If it’s not the pinnacle for Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, My Neighbor Totoro is certainly his definitive piece of work. Though gentle in spirit, the movie is a clarion call for the legitimacy of imagination – not only in stories, but in the real world.
The movie centers on two sisters, Satsuki and Mei, who have recently moved to a dilapidated country home with their father. (It’s a testament to Miyazaki’s delicacy that we don’t learn their mother is away, seriously ill, until about 20 minutes in.) Eager to explore the nearby forest, 4-year-old Mei stumbles across a ghostly rabbit-like creature, which she chases into a dense forest lair. There she encounters Totoro – a giant, fluffy, feline bear of sorts. He could devour Mei in one gulp, but mostly prefers to nap.
Totoro could devour Mei in one gulp, but he mostly prefers to nap.
Is Totoro real? Is Mei imagining? Much of My Neighbor Totoro is about what creatures can be seen, and by whom. Early on the sisters encounter tiny “soot gremlins,” which scurry from cracks in the floor to holes in the wall. When they tell their elderly neighbor about this, she sighs and says, “I used to be able to see them when I was your age.” After Mei tells Satsuki, who is a few years older, about Totoro, Satsuki wistfully says, “I hope someday I’ll be able to see him too.” And she does, in a magically whimsical scene in which the sisters wait at a bus stop in the rain. Totoro appears, wearing a frond for a rain hat, and patiently waits for one of the film’s wildest creations: the Cat Bus.
My Neighbor Totoro does more than celebrate a childlike sense of wonder; the movie lobbies for it as a real-life skill. For as Satsuki and Mei negotiate the ups and downs of their mother’s illness, their forays in the forest offer more than a sense of escape. By enduring the rain, planting trees and gazing at the stars, their experiences with Totoro foster the things that truly matter: patience, cultivation and care.