Satsuki (ten) and Mei (four) are moving into their new home in the Japanese countryside with their father, who is a university professor. Their mother, who is ill with tuberculosis, is recuperating at a nearby hospital. It is the hope that their new home away from the city will help their mother to get better. Arriving at the place, the girls can barely contain their excitement; in fact they don’t even try to, racing around the exterior garden at a frenetic pace and laughing with pure joy, full of curiosity and uninhibited childlike awe. We are given plenty of time early to get to know these girls, and they’re impossible not to like, as well as their relationship with their father, who shares their playful spirit, and their concern for their mother’s health.
They explore every room and view every feature (even the decaying beams of the pergola) with wide-eyed wonderment. It is like they have received a shiny new toy. During the exploration they discover that it is home to some strange creatures, becoming fascinated with some fuzzy black creatures (dustbunnies) they find in the bathroom and later the attic. Upon excited revelation and explanation to their father and their elderly neighbor Granny, their excitement isn’t shot down, but their discovery is warmly embraced and they are trusted with their curiosity. Granny, who has a grandson Satsuki’s age, explains that the village and surrounding forests has been known to house many wondrous creatures. Initially through chance, and ultimately through circumstance and necessity, the girls will meet and befriend and require the help of these adorable forest creatures.
With Satsuki at school and her father in his study, Mei is alone exploring the garden. Her curiosity is piqued – watching her chubby legs scramble and hearing her infectious laugh is undeniably cute – having spotted a single small creature, which may/may not be part of her imagination. Later she pursues two small creatures through the forest and into the base of a large tree. It is there that she lands on the belly of a sleeping giant fluffy creature she christens Totoro. Her sister is unsure whether to believe her, but on a rainy afternoon, as Satsuki and Mei are waiting at a bus stop for their father to arrive home, Satsuki also meets Totoro. This is a beautiful scene, oddly comic, and punctuated by an exhilarating reveal. The way that the Totoros assist the girls in the latter half, as they come to terms with the possibility of mortality and an end to their ideal family dynamic, is heart-warming and inspiring.
It is a given by now that the animation in Ghibli films is stunning, but I want to quickly discuss just how intricate and detailed the worlds are in all of the Ghibli films I have seen so far. Think about the whole construction of Laputa in Castle in the Sky with the complexities of the root system, the haunting destruction of Kobe in Grave of the Fireflies and the attention to detail in the bustling city of Koriko in Kiki’s Delivery Service.
The animation in Totoro remains as impressive today as it would have back then. This film came out the year I was born. It seems unfathomable. From the opening shots of the car making its way through the lush greenery of the remote countryside, surrounded by the prospering crop fields, the distant mountains and dense forests, we know this tale is going to take place in a beautiful part of the Japanese countryside. Though their house is old and rundown, it has a warm and embracing feel about it, and the surrounding forests do not feel menacing, but always beautiful and pleasant. I also have to mention the brilliance of Miyazaki’s animation during sequences involving rain.
There is not a hint of malice to this film at all, and there are no villains, simply dramatic circumstances. The creatures do not speak, but each encounter the sisters have with the Totoros reveal a little bit more about their personalities – and introduces something new and magical about them. Ultimately, all of these features – Totoro’s ability to leap to the top of the treetops and summon a unique form of transport - ultimately help Satsuki find her missing sister in the dramatic climax.
One of the key themes in Totoro (and many of Miyazaki’s films) is that of childhood innocence influenced by experience. If there is a film I have seen that captures the pure joy of a child so vividly, and embraces imagination and curiosity so optimistically, it is Totoro. Ghibli films are incredibly accurate with their portrayal of children (think of Grave of the Fireflies and even Kiki’s Delivery Service). Like the worlds these characters reside in, it doesn’t feel like we are watching an animation.
Satsuki is an intelligent and sensible girl, but still a pretty typical 10-year-old; scared of boys, clinging to the playfulness of youth but required to act older than her age in helping her father take care of her sister. Mei is a happy child, full of energy and extremely trusting but her emotional strength hangs on her older sister’s. She is the source of plenty of comedy – unsteady on her feet and often simply falling over – and the relationship between her and her older sister is beautifully realized. It is just a beautiful film. I am undecided on my favourite Ghibli film. Spirited Away is the current frontrunner, but it has challengers on all sides. I could watch Kiki’s and Totoro any day. Next is another debut viewing – Porco Rosso.