picture of the Year. [To buy the DVD from Amazon, click here.] He then made “Spirited Away,” which was even more successful. [To buy the DVD from Amazon, click here.] And then he made “Ponyo.” [To buy the DVD from Amazon, click here.]
Here’s the crazy thing. Our daughter had seen all of these movies. They left her cold. Only “My Neighbor Totoro” gripped her and wouldn’t let go.
I did some reading. And watched “My Neighbor Totoro.” The kid was absolutely correct in her five-star assessment. And not just for young children. No matter how old you are, no matter how sophisticated you may think you are, it is a fantastic film experience, an 86-minute swath of gorgeousness with a message as beautiful as its images.
And the trick of it is… there’s no trick.
This is a movie rooted in the very ordinary.
When the film begins, it’s 1958. Satsuki and Mei Kusakabe, eight and four years old, are driving with their father to their new home in the country. Dad’s a professor in the city, but their mother has tuberculosis and is recovering in a rural hospital, and they want to be near her.
In a Disney movie, the first few scenes of the film would dazzle. Not here. The girls help their dad move in. They explore their new house and the fields and forest around it. They are, in a word, grounded.
This grounding is deceptive. Magic is afoot — spirits only the young can see. Some are dust sprites, little balls of soot that dart around the rooms. (When they leave the house, racing toward the clouds on a moonlit night, your jaw might drop at the beauty.) And then there is Totoro, a large troll who lives in a giant tree. He bellows. He grins. But for the girls, he’s really a big, soft climbing wall.
Stop the action for a moment, and look at what we have. Two leading characters, both girls. A loving father who, despite his work at a university, accepts the existence of spirits. A strange house that turns out to be warm and welcoming. A monster who isn’t dangerous. In short, a world of harmony and understanding. The biggest problem here: When will Mom be healthy enough to come home for the weekend?
The sense of relief generated by all this well-being isn’t boring. It’s liberating. It allows us to explore with the girls, to laugh at the socially inept boy who lives nearby, and to wallow in the girls’ adventures with the totoro.
The absence of conflict allows us to do something else: respond to the film’s extravagant beauty. Miyazaki’s a wonderful painter; if there was ever a film that makes you want to move to the country, this is it. The sky, the clouds, the forest — this animation delivers more visual interest per frame than real-world photography. The totoro’s genial awkwardness makes him fun to watch.
Late in the film, something may be going seriously wrong. The girls respond. So does dad. So do the totoro and the Cat Bus and the neighbors. What a wonderful world our daughter brought home.
This post was previously published on headbutler.com.
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