By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Aug 2, 2010
Every afternoon, when I meet our eight-and-almost-one-half year-old at the camp bus, I ask about her day.
Perfunctory answers escape her ecosystem. But not much more. This is, after all, a girl who tells us her favorite sport is “getting into bed.”
So it was quite the surprise, last week, to see our daughter rush off the camp bus, mouth engaged, face flushed. They’d had a film at camp. The best she’d ever seen. Couldn’t wait to see it again.
It was “My Neighbor Totoro,” a 1988 animated feature written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki. [To buy the DVD from Amazon, click here.]
Know him? He may be best known for “Princess Mononoke,” the 1997 film that was the first animated feature to win Japan’s Best Picture of the Year. [To buy the DVD from Amazon, click here.] He then made “Spirited Away,” which was even more successful. [To buy the DVD from Amazon, click here.] And then, last year, he made Ponyo. [To buy the DVD from Amazon, click here.]
Here’s the crazy thing. Our daughter has seen all of these movies. They leave her cold. Only “My Neighbor Totoro” gripped her and wouldn’t let go.
I’ve done some reading. And I’ve watched “My Neighbor Totoro” again with the kid. I might come to disagree with her on Miyazaki’s other films --- I’ve seen none of them --- but she is absolutely correct in her five-star assessment of “Totoro.” No matter how old you are, no matter how sophisticated you may think you are, it is a fantastic film experience, an 86-minute swath of gorgeousness with a message as beautiful as its images.
And the trick of it is…..there’s no trick.
This is a movie rooted in the very ordinary.
When the film begins, it’s 1958. Satsuki and Mei Kusakabe, eight and four years old, are driving with their father to their new home in the country. Dad’s a professor in the city, but their mother has tuberculosis and is recovering in a rural hospital, and they want to be near her.
In a Disney movie, the first few scenes of the film would dazzle. Not here. The girls help their dad move in. They explore their new house and the fields and forest around it. They are, in a word, grounded.
This grounding is deceptive. Magic is afoot --- spirits only the young can see. Some are dust sprites, little balls of soot that dart around the rooms. (When they leave the house, racing toward the clouds on a moonlit night, your jaw might drop at the beauty.) And then there is Totoro, a large troll who lives in a giant tree. He bellows. He grins. But for the girls, he’s really a big, soft climbing wall.
Stop the action for a moment, and look at what we have. Two leading characters, both girls. A loving father who, despite his work at a university, accepts the existence of spirits. A strange house that turns out to be warm and welcoming. A monster who isn’t dangerous. In short, a world of harmony and understanding. The biggest problem here: When will Mom be healthy enough to come home for the weekend?
The sense of relief generated by all this well-being isn’t boring. It’s liberating. It allows us to explore with the girls, to laugh at the socially inept boy who lives nearby, and to wallow in the girls’ adventures with the totoro.
The absence of conflict allows us to do something else: respond to the film’s extravagant beauty. Miyazaki’s a wonderful painter; if there was ever a film that makes you want to move to the country, this is it. The sky, the clouds, the forest --- this animation delivers more visual interest per frame than real-world photography. The totoro’s genial awkwardness makes him fun to watch. And there’s a Cat Bus that’s just irresistible. I know; this is so over the top. Judge for yourself. Watch this….
Late in the film, something may be going seriously wrong. The girls respond. So does dad. So do the totoro and the Cat Bus and the neighbors. What a smart little critic we have at home. What a wonderful world she introduced us to.