by HELEN GEIB
Sisters Satsuki and Mei move to the country at the beginning of writer-director Hayao Miyazaki’s anime feature film My Neighbor Totoro. Mei is four years old and Satsuki several years older. Their new home is a ramshackle, old, traditional Japanese-style house on a large undeveloped lot. They work with their father to fix the place up before their mother comes home; she is recuperating in the hospital from an undefined, but evidently protracted illness. Satsuki starts school. Mei plays in the garden and woods by their house. They spend time with the wise old woman from the neighboring farm. Singly and together, they have a few remarkable encounters with a forest spirit they call Totoro and its diminutive companions.
As it does for children, time in the film passes unmarked. We live with Satsuki and Mei for a few weeks perhaps; perhaps less. The story is filled with the familiar incidents of everyday life for an ordinary family. For his fourth film, Miyazaki tells a very simple story with great simplicity and restraint. My Neighbor Totoro is remarkably naturalistic. That may seem a strange way to describe a film that features strange and mysterious creatures inspired by Japanese folklore, but naturalism is the project’s defining characteristic. It flows organically from the genuinely childlike young sisters at its center.
Mei is a wonderfully endearing creation. She has a huge, toothy smile and big round eyes in a square face; her reddish hair is tied up in two bushy ponytails that stick straight out from the sides of her head. She is clumsy, bright and cheerful, full of energy. She is always chasing after her big sister and has the fearless curiosity about her small world unique to little children.
Satsuki is a kind, sweet girl, but also spirited and adventurous; she might be Mei grown up a few years. Satsuki’s care for Mei is a mix of loving older sister and surrogate mother. The line between the two is blurred. Their mother’s long absence has naturally taken an emotional toll on both girls, a serious subject the film explores with consummate delicacy.
Mei stumbles upon the being she calls Totoro [tow·tow·row, stress on the first syllable] when she follows a trail of acorns that leads to a hidden world inside the giant tree at the heart of the forest (and as the subject/spirit of the area’s main Shinto shrine, of the community as well). She clambers up onto the sleeping Totoro to get a better look. She tickles its whiskers until it wakes up. It roars at her in a cross between a yawn and a shout; she roars back. It falls back asleep and she follows suit, lying spreadeagled on its wide, furry belly. It’s a wonderful scene.
Even more wonderful is Satsuki’s first meeting with Totoro. Satsuki and Mei are at the bus stop on a rainy day to meet their father so they can give him the umbrella he forgot to take with him that morning when he left for work. Totoro, waiting for the spirit bus, joins them. Fat rain droplets are dripping on Totoro’s nose from a large leaf worn as a rainhat. Satsuki offers her neighbor father’s umbrella. Enraptured by the pitter-patter sound of gentle rain on the umbrella, Totoro stomps a deluge out of the sheltering trees. The cacophony produces a joyful roar. The entire sequence is indescribably charming.
In their particulars, Miyazaki’s spirits are imaginative expressions of traditional Japanese beliefs, but in their essential attributes are, if not universal, at least widely pan-cultural. Cognizance of the spirit world is a privilege reserved for those few who combine receptive minds and childlike innocence. The old granny saw the spirits when she was a child, but cannot see them now although she still believes, and Satsuki’s school friends do not see even as children. The spirits are otherworldly: they do not use human language; they are not talking forest animals or humans in another guise. They are different from us. Their intimate connection to the natural world is seen in Totoro’s command of shifting forest paths and the wind that rattles the walls of the girls’ house. While Totoro and company are crucial to the film, the spirits rightly do not dominate the story. To see a spirit, let alone interact with one, is a rare and special thing.
Review Series – Directed by Hayao Miyazaki