No other film produced by the Studio Ghibli animation company has come to define the studio in its creative aims and ideals more than its 1988 film My Neighbour Totoro directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Not only is the company now represented by the images of the creatures found in the film, it is the perfect blend of naive idealism and alternative animation with the depth and genuine family drama that define Ghibli.
Like many Ghibli films, My Neighbour Totoro is about family values, told through a narrative of soot gremlins and wood trolls; the sort of creatures found in folklore but represented through the excited and unbiased nature found in childhood. Gremlins and trolls may conjure images more inclined with fantasy horror with the likes of Lord of the Rings and The Gremlins but these creatures are more in line (and a clear influence) with Pokémon and the like more than being scary beasts of the night.
Satsuki and her little sister Mai move with their father to an old house in the Japanese countryside to escape the bustle of the city and also to help ease them about their mother who’s currently sick and in hospital. However it becomes clear that the house and the forest surrounding is full of all sorts of creatures that help the children through the emotional drama of their day to day life.
If this all sounds a bit life affirming it should be stated that this film is about a carefree lifespecifically to avoid the drama that could potentially blacken the children’s childhood. There’s a wonderful ambiguity to what we actually see on screen and whether all the creatures are real is one of the main talking points about the film.
The house is initially full of little soot gremlins, though these only really take root when the children are told by their father that they are specifically some kind of mythical creature. It’s not until the children explore the forest that the three Totoro appear for proper. Mei follows an extremely adorable mini totoro who must have been living under the house as he tries to sneak off with all its acorns in a satchel back into the forest.
The Totoro creature itself is a wonderfully surreal creation that wouldn’t look too out of place in Yellow Submarine. He’s a wordless, cuddly creature who comes to define a friendship with the girls, helping them both to forget the troubles the family are going through and help find Mei later on when she goes missing. Perhaps the most amazing invisible friend a childhood could ask for?
Most of the film’s memorable scenes focus on the largest Totoro himself whether it be his appearance at the bus stop as Mei and Satsuki are left waiting in the rain and darkness or his flying around with a magical travel disc and umbrella. Like a big, cuddly bear, he sits in the heart of the forest but it also seems like quite a scary and powerful creature especially when it sneezes and roars.
There are quite a few dark readings of this film flying around the internet. Quite a well argued one is that the girls are in fact dead and the creatures are real, allowing them to communicate later on with their mother as it’s clear something odd is going on when they somehow manage to get some corn to her at her hospital miles away. This also works with evidence given from a true account of a tragedy that happened in Japan some time ago. This however isn’t most enjoyable reading and instead a more apt and carefree one is that they really did get there on a giant cat bus that appears to be owned by the clan of Totoro.
An ideal escape into an idyllic childhood or a dark retelling of a tragic true story from Japanese modern folklore, My Neighbour Totoro is an adventurous and beautifully animated film full of characters that anyone would adore to have in their childhood.