It’s May, and I’ve realized how long it has been since I’ve watched the films of master Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. I remember loving them when I was younger (I wrote a research paper on the life of Miyazaki in 7th grade), but I’ve been curious to see how they hold up to these more trained eyes. Or, maybe I just love alliteration. Either way, Miyazaki May is on!
There are a select few films in the history of the medium that perfectly convey the experience of being a child. “My Neighbor Totoro” is one of them. All of the emotions are there, from the fears associated with losing a loved one and moving to a new place to the simple joys of standing in the rain or discovering a pool of tadpoles.
This very simple film (some might use the term pure) follows sisters Mei and Satuki, who move with their dad to the countryside to care for their sick mother, who is in and out of the hospital. As they explore their new surroundings, they come across the forest spirit Totoro and adventures ensue.
Of all Miyazaki’s films, “Totoro” is easy to describe, particularly because it is essentially plotless. One immediately striking feature of Miyazaki films is their complete lack of cynicism. A modern American cartoon might have a sassy school chum who doubt the existence of Totoro, or perhaps the father, who might tell his children to put away such childish things and grow up. But there’s none of that; all the adults in the film go right along encouraging the children in their beliefs. It’s partially cultural; in Japanese culture, everything is seen as connected, and that connectedness runs through the family unit. It’s a beautiful, refreshing look at the way families can stick together even in the midst of hardship (in this case, the mother’s illness).
Also prevalent here is that most magnificent of Miyazaki themes: bravery. Nearly all of his characters have it (though some misuse it); one of the greatest strengths of this film is the way the bravery of Satsuki and Mei to simply explore a dark room is given the same respect and admiration as the courage to go up against a giant vengeful forest spirit, as Ashitaka does in “Princess Mononoke.” Bravery, both common and uncommon, is highly valued; the girls’ bravery in the small things reveals their ability to overcome their physical displacement as well as their mother’s condition.
Children are often seen as more at one with the natural world around them, an idea that “Totoro” conveys clearly. The film finds just as much wonder in rain puddles and acorns as it does in giant forest spirits. In fact, very little of the film is focused on Totoro himself; much time is given to the landscape of the Japanese countryside. Miyazaki often uses the medium of animation for a dichotomous yet noble purpose; to help convey the beauty of our natural world. We can often grow bored with the physical world around us; animation helps us to see these seemingly ordinary things through the eyes of a child once again.
Finally, I get to the animation itself. As with every Miyazaki film, there’s nothing to complain about here. Not a single frame is wasted; and every one looks like a painting come to life. There’s just so much going on visually in every scene; from the way rain falls on an umbrella to the butterflies that dominate the foreground, somehow creating an illusion of depth that is not actually there.
I’ll be getting on my animation soapbox often with these posts, and I feel particularly obligated to approach the topic after Disney’s recent abandonment of 2D animation. It’s a shame that the modern film industry views 2D animation as archaic, because it is actually the opposite. 3D computer animation will always be subject to the whims of technology (just take a look back at those old “Veggie Tales” cartoon or the original “Toy Story” and tell me how well they hold up visually). But 2D animation is hindered only by the imagination of the artist. There’s a purity to hand drawn animation that computer animation has never come close to matching.
“My Neighbor Totoro” is a marvelous film, and a great starting point for those new to Miyazaki. Some might find the ending too pat, and Miyazaki is playing with themes and ideas that would be much more fleshed out in future efforts. But, for what it is, “Totoro” is about as pure and pleasant an experience as you could possibly have with a movie. Watch it and reflect on the glorious imagination of your own childhood.