More noise than signal

My Neighbor Totoro

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

Tatsuo Kusakabe and his two daughters, Satsuki and Mei move into a rural area of late 1950’s Japan in order to be closer to their hospital-bound mother. In straightening out their mildly dilapidated home, the energetic Satsuki and Mei discover strange creatures hiding just out of sight. Soot sprites, who dwell in empty houses. Displaced, they soon float off, but this is just the beginning of the supernatural adventures that Satsuki and Mei will undertake.

One day, with the elder sister Satsuki off at school, Mei’s playtime in the garden is disturbed when she catches sight of two bunny-esque creatures parading around and gives chase, eventually leading through a briar patch and into an undiscovered hollow near the large camphor tree where she meets a rather larger version of the same forest guardian creature, Totoro.

Befriending Tororo, Mei would dearly love to show him off to her sister and father, although the same route no longer seems to exist. Tatsuo consoles Mei by saying that Totoro will reveal himself when he wishes to, and the family go about settling in to their new life in a new town, with Satsuki making new friends and drawing the awkward attention of a local boy, who’s struggling through that phase between finding girls icky and attractive.

Totoro reveals himself to Satsuki in due course when both Satsuki and Mei worry that their father hasn’t returned late one night, and head off to the bus stop to meet him. Turns out that the Catbus, a bus that is a cat, uses the same bus stop networks as human buses. Here we discover that Totoro loves umbrellas.

And so it goes, with a number of charming character moments leading up to the film’s conclusion where, spoiler warning, Mei goes missing, but Totoro and the Catbus help find her. Not that this is much of a spoiler, really.

I think it’s fair to say that Totoro, like most of Miyazaki’s more character focused work going forward, is not exactly overburdened with narrative. Indeed, there’s pretty much no confict to be mined for drama in the film at all, instead relying on the strength of the characterisation to drive our engagement with the film.

With characters like these, it’s an easy win. The energy, charm, humour and vivaciousness of Satsuki and Mei shines through, and you’d have to have a heart of stone not to be charmed by them from the off. Miyazaki’s often said to capture the magic of childhood better than anyone, and dollars to doughnuts this is the film people are thinking of when they say it.

There’s certain arguments for some of Miyazaki’s later work being “better” films, on some vaguely objective grading – certainly he’s made films that balance character and narrative more keenly in the years after Totoro. For my money, though, he’s not made a film as straight-up joyous as Totoro. A stone cold classic.