My Neighbor Totoro

For countless reasons, My Neighbor Totoro is the perfect anime for all ages. Though there are plenty of fantastic anime programs aimed at teenagers and adults, and equally as many for children (though seen a bit more rarely in the West), there are few that are appropriate for young tykes that are still completely and thoroughly entertaining for adults. With memorable characters and a gentle spirit, Totoro is Hayao Miyazaki's most simple film, but it is also arguably his best.

The film takes us into the lives of Satsuki and Mei, two young girls who have moved out into the country with their father. Their mother is ill and is staying at a hospital--though the move is not completely explained, it would seem it's to bring them closer together and save the family money. Satsuki and Mei start exploring their new home and neighborhood, especially the forest that's essentially their backyard. We follow them through a series of adventures as they eventually meet the king of the forest, a huge, furry creature called Totoro, and his friend, a Cheshire-like catbus.

Although this sounds very simple, it is, which contributes to the beauty of it. This film is about discovery and finding the magical in the ordinary, which is why I don't say more about the plot--it's not for me to spoil. Miyazaki, possibly Japan's greatest animator, is showing us the beauty he sees in the world around us. Many of his films have environmental themes, but Totoro is content to merely let us enjoy the wonder of the forest with its characters and creatures. As Roger Ebert notes in his Great Films commentary, Totoro has no villains, no battle of good and evil, no children vs. adults subplots. The most dramatic the film becomes is when Mei, homesick for her mother, gets lost on the way to the hospital to give her a gift, and Satsuki and her friends try to find her. It is this simplicity that makes the film so good.

Children will love the film--especially children young enough not to have been completely absorbed into the maelstrom of GameBoy, cable TV, and Pokemon clones--because of their natural instinct to discover something new, which the film leisurely indulges. Adults, meanwhile, will like it because it reminds us of our own innocence, when we too could believe that our own Totoro might be waiting to play out back in the field or among the trees on the way to school. It's slowly captivating.

This film could never be made in America today. In a market that demands an ever-increasing number of images on the screen, cut quickly from one to the next, a film this deliberately paced seems anachronistic. And what modern American film would go nearly half its running time without introducing its title character? What Western picture would let the audience decide if its mythological characters were in fact real or just part of the girls' imaginations? What Hollywood extravaganza would picture a loving, caring (and essentially single!) father nurturing his children, listening to their stories, and believing them rather than criticizing them for their fantastical visions? But these are the very things that endear us to Totoro. For all its strange, wonderful creatures, Totoro really pictures people just as they are--a rare thing indeed in cinema.

Disney now owns the rights to this picture, along with most of Miyazaki's other works. The original video release through Fox Family can still be found occasionally, but hopefully Disney will release it soon on DVD. In a way, it's interesting that Disney has the film, because Totoro brings to mind the best things about early Disney animation and easily trounces their recent entries. Disney does not own any rights other than distribution, thankfully, so unless Miyazaki loses his mind we shouldn't be seeing any cut-rate direct-to-video sequels.

At any rate, reading The Anime Review means that you are fan enough to want to see the best anime available...if you haven't seen My Neighbor Totoro, stop reading, go find a copy, and watch it. It's that good. We'll still be here when you get back.

My Neighbor Totoro -- nothing objectionable -- A+