Revisiting My Neighbor Totoro (On The Rewatch #1)

I remember it more clearly than most things. After working out, I biked across my college campus to meet up with a couple friends I hadn’t seen in a while. I dragged my exhausted body up the stairs to their room on the dorm’s 7th floor, and we sat down to chill out and watch a movie.
But the most interesting thing I remember about that fairly typical day is the movie my friend had put on. It was animated, but not like the mainstream American Disney productions I was used to. I vividly remember how it started: cute little bugs and snakes danced on the borders of the screen as a little girl strode confidently across centerscreen and a glowing anthem accompanied her.
The next thing I remember is these two young girls – one maybe four years old, the other closer to ten – running around a distinctly foreign looking house together. All these little black things scattered in their wake, fleeing the sunlight as they they threw open each dusty door. And I reacted to some degree the same way as them. Initially scared, then unncertain, and finally overwhelmingly curious. I found the film unpredictable, and that unpredictability was fascinating.

Since that day anime has continued to surprise me in new and interesting ways. Even when watching the same anime a second or fifth time. Rewatching My Neighbor Totoro has left me with some of the same but also some entirely new fascinations, and it’s one of my favorite films to put on and fall asleep to. I don’t mean that it’s grown stale, rather the film is ultimately soothing in it’s intricate familarity. The way the characters live their daily lives at first look could seem familiarly mundane, but on closer inspection is as complex as any day in the real world. I think that is a goal in all of Hayao Mizaki’s works, but his 1988 feature captures that sentiment best for me, maybe because unlike most of his features, My Neighbor Totoro was set in a 1950s Japan.
The films starts very grounded – a family man and his two daughters move to the coutryside to be closer to the hospital where their ill mother resides. Immediately, Mayazaki shows us where he shines; it isn’t in the plot or stakes, but rather in how detailed his visual storytelling is. We see are shown key moments on their trip and when we arrive at the family’s new house, we now realize that they are moving in here. The movie didn’t immediately tell us explicitly through dialogue what was going to happen, instead we are allowed to see the trip ourselves and come to the realization through watching the characters interact with each other and their surroundings. Seeing the car packed to overflowing with personal belongings is the first clue, and it builds from there. By the time the father is moving things into the house with a mover, we see the house is in total disrepair. One girl swings around a porch pole and almost breaks the rotten thing off. Cobwebs and dust fill every room that the girls run through while exploring their new home. And their joy fills the house, scaring out the little black things I mentioned before – soot sprites that litterally scatter on the wind.
The rest of the film is an escalating magical journey that has become iconic as the premier anime family film. And all this without a main driving conflict. My Neighbor Totoro captures the magical moments of everyday childhood. Consider how Mei (the younger of the two girls) discovers the Totoros. She is playing in the yard and finds a trail of acorns in the field. This both piques her interest and is a great bit of building after a setup, since earlier as Mei and Satsuki (the older sister) are exploring the house they find acorns falling out of thin air. So, when Mei sees a pair of bunny ears above the grown out grass that soon after is revealed to be a partially invisible, plump, rabbit-sized creature hefting an overflowing bag of the seeds, it isn’t more than a pleasant surprise for her and us. Like any inquisitive kid, she chases the rabbit thing all over until she follows it and its slightly larger counterpart down an Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole that leads right to the gigantic “To-To-Ro” as Mei names him after his yawning noises.

My Neighbor Totoro is quick to declare its world’s magic ambiguous. Totoro is as big as a California King Bed, plush, round, and lathargic. He doesn’t even respond to Mei crawling up on his stomach, and even when she seems to get his attention by itching his nose, he scarcely looks at her directly. Totoro continues to ignore human interactions for most of the movie. Is he really there? I mentioned that the first little Totoro that is spotted by Mei appears see-through at its introduction, and later after Mei trys to show her father and sister the giant Totoro, he seems to have vanished along with his rabbithole. This kind of ambiguous presentation adds to the magic of my Neighbor Totoro and is one of the reasons I keep coming back to it time and time again.
Sorry this post took longer than I said it would. This is a bit of a stream of consciousness post, but I hope you like it. Thanks for reading, I’ve been VasA. Until we meet again, enjoy yourselves my friends. It’s a great big world out there, full of Totoros and other magic, but for now I need London dry gin, more than 3 hours of sleep, and meaningful interactions with people.