Most groups, such as a for-profit company, a charitable organization or a sporting club often tend to have a mascot associated to their name these days. For example, like most other teams in the National Hockey League, the Chicago Blackhawks’ mascot department is represented by an large hawk named Tommy Hawk (a play on the word “tomahawk”), who makes appearances whenever the team plays at their arena, the United Center. The logo of the popular mobile software OS, Android, features a green alien creature which is known only as “Bugdroid” by its corresponding development team at Google; and not to mention, classic video game characters Mario and Sonic serve as the mascots of multi-billion dollar gaming companies Nintendo and SEGA, respectively. Studio Ghibli is no stranger to this trend, and thus also has its own animated brand ambassador; a giant, bunny-like creature by the name of Totoro, who also happens to be the star of his very own film, titled My Neighbor Totoro.
MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO
My Neighbor Totoro was the third film to be released by Studio Ghibli, in April of 1988. It was directed by none other than Hayao Miyazaki himself, and is the second film wherein he worked as its principal director (the first being Castle in the Sky). It is widely recognized as one of his major breakthrough films. Upon its release, the film was shown side-to-side with another flick from the same year, Grave of the Fireflies (coincidentally, the previous Ghibli film that I reviewed) – an interesting choice, considering how somber and morose the latter film is, as opposed to this one’s idyllic tone. The film was showered with accolades such as top prize at the Anime Grand Prix, Manichi Film, Blue Ribbon and Cinema Jumpo Awards in the same year after its release, and has since also gained positive acclaim internationally.
As for Totoro, his first appearance in the cinema would also prove to be his first of many, as many other Ghibli films would put him in various cameo appearances; furthermore, he can be seen on the studio’s main logo at the beginning of every one of its films, and his recognizability is well-known both in and beyond Japan, even to those who are not at all familiar with anime. But with all the hype and enigma surrounding this character, what is it about his film that’s evoked so much attention even to this day? A deep dive to the plot should suffice.
Set in the summer of 1958, just mere months before the end of Pope Pius XII’s 19-year term as the Vicar of Christ, the film follows two sisters, Satsuki and Mei, as they move into a countryside home with their father, a distinguished university professor. The location of their new home is strategically picked so that they could be closer to their ill mother. Immediately after the family moves in, Mei and Satsuki run into black poofballs known as susuwatari, which their father likens to dustbunnies. Along the way, they meet a young boy named Kanta, who acts aloof towards the two girls in each of their encounters, and his kind grandmother.
While Satsuki is at school, Mei is at home accompanying her busy father, but while out playing the garden, she runs into a trail of acorns, which leads her to a small Totoro-like creature. Piqued by the sight, she pursues the creature in a Bugs Bunny – Elmer Fudd style of chase, only to be led into a mini-forest under the large camphor tree by their house. Here, she, and the rest of the audience for the very first time, come face to face with a sleeping Totoro, who Mei amusedly plays around with, interrupting the former’s sleep. Although she is unharmed, she is discovered by Satsuki and her father sleeping underneath the camphor tree’s confines, and becomes confused as Totoro is nowhere to be found; she has apparently stepped back into reality. Although Satsuki is initially in unbelief when Mei insists of Totoro’s existence, she comes to believe her when one night, while waiting for her father at a rainy bus stop, she comes face-to-face with the gentle giant and his homeboy, a large cat shaped like a bus whom we shall call the Cat Bus™. He hands the two girls a packet of magical acorns, which they use to grow some plants in their backyard (of course, with the help of him and his mini-me squad).
Things begin to take a dark turn in the final act of the movie, when it is revealed that their mother, who is suffering from some sort of illness, appears to be near the point of death. While Satsuki, Mei and Kanta race off to a neighbor’s house, intent on informing their father via phone, Mei gets lost after she is told of her mother’s condition, and Satsuki sets off to find her. When she, Kanta’s grandmother and the local search party are unable to find her, she turns to Totoro and his magical Cat Bus™ for help; together they manage to find Mei, and head to the hospital where their parents are staying at, secretly leaving a corn on the windowsill – while their mother remarks how Mei and Satsuki seemed to be watching from a distance.
At the conclusion of these three fun-filled adventures, Totoro and the magical Cat Bus™ return the two girls back home safely. The family is reunited, Satsuki and Mei begin their new endeavors in their rural hometown, and everyone else lives happily ever after.
WHAT I LIKED
- So why is this film so popular? I’ll have Roger Ebert’s take on this film describe it, because he hammers home the real magic behind this film:
“Here is a children’s film made for the world we should live in, rather than the one we occupy. A film with no villains. No fight scenes. No evil adults. No fighting between the two kids. No scary monsters. No darkness before the dawn. A world that is benign. A world where if you meet a strange towering creature in the forest, you curl up on its tummy and have a nap.“
In other words, the movie is relaxing and whimsical – it’s just a movie centered around the importance of being with family, as well as a look on the joys of childhood innocence. No need for a needlessly complicated plot device or to spend too much time on expositional content on what’s going on; the content is simple and nothing too crazy on your mind, one that you can look back on and unwind with when life gets out of hand.
