My Neighbour Totoro has become one of the most beloved family films of all time. Interestingly, the first time I saw it wasn’t in its original opening year of 1988. At that time I was still in the army and all things manly. What I presumed was a cheesy anime of an outlandish grey creature didn’t entice me one bit. The first time I saw this was from a Studio Ghibli DVD boxset a few years later, but distinctively recalled that it didn’t floor me. Then I think it was in 1998, one rainy night in my university, during a screening in a theatre, I finally ‘got’ it. When the lights came on, I could see tears and smiles on a lot of the ladies’ faces.
What did I ‘get’ that night? I finally understand why it’s considered a masterpiece for a cartoon. It didn’t use the traditional narrative structure and usual plot devices to tell its story. This film has NO villains. NO fight scenes. NO angry disbelieving parents. NO suspicious characters with ulterior motives. NO red herrings. NO plot twists and turns. NO fighting between the two sisters (in fact during the first hour both sisters’ moods and attitudes are the same. If it’s Hollywood their behavior will be the opposite, acting as counterpoints). NO scary monsters. NO lesson learned arcs for main characters. On paper it looks like a disaster because the ingredients for a story are just not there. But oh man… the film works so well. If you can’t marvel at it, it is because of one of three reasons – you are immature, you have a heart of stone or you have just broken up with someone.
The film does not work on the premise of threats or conflicts but on situations. It is suffused with the joy of country living (no long faces here, complaining of boredom). It unites the unique vision of Miyazaki with a feel-good tale of childlike wonder, true originality and pure enchantment. You will find nothing emotionally manipulative here.
Every time I see this, I can still notice stuff that I have missed in my last viewing. Last night I saw an early scene where Satsuki first lay eyes on their new rundown house and shook on a wooden pillar. Debris falls, she laughs heartily. Mei follows her sis and does the same, debris falls more violently. Everybody, including their dad laughs. If this is any other movie, a foreshadowing doom music will ring out, dad’s face contorted in mortal danger and to seal the deal, dad will sprout some warning to the kids. I also noticed in this latest viewing that ghosts, goblins and boogeyman are mentioned but the words are uttered in a sense of wonder, not of doom. Try also to name a cartoon with a sick parent/adult (I know… Pixar’s Up)… there are not many and I am going to say the ill adult is used as the focus point to tell the bigger story. In this film, illness is treated as a matter of fact.
I love this movie. It is a film that teaches you how the world should be and how we should live and want to live our life.
My friends for life…