Film Review: My Neighbor Totoro

Film Review: My Neighbor Totoro

It’s been a long time coming for me to have an emotional reunion with Hayao Miyazaki’s classic My Neighbor Totoro. Since its release in 1988 it’s become a landmark moment in the canon of animated films, especially in Japan and especially for the incredible catalog of Studio Ghibli (which uses the titular Totoro as its logo). But I first watched it just a few years ago, and it was… sweet! Nothing too special, but a nice and gorgeous film about spunky girls with a sick mother. I enjoyed the cute creatures and I enjoyed the clear Buddhist influences. Earlier this year, however, I was reading a review of the London stage adaptation of the film by Helen Shaw in the New Yorker. Her lovely review ends: “Who needs a teachable moment when there are monsters at the bus stop? “Totoro” isn’t made for such petty moralizing. Totoro’s message is naps; his message is rain is wonderful; his message is cry a little; his message is fly.”

I immediately knew I had to watch the film again. Something about this line touched me; it’s a gorgeous distillation of the special quality that Ghibli films often hold. Sure enough, repeat viewings do wonders for the nuances of Miyazaki’s heart as a filmmaker. Immediately, new details jumped out at me: the aloof positivity of the father feels a bit sad, as he works deep into the evening and juggles his two daughters with his sick wife. The soot sprites feel so much more thematically important, an introduction to the film’s animism (everything in this world has a bit of a life to it, even the dust bunnies in an old house). Despite being pretty removed in age, the two sisters get along incredibly well for most of the film, making their eventual fight seem more inevitable than tragic.

For the uninitiated: My Neighbor Totoro is a film about two sisters who discover a forest spirit, a giant fuzzy bear-like-thing named Totoro. He pretty much just lays around and naps, but the girls come to love him and his gentle nourishing of their planted acorns. When they’re scared and waiting in the rain at the bus stop for their father to come home, Totoro appears and plays in the rain until his bus arrives. Totoro’s bus, of course, is a giant hollow cat beast that absorbs Totoro and runs off. The plot moves as they cope with their mother’s illness and adjust to their new life in an idyllic rural village. The pacing of the movie is incredibly relaxed. Long establishing shots show a snail crawling up a stem, or wide fields of rice farms. This is what Ghibli is known for: gorgeous scenery, peaceful environments, stories more concerned with “vibes” than narrative momentum.

Totoro however, despite starring a forest protector, is not the most explicitly environmentally-focused Ghibli film by any measure. That title probably goes to Princess Mononoke, which I’ll likely review in the future. So why is it here? There are no notable birds to speak of, or potent messages about being stewards of nature. What Totoro has, however, is curiosity. A recurring theme that you either have seen or will see on this website is that curiosity is essential for adults that want to stave off burn out and despair. We are surrounded at all times by mystery, beauty, and suffering. Tuning into this every once and a while and learning about the world is how we find meaning in our daily lives, and keeping our eyes ears and hearts open is how we discover new beauty.

Mei discovers Totoro by eagerly following a trail of acorns. Instead of fearing the slumbering monster she finds, she crawls on top of him and naps. She and Satsuki decide to grow the acorns, which summons Totoro’s help and ends with them playing music in the far up branches of a magical giant tree. At the bus stop, our bear spirit feels a drop of rain and finds the rush addictive, so much so that he pounds the Earth so he can get even more wet. The natural world in this film is not a battlefield to be defended, it is a delightful playground to be explored. Within the playground is beauty and fun. Mei talks to Granny about the restorative power of the vegetables they picked, and decides that maybe a fresh ear of corn could help her mother get better. It is this optimistic, open minded approach to nature that makes the world feel so lovely. It’s not just gorgeous, it’s safe and it rewards childlike wonder.

It is not without consequence however, as Mei learns that her mother’s health has taken a turn for the worse and she storms off to the hospital, getting lost out in the middle of nowhere with nobody to help her. Alone and upset, Mei is a little girl who just wants to go home. Who just wants her mom to come home. Even in a gorgeous and safe world, she has stranded herself through her stubborn insistence that her mom be handed an ear of corn.

Suddenly, the relaxed pacing and gentle tone kicks into high gear as the town mobilizes to find her. Satsuki begs and pleads for Totoro to help her. A new viewer would be forgiven for thinking that surely, our titular hero would puff up his chest and rescue the girl. Instead, he simply takes Satsuki up a tree and calls his bus. Of course, I thought, Totoro is for napping. The Cat Bus is for travel. This bus soars through the wind, rides on the telephone lines, and reminds us of the film’s charming way of giving the very elements of the world personality and agency. Mei is found, and the two are both brought to the hospital.

Around here is when I saw both me and my wife getting misty eyed. Sitting on a tree branch, as these characters are wont to do, they hear that their mother is going to be okay. They know it’s time to go home. They know, but don’t say, that perhaps if they had just waited and stayed calm this all could have been avoided. But most importantly, they got to see their mother and that makes them feel better. In the closing moments, the parents notice that suddenly an ear of corn has appeared on their window sill. The mother remarks that she could have sworn she saw her two girls watching them. “Maybe you did”, the father says, turning the ear of corn to show that a message has been etched into its leaves: “For mommy”. Mei got her mother her corn after all. Cue the waterworks.

Despite the movie’s lack of a villain or some destructive force threatening the wildlife, this makes for an extremely compelling argument in defense of nature. By feeling the wind, by loving our crops, by watching little rodents and looking up at the stars, we can find magic. This is not a movie about a secret world, where the girl crawls into a tunnel and emerges in a new universe full of wonders. Here, the magic is all around us: in our fields, our forests, even in our dusty attics. When the girl crawls into a tunnel, she simply finds a reflection of her own childish curious eye. Neither of them have great ambition or responsibility, they simply want to be happy and at peace. Totoro wants to rest, Mei wants to play, they both want to enjoy the small wonders of the world.

What could be more relevant for a backyard birdwatcher? It’s a more pressing message than ever in a time when the rat races and algorithms seek to consume as much of our time and mental bandwidth as possible. This film reminds us of the value of a slow pace, a curious mind, a quiet day, a bit of wonder. I keep my own Totoro beside my bed, to remind me to do less and listen more. Any birder will tell you how valuable a long still silence can be. And anyone interested in becoming a birdwatcher is often given the same advice: just look up. You’ll be amazed at what you find.