- This film has plenty of beautiful visuals depicting the Japanese countryside and life there. I won’t lie, but upon seeing this film, it made me seriously consider buying a house in the Japanese countryside and moving there. (although Northern Ontario works as well, but point still stands) Once again, the magic of Studio Ghibli proves effective in sucking the viewer into the world of and immersing them completely within it. Not to mention, I also enjoyed the incredibly bizarre, yet wonderful designs for Totoro and the elusive Cat Bus™.
WHAT I DISLIKED
- If there’s one thing that kind of sucks about this film, it’s the pacing. I’m not gonna lie, the movie starts off slow, focusing on the world-building of our characters and their lives. It takes time to get the action going once it gets through Mei and Satsuki’s shenanigans in their new home; in fact, Totoro’s first appearance doesn’t show up until about a half-hour into the film, and longer before we realize what he’s supposed to represent other than Big Chungus’ distant cousin.
- I hate to bring up fan theories and associate it with a wonderful film like this, but there’s a theory going on that Totoro is a metaphor for none other than – get ready for this – death itself. I won’t even address that asinine claim in full detail, and why anyone would come up with that is beyond my knowledge. Whoever came up with this ridiculous idea needs to get their head checked for some kind of mental disability.
Being the simple story that it’s meant to be, My Neighbor Totoro will not be a movie where character development is king, nor are we going to get complex conversations like the types you see in superhero movies. The treatment of the characters is as simplistic as it can be – and it plays out for its benefit. The main characters to focus on are Satsuki and Mei, the young daughters of a university professor named Tatsuo, who embody a very childlike spirit of curiosity and optimism. Needless to say though, unlike other children’s movies where the main characters are depicted as without problems of their own, hints of realistic behavior are thrown into these characters, for example when they realize something happens with their mother at the hospital; the movie doesn’t simply brush it off and give the Barney treatment of “Everything will be fine, don’t worry!” – rather, it allows the characters to react upon, and contemplate the gravity of the situation – which leads to the climax and the dramatic, yet jovial conclusion the film provides. That’s one way that Studio Ghibli films stand out – making their characters’ personalities as lifelike as possible – be they the main protagonist, or side characters like Kanta, his grandmother, or Satsuki and Mei’s parents.
Then you have the centerpieces of the supernatural world of Totoro and his friends. Although they do not have any lines of dialogue, they play a crucial role in our main human protagonists’ lives, as they interact with them and make their summer days merry. One thing that was cool about this film was how Totoro’s gang serves as symbol of nature itself, and is very straightforward on exploring the beauty of such, and how the human relationship with it should be; one of a respectful and healthy treatment towards each other. I guarantee you if Pope Francis saw this film (considering how big he is on such issues), My Neighbor Totoro would probably rise to the top of his favorites list.
There are two types of musical components that are inserted into the film; the opening and end credits of the movie; Sanpo, the song that plays in the opening credits, which, fittingly to its English name (“Stroll”), resembles a military march style of music, and the ending song which bears the title of the film. Then you have the in-music soundtrack which consists of pieces such as Joe Hishashi’s Path of the Wind. I found the music fit well with the atmosphere of the movie; catchy, adventurous and fun-loving. It goes hand-in-hand with a movie about experiencing summer at the countryside; again, another set of songs that you might want to include the next time you just want to chill during a nice summer evening.
Favorite moment: I really enjoyed the beginning parts of the film, seeing Satsuki, Mei and their father get used to their new rural environment and fix up their house. Combined with great visuals, it makes for a fun way to imagine renovating one’s house or condo room after they move in.
Favorite character: There’s no greater joy than seeing the Almighty Cat Bus™ passing by in this film. It’s got every hint of adorable and whimsical imprinted on its smile and spotlight eyes.
Favorite quote: Some favorite quotes don’t have to have words in order to be my favorite, and I’ll say that any time Totoro makes a noise, consider that as automatically the closest thing to a “favorite quote” that I can extract from this film.
My Neighbor Totoro is not a film for those who are seeking action, nor is it one for people who want a conclusive plot, filled with expositions, from start to finish. Better yet, if I had to describe My Neighbor Totoro, I’d liken it to a home video describing the life of a family in postwar Japan. It’s a wholesome, pure and nicely assembled movie that’s a testament to Hayao Miyazaki’s double ability to create beautiful worlds and tell a story. As it stands right now, it’s my second-favorite Ghibli film to date, and it’s for certain something that I’ll set aside time to re-watch every summer.