It's been 35 years since Studio Ghibli brought us My Neighbour Totoro; born out of the desire of animator Hayao Miyazaki to make a "delightful, wonderful film", it is one of Ghibli's most well-known films to date. This week, we had our writers travel way back to 1950s Japan to follow along on Satsuki and Mei's magical adventure...
The chance to rewatch a Studio Ghibli movie, even one I’ve neglected a little, was not an opportunity I was going to pass up. And I’m so glad I made the time - My Neighbour Totoro still deserves its classic status, existing individually as a wonderfully made tale about imagination and childhood, and within the context of 2023 as a peaceful refreshment amongst an oversaturation of streaming content that competes to be more and more attention-grabbing.
The animation style, with crisp, precise figures moving amongst painterly countryside backdrops, is gorgeous, and has caused the 1988 film to age way better than some CGI fare from the early 2000s (yes, as much as it pains me, I am talking about Shrek). Unlike other well loved Ghibli titles such as Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle which are expansive, fast-paced adventures, My Neighbour Totoro is a small, sleepy-paced affair, focusing on one family and their neighbours in their rural home. However, it is no less magical for it, and the leisurely pace at which the plot unfolds allows for the animators to focus on details of the setting such as rambling wildflowers and trees, tumbledown farmhouses and plump frogs croaking in the rain. This feels oddly fashionable right now, even though Totoro was "cottagecore" before it was a twinkle in the eye of the trend cycle.
Aside from the beautiful visuals and general relaxing vibe, another strength of the movie is the way the writers depict the central family. While My Neighbour Totoro is known for its whimsy, with young sisters Satsuki and Mei discovering the friendly forest spirit Totoro in the woods near their new home, the two girls are also dealing with family trauma. With their mother stuck in hospital indefinitely with an unspecified illness, their working father is cheerful but clearly struggling to cope. This leaves tiny Mei volatile and clingy towards Satsuki, who is dealing with parental responsibilities beyond her age. The two girls, although clearly very young, are distinctive and realistic characters, and moments of play the movie focuses on feel authentic and touching. Even during the girls’ adventures with Totoro and his friends, these scenes seem to be as much about their bond as they are about the magical characters. While the effect of the family situation on the sisters is convincingly explored, it is with a feather-light touch, balancing perfectly what I feel some children’s films can get wrong - as anyone mildly disturbed by Bridge to Terabithia knows.
I watched the subtitled version of this, but noticed that the English-language dubbed version boasts an impressive voice cast with the Fanning sisters as Satsuki and Mei. Whatever way you choose to enjoy this film, My Neighbour Totoro is a first Ghibli movie I’d strongly recommend for anyone getting into the Studio’s films, especially for very young viewers as it’s such a gentle but magical watch. As with much of Ghibli’s output, this film is such a strong argument for venturing beyond English-language media in search of truly memorable gems.
It has been a long time since I last saw My Neighbour Totoro, and having returned to it, I’m not sure if it was worth the re-watch. I feel weird saying this because it is an iconic film that captures a lot of what has come to define Studio Ghibli over the past 35 years: it is saturated with warm colours and cosiness, the design for Totoro is soft and comforting, Joe Hisaishi’s score is equal parts affective and catchy, and Hayao Miyazaki makes it easy to lose yourself in a magical world.
But the real world hasn’t always been kind to me, and it hasn’t been kind to Totoro either. Seeing the film again was enjoyable, but it didn’t enamour me in the same way it used to, a lot of the novelty had worn off. Likewise, in the intervening years since its theatrical release, the film has begun to show its age. While the gentle pace is a huge part of the charm, the plot feels empty when compared to later Ghibli films, which balance their worlds of wonder with compelling characters and action. And some of the animation looks stiff where later films are fluid and lively. This is not to accuse Ghibli of poor or lazy animation, in fact, the film is packed with charming little touches like having Mei crawl or shuffle rather than relying on a handful of walk cycles, or Kanta’s backpack being left open to make his running look more dynamic. But what was once technically impressive is par for the course in later films, and these offer more compelling (but perhaps equally heartwarming) stories.
What’s worse is that Satsuki and Mei are kind of annoying. It’s not an issue when you’re watching with young children and having fun, but when you’re sitting in bed alone listening to your bones wither and trying not to think too much about the implications of the cat bus, their constant shrieking and shouting begins to grate, especially given how quiet the rest of the film is. Plus, as adorable as Totoro is, the designs for the human characters are truly ugly, top-heavy and toadish (derogatory); every 10 minutes there would be a frame depicting a human expression so hideous it gave me acid reflux. Maybe I’m being too harsh, but I think there’s a reason nobody wants Satsuki plushies.
But there’s one more thing, a really weird thing, returning to My Neighbour Totoro and spotting all the ways it doesn’t hold up hasn’t changed my opinion of it in the slightest. Yes, Ghibli goes on to do so much better, but this film is still beautiful in the places where it counts. The rich and warm greens and soft, gentle forest spirits makes for a comfortable pastoral that doesn’t fall into romanticism, but instead captures the heart of childhood, good and bad. It isn’t brimming with darkness, conflict or complexity; like Totoro himself, the story is simple, soft, and here to take care of you, and it’s easy to imagine a rainy afternoon in years to come where I’m sitting with a young child and can invite to meet my old neighbour Totoro.
Edited by Florence Strang Boon.