Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Writer: Hayao Miyazaki
When Mei and Satsuki Kusakabe move to the countryside, they discover the woods nearby are inhabited by magical spirits called Totoros.
My Neighbor Totoro possesses a charm that is, perhaps, all its own. No other film that I can think of, not even from Studio Ghibli, has quite the same blend of childlike belief, natural wonder, and magical strangeness as the background for its story. From the first moments when we see the family ride through the countryside to their new home, audiences know that something extraordinary must await them—and yet everything around them looks perfectly normal. The film just succeeds in suggesting the potential of magic without even seeming to try.
And what a magic the children find! It is like nothing that viewers could have predicted. Its rules are unexplained, its ways strange, and its appearances almost frightening. Yet at the same time it manages to seem benign, even friendly. It is a part of the home and yet also part of nature. It is everywhere, yet typically nowhere to be found. It goes its ways as it pleases, yet never seems standoffish. Somehow, it just is. And audiences accept it as they find it.
The children, of course, are our guides to understanding this new world. They embrace it whole-heartedly, taking its existence for granted and never questioning its benevolence. It is wild and strange, but they trust it with the type of trust only children can bestow and they find themselves richly rewarded. To see the world through their eyes—young, innocent, and unafraid—is a great gift, and one that helps weave the enchantment more strongly.
I am always amazed at the eye Miyazaki has for human nature. The details he imparts to his characters make them come to life and I wonder if I have ever seen an animated child seem quite so childlike as I do when I watch his two young protagonists laugh and shriek gleefully for no reason, or when I see them tripping about the yard totally oblivious to their clothing—to stains, to tears, and to the flashing of undergarments. These seem not to be animations but real people. I half expect them to step off the screen.
Some may find the lack of a well-defined plot in My Neighbor Totoro a disappointment, but I believe that the richness of Miyazaki’s world and the beauty of his character depictions are all that this story needs. It presents to us a moment in two lives, a moment that contains all the meaning in the world. There is love and life and laughter and beauty in that moment, as well as sorrow and loneliness and fear. And if that is not a story, and one worth telling, then what is?
4 thoughts on “Movie Review: My Neighbor Totoro (1988)”
I don’t know if I’d like this or not, but I really enjoyed learning more about the movie from your review! There are few movies I’ve heard so much about while still knowing so little about it.
I watched this one with some friends and I think they had mixed feelings about it just because it doesn’t have a well-defined plot like we’re used to. I really enjoyed it, though, and I am so glad I have finally learned what a Totoro! It sort of seemed as if everyone had seen this movie but me! (Totoros are way cuter than I was expecting for some reason.)
Great review! I was a little startled at first at how minimal the plot was, but the delight of following the two sisters as they explored their new home and made friends with Totoro and the other forest spirits was just fantastic. The bus stop scene just cracked me up but I also loved the sequence where they made the trees grow; so wonderful. Oh, and that song was just stuck in my family’s heads for weeks, lmao!
The bus stop scene was hilarious! I never knew an umbrella could make someone so happy. 😉
The Totoro song is still in my head. But wait until you hear the Ponyo song!