Animation has existed for almost as long as the art of motion pictures and the evolution of that art form has been just as rapid and expansive. Throughout the decades, we have seen plenty of animation pioneers from Émile Cohl to Walt Disney, but ask anyone with a passion for animation who their most inspirational animator working today is and you find plenty of fingers pointing to the other side of the world to Japan where Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli reside.
While we in the western world were blown away by the remarkable works of Walt Disney, on the other side of the world, Japan had found their own “Disney” and the influence this studio has had on animated films can be seen and felt today, possibly the strongest it has ever been. So taken back by the wonder of Studio Ghibli, that it became the subject of my dissertation in university and while each film warrants a “SMReviews Loves…” post of their own, I’m choosing to talk about the film that because so beloved, the studio adopted it title character as its official logo, My Neighbor Totoro.
Released in 1988, the film is a slice of life story that follows two sisters Mei (Chika Sakamoto/Elle Fanning) and Satsuki (Noriko Hidaka/Dakota Fanning) who move to the countryside with their father Tatsuo (Shigesato Itoi/Tim Daly) to live closer to their hospitalised mother Yasuko (Sumi Shimamoto/Lea Salonga). During their stay, the two share an adventure encountering wondrous spirits and creatures including the gigantic spirit of the forest Totoro.
What is the main problem with family films today? The problem is that they’re not that family-friendly. Don’t get me wrong there are few exceptions like the works of Pixar, but there are a plethora of examples out there that parade themselves as “Family-friendly”, but because of how focused they are on entertaining children with colourful characters and silly adventures, they forget about also entertaining the parents. My Neighbor Totoro is the definition of a family film because it combines the wonder, fantastical element needed for children and the real, humanity element for adults that when integrated, the overall enjoyment sought after by both sides is fulfilled. No certain age is out of the picture.
Something that has become a trademark of Studio Ghibli to put its spotlight on inspiring female characters in roles that is completely different from the now outdated docile princesses of early Disney film. Although steps have been taken to correct this, My Neighbor Totoro was already correcting this with the sisterly relationship of Mei and Satsuki. Watching these two changes over the course of the film helps young girls, without their knowledge, understand the stage of youth they’re at. The two sisters share an extraordinarily strong bond, but they’re both at different stages of their childhood. Mei the youngest is very lively and open to the wonder in the world, which is why she encounters Totoro first, Satsuki on the other hand is still pretty lively, but she is also starting to become a more mature big sister taking up responsibilities of care. The dynamic of these characters at different stages of childhood make their interactions more genuine and why we stay glued to our seats when the adventures take a break.
Totoro is also a magnificent character that so perfectly encapsulates childhood imagination. He can make trees grow at his own will, he can fly around on a spinning top that mimics the wind, and he can also call a Cat-Bus, a giant bus shaped cat that can take you anywhere you want and who becomes handy in the final moments of the film. You do start to wonder if Mei and Satsuki are imagining Totoro but because he such a pleasant presence on the screen, you choose to believe he’s real.
Adults are also going to be fully engaged by this film in the way it handles the adventurous with the mature, but it is adults who will appreciate the actual animation more, especially when you learn that My Neighbor Totoro was hand-drawn, there are none of the modern distractions like computer animation, big action scenes and so on. Studio Ghibli’s style is one of the most recognisable in the animation industry and Hayao Miyazaki, who is also the director My Neighbor Totoro, has a hands-on approach on the animation side like he has done with his other projects, a true animation pioneer.
Of course, one of the most iconic scenes in the film is the bus stop scene where Totoro is given an umbrella by Satsuki and Totoro gets excited when the raindrops fall onto it. The shot of them at the bus stop has become an iconic image in animated film history and if you were to ask me, I think that one shot tells you everything you need to know about Studio Ghibli. It puts joy in your heart to see this big, cuddly monster gets satisfaction from the most ordinary things.
This film is not the sole reason why Studio Ghibli has been inspirational for my outlook on film, there are many others that are well worth exploring. However, I have just grown to resonate with this film’s imagination more than another animated film. You get sucked into a film where everything feels so friendly, the characters and their surroundings feel so pure. Mei and Satsuki are such great characters for young girls to follow and Totoro is fuel to their already hyperactive senses of wonder which accumulates into a warm viewing experience.
If you haven’t discovered Studio Ghibli yet I would seriously consider making My Neighbor Totoro the first to watch because once you’ve had a taste of what Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki have