Continuing lessons on living from the animation maestro’s oeuvre
Previous life lessons:
Part 1: LUPIN III — THE CASTLE OF CAGLIOSTRO
Part 2: NAUSICAÄ OF THE VALLEY OF THE WIND
Part 3: CASTLE IN THE SKY
Welcome back to our continuing series on “Living With Miyazaki,” as we examine the lessons one can take from his various films through their recurring motifs and varied approaches. Miyazaki had definitely made his mark with his first three features, but his fourth is maybe his definitive work. It’s certainly easy to see why the titular furball immediately became the mascot of Studio Ghibli.
THE MOVIE: My Neighbor Totoro
Every now and then, the question of “what’s your favorite Miyazaki film?” comes up, and I always have a couple that I roll around until I remember Totoro and go “Oh right, this might be his best movie.” It’s a film that’s 88 minutes of all story and vibes and almost zero “plot,” where an inciting incident not unlike Poltergeist is played as “but it’s actually chill, tho.” When the Kusakabe family moves into a new house that’s overflowing with spirits (not to mention right next door to a magic tree guarded by a forest spirit), Mei and her big sister, Satsuki, find themselves wandering in and out of magical encounters in between helping with their chores and going to school.
The opening song might lull some in the audience into expecting a super saccharine bit of fluff, but for all its massive “comfort” vibes, there’s an immediate sense of honesty that allows the cheery tone to go down smooth instead of cloying. But, more importantly, it lets the occasional dark corner that creeps into the edge of frame feel genuine.
Satsuki and Mei are in their house for literal minutes before they encounter honest-to-goodness magical sprites, and Mei Narnias her way into the the lair of a magical woodland troll during her sister’s first day at school. However, the Kusakabe family is hardly caught unawares. They take the stories about house spirits from their kindly neighbor (who insists the girls call her “Granny”) at face value, and begin a dynamic with their fantastical surroundings based on communication and mutual respect.
Miyazaki’s narrative structure is at arguably its most invisible (if not outright absent) in My Neighbor Totoro, which spends a great deal of its 88 minutes showcasing the kids doing silly kid stuff, settling into their new community, planting seeds, and visiting each other at school. One of the film’s major centerpieces involves waiting for a bus in the rain. But in spite of the “all cozy vibes” front, Totoro’s finale reveals that these seemingly meandering misadventures have been deliberately building toward a potent emotional and narrative catharsis during the search for a missing child.
And it ties back to how the characters actually listen to each other.
Apart from the “no, these spirits and ghosts in our house are cool, not nightmares” of it all, the most obvious early choice this movie makes that separates it from its near-horror starting premise is that the dad immediately listens to the kids about their reported encounters with supernatural Stuff. Instead of being an obstacle, he validates the girls’ experiences and “yes, and”s what they’ve seen with added context and advice (taking them to thank the spirits personally). The family becomes a rotating focal point as we move through the days that the girls try to fill while they wait for their mother to come home from the hospital.
Sometimes the “lesson” of a Miyazaki film will tie in part to a meta-textual aspect of its production, or a buried-but-important theme adjacent to the story being told. But here, it’s laid out in bold “I know writers who use subtext, and they’re all cowards” font.
It’s one thing to talk about how many Miyazaki movies foreground the importance of communication (of characters being honest with each other and themselves), but so much of Totoro turns on how well the characters listen to each other and the near-anthropomorphized world around them. Not only does the house shift and squeak both with and without the aid of the scurrying soot sprites, but the wind sighs and roars like gusty laughs over the fields before a leisurely rain. The Totoros of various sizes may be among the only incarnations of the natural wonders that Miyazaki and his team of wizards paint for us, but it’s never in doubt that the world is a living, breathing thing that must be heeded.
It also feels like no accident that the most devastating inciting incident in the film (and the closest it comes to gesturing at something so base as “plot”) is when two characters feel they aren’t being heard. When Mei goes missing in an attempt to bring her mother an ear of corn to help her feel better (look, veggies are good for you, it’s just math), the entire countryside community comes alive like a hodgepodge collection of instruments coalescing into an orchestra.
This may sound overblown when talking about a movie where giant teddy bears fly through the air but also commute using cat-shaped buses (consistency is for cowards), but there’s always been a quiet power in My Neighbor Totoro. Because for all that it’s “comfortable” or “cozy” or what have you, there’s a sobering depth in what’s left unsaid. From the reason they’re moving out to the country in the first place, to the familiarity they have with their mother’s repeated hospital stays — even to the fact that the film quietly makes clear that something as simple as having two functioning umbrellas is a lucky luxury.
The brightness of My Neighbor Totoro is so bright it could hurt your eyes, but it’s never cloying or dishonest. It earns those lazy sunny days the warm magical evenings by knowing which shadows to dance around. Totoro lives in a world that knows how dark the nights can get, but — if you know how to listen — you can find enough light to keep it at bay.
Next Up: Brendan Foley will hop on a broomstick for a ride-along with our favorite big city witch in Kiki’s Delivery Service.