Ghibli Fest 2017 Review: ‘My Neighbor Totoro’ is a Miyazaki Masterpiece

'My Neighbor Totoro' (1988) - Studio Ghibli / GKIDS

‘My Neighbor Totoro’ is Pure Magic from Hayao Miyazaki

For anyone looking to delve into the genius of director Hayao Miyazaki for the very first time or revisit a timeless classic, My Neighbor Totoro is nothing shy of a perfect gateway into the magic of Studio Ghibli. Released in 1988, Totoro graced Japanese screens the same year as two other iconic animes – Studio Ghibli’s war-torn drama, Grave of the Fireflies and the cyberpunk, dystopian classic, Akira.

To its credit, My Neighbor Totoro finds a more light-hearted, whimsical beat to play to. Set in 1958 Japan, Tatsuo (voiced by Shigesato Itoi) moves to the idyllic countryside with his two daughters, Satsuki (Noriko Hidaka) and Mei (Chika Sakamoto). In this new living arrangement, Tatsuo and his daughters are much closer to his hospitalized wife, recovering from an unknown illness. Miyazaki doesn’t lay all his cards on the table from the get-go. Rather, for much of the film’s first twenty or so minutes, we as an audiences go on a journey, exploring every nook and cranny of the house with childish wonderment.

Both Satsuki and Mei are under the impression it’s haunted, following dust bunnies (later clarified as soot spirits) moving from room to room around the country abode. As one exploration seamless blends in to the next, Mei wanders into the enchanted forest on her doorstep. There she finds her in the presence of a huge Totoro. What is a Totoro you may ask? He’s a gigantic white and gray creature, slumbering in the forest. Despite his enormous size, Totoro is cute, cuddly and friendly and accompanied by two much smaller creatures of his kind.

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While My Neighbor Totoro is vastly rich in magical storytelling, one does have to ponder what exactly is real and what is fantasy. After Mei encounters Totoro for the very first time, both her father and sister venture into the forest after her. The only difference upon their arrival is it’s just a normal forest without big furry beasts and sprites. Tatsuo smiles and allows his younger daughter to embrace her vivid imagination. It isn’t the first time Miyazaki’s storytelling has its audiences floating in the wind. Over the years, My Neighbor Totoro has had its fair share of interpretations. And that’s the beauty of it. Its ambiguity provides no right or wrong answers.

Is My Neighbor Totoro simply a whimsical adventure through the lens of two innocent young girls? Perhaps. Does the film take a darker approach as Mei and Satsuki create a fantasy to cope with their mother’s illness? Miyazaki’s masterful screenplay never spells out the details. In fact, the script concentrates on the genuine emotions of a child without an ounce of cynicism. Mei’s adorable curiosity is something we as an audience latch onto immediately. It’s refreshing to revisit a classic that’s just so heartwarming and drifts one away for 90 minutes from the negatives going on elsewhere. It’s rare to find an animated film on this level almost 30 years later.

There’s no doubt in anyone’s minds that My Neighbor Totoro is a timeless joy. The charming score by Joe Hisaishi takes on a character all to its own, encapsulating the film’s atmosphere. It’s not the only definitive moment in My Neighbor Totoro has stood the test of time. Totoro himself is the poster child for Studio Ghibli – a Mickey Mouse of sorts for Disney. Totoro is so important to the legacy of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli that he’s even cameoed in other animes as well as Toy Story 3. What audiences also remember most from My Neighbor Totoro is the enigmatic Cat Bus, racing through the woods. These images are so iconic and memorable that they’re burned into your subconscious. But that’s never a bad thing.

After a brisk 86 minutes, My Neighbor Totoro is simply a testament to triumphant filmmaking, brought to life by beauty and awe. While there’s never that grandiose climax, the exploration, magic and emotional resonance offer such fulfilling joy.

GRADE: A+ (10/10)

Stay tuned next month as Ghibli Fest 2017 continues with Kiki’s Delivery Service. Check out the full schedule here.  

Written by
Matt Marshall is a film reviewer that specializes in Blu-Rays. He has a B.A. in Communications/Journalism from St. John Fisher College and resides in Rochester, NY.

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