Okay, I'll admit it: I'd never seen My Neighbor Totoro or the majority of the output from the geniuses at Studio Ghibli until very recently. That's part of the pleasure of writing for the newsroom site (as well as covering NWFC content on the blog); since a good chunk of what's programmed at the NW Film Center is repertory-based, I get the chance to wax philosophical about old favorites as well as other works of note that may have passed me by somewhere down the line.
So, yeah, many of you have probably seen the film more than a few times with your kids, grandchildren or friends. But, since it's new to me, I'm going to willfully ignore everyone else's superior knowledge of all things Totoro and just let this play out as if we're all looking at a new, unbelievably great anime. (The author takes a deep calming breath). Okay, here we go...
Two young girls, Satsuki and Mei, move into a large, dusty house with their father, preparing the home for when their convalescing mother is well enough to rejoin the family. The girls waste no time, rushing to explore their new surroundings and, what do you know, they happens upon otherworldly creatures, unlocking a world teeming with magical possibilities.
I know what you're thinking; these are fairly standard tropes within both children's stories and coming of age flicks. My Neighbor Totoro, however, is no common children's entertainment. It's a wondrous work of beauty that takes familiar elements and blends them into a highly accessible, ageless masterpiece that transcends cultural and generational barriers.
The animated feature hails from 1988, long before Disney turned Hayao Miyazaki into a household name in the West. With Totoro, Miyazaki draws more than a little from the atmospherics (and some of the imagery) of Lewis Carroll's most famous story. It's impossible to watch Mei travel through the arched thicket without being reminded of Alice's trip through the rabbit hole.
Miyazaki would later dip again into Carroll's iconic tale when making Spirited Away (2001), but, between the Cheshire cat-like bus and the white "rabbit" (or whatever it is) spirit that Mei bounds after through a field of tall grass, Totoro's borrowing of these recognizable features feels more in line with the sense of discovery forwarded in Carroll's writing than it does in that later film.
Discovery is what drives this film. And Mei and her older sister findings aren't limited to just Totoro and his spirit companions. As the story progresses, the girls deal with some fairly advanced emotional material: worries about the future, their mother, each other. It brings to mind what Slavoj Žižek says in Sophie Fiennes' The Pervert's Guide to the Cinema about how to read the films of Alfred Hitchcock. Žižek observes that if one peels away the supernatural or fantastical event, it's far easier to see what is really happening in the story.
Read this way, Totoro reveals itself as a film about the anxiety felt when first entering into the knowledge of harsh universal truths, such as coming to terms with the vulnerability of loved ones and, by extension, one's own mortality. It's pretty heavy content for a kids film but, in Miyazaki's masterful hands, it's deftly balanced with a boundless sense of wonder that lifts the work into the stratosphere, where hope can fly in the face of despair.
My Neighbor Totoro screens as a part of the retrospective series, Castles in the Sky: Miyazaki, Takahata, and the Masters of Studio Ghibli. More info about the Studio Ghibli series here.
It plays at the NW Film Center's Whitsell Auditorium (in the Portland Art Museum) on Saturday, May 5th at 4pm and Sunday, May 6th at 7pm.
The film will be presented in the original Japanese w/ English subtitles.
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