I wouldn’t call My Neighbor Totoro Miyazaki’s most challenging film. I wouldn’t call it his best, either. But it is his most sentimental, in a way that no other film I’ve seen is.
The plot revolves around a family that moves into the country. Over the course of the film, the two girls – first the younger Mei and later eight-year-old Satski, encounter a benevolent nature spirit that Mei names Totoro. But even calling it a plot feels deceptive. There is no villain, no evil spirit, no evil adult, no malevolence at all. There is no three act structure, and few significant events, aside from more delightful and fantastical encounters with Totoro. So what exactly is the point of this movie anyway?
The best way I know to describe the core of this film is to compare it to another favorite animated film of mine, Coraline. In Coraline, the protagonist feels overlooked by her family and is drawn into a fantasy world with her “other family,” which looks just like hers, except they have black buttons for eyes. Her Other Mother, as it turns out, is an evil spirit who wants to trap her in the fantasy world. Coraline describes the world as it is – there are dangerous people who want to do you harm, but your parents, flawed though they may be, want to keep you safe. My Neighbor Totoro, on the other hand, describes the world as it ought to be. A place where your parents are always understanding, your neighbors are close-knit and compassionate, and the bear-sized creature you find in the woods is a cuddly and friendly spirit. It is, at its very core, a celebration of childhood and innocence.
This is even more clear when you know a little background regarding the film. The film’s lone source of tension is that the girl’s mother is sick at the hospital. This does not mitigate the overwhelming joy of the film, but it is a source of sadness at times. Like Mei and Satski, Miyazaki grew up with a chronically ill mother. The ages of the two girls, being 4 and 8, represent two phases of his childhood, the latter being when his mother’s illness forced him to grow up more. Other aspects of his childhood are represented in, for example, their awkward neighbor boy, who is completely incapable of talking to girls and loves model airplanes (Miyazaki’s family worked in the aircraft industry and he grew up fascinated by them).
This is not Japan as it truly is. Instead, this is the idealized Japan through the rose-tinted eyes of an ecstatic childhood. Other symbols of security and joy are sprinkled throughout the film, although some of these are likely to be lost on Western audiences. The totems that Mei and Satski encounter, particularly during moments of moderate stress (during a rainstorm, for example) would be to Eastern audiences symbols of protection. The family bath that is depicted, though strange to Westerners, is a cultural norm in the East that shows a secure and caring family. By the time this film was released in 1988, people of Japan hardly know their neighbors. But in Miyazaki’s idealized Japan of the 1950’s, communities are tight-knit, even in the remote country.
All of this barely even touches on the fantasy elements featuring Totoro himself, which are the most delightful parts of the film. Each of the three encounters with Totoro comes at some time of need for the girls, even though some of these times are less tense than others. In the first, Mei is happy playing at home, where her father also is, but he has work, while her mother is at the hospital and Satski is at school. Totoro is, in a very real sense, discovered out of her need for a playmate. The second encounter comes when Satski and Mei are waiting for their father to get home, and it’s raining at the bus stop. During a time in which they are without parents and feeling troubled by his late arrival, Totoro provides companionship and an increasing sense of wonder and amazement. The third and final encounter comes at an even deeper time of need, when Satski is need of help in a more concrete way. The film, while extremely sentimental and joyful, urges children to look to the outside world and nature for companionship, as well as in worthy neighbors. What they invest in nature will willingly give back to them, as is expressed by Totoro giving the girls several acorns with which they hope to start a small forest.
In certain ways, this is probably the least accessible of Miyazaki’s films for Westerners. Not that it is inaccessible, but the cultural differences between the East and the West are more accentuated here. Some of those differences are theological. Praying to an idol during a rainstorm is hardly Christian, and the very idea of protective nature spirits is one particular to Eastern religions (although it could be considered a feature of Native American religions as well). It’s good to be aware of these cultural differences. After watching this movie, children may want to know why you don’t worship idols or take family baths.
However, few of these differences are significant. Even fewer (almost none) are significant in a negative way. The film is a delightful and joyous celebration of innocence in a time when our cukture thrives on vice. In a time when we tell kids to think about careers in middle school, Miyazaki would have us let children be children. That is in itself a noble message indeed.