My Neighbor Totoro

By Shamus Posted Sunday Jun 4, 2006

Filed under: Anime 20 comments

My Neighbor Totoro is another Miyazaki masterpiece. Fledgling Otaku thought highly of it, and his daughter went nuts for it. Alex praised it as well.

My kids have watched this movie many, many times (although not as many as mini-otaku, I suspect) but I’ve only gotten around to watching it recently. I’ve seen little bits here and there as I passed through the room while they were watching, and I’d always tried to discern that it was about. Now I can see that this was a waste of time. Totoro is less about plot and more about many small, delicious moments.

The movie had quite an effect on me. The children in this story are unlike most anime kids. In fact, they are unlike most animated kids in general. They speak, move, think, and act like real children.

Here Tatsuo and her younger sister Mei are riding in the back of a truck. They are moving to a new home, and all of their belongings are stacked up around and over them, forming a little alcove for the two of them.

When I was a kid, there was no such thing as seatbelt laws. In the winter my brother and I used to huddle together in the passenger-side footspace, where we could be close to the warm air vent. I hadn’t thought about that in years, but this moment brought back that memory.

Children love to seek out little spaces to occupy. They seem drawn to crawlspaces. I’m not sure when we grow out of this, but at some point our “stay in the foxhole” instincts leave us and as adults most people find enclosed spaces irritating, not cozy.

Walking around on your knees! I remember doing this. As a kid it was amusing, but my knees hurt just thinking about trying it at my age. Ow. Ow. Ow.

And of course, when kids are in open spaces they must run. They can’t help it.

At one point Tatsuo notices a huge towering tree and asks her father about it. He informs the girls that it’s a camphor tree. Then the girls yell, “Camphor! Camphor!”, as they enjoy the new word. These little moments and details bring the children to life in a powerful way. I’ve never seen animated children this authentic.

From a clinical standpoint, this movie is nothing remarkable. The story is thin and the visuals – while charming – aren’t really anything groundbreaking. They certainly aren’t up to the standards of other Miyazaki films. But as a collection of slice-of-life moments and a study in the wonder of being a child, My Neighbor Totoro is in a class of its own. Highly recommended.


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20 thoughts on “My Neighbor Totoro

  1. I think that the way Mei’s moods change, and especially the way she gets fussy sometimes, are amazingly authentic, as is the way her mood can go from stormy to sunny in just an instant. (I’m thinking of the scene at the schoolhouse as an example.)

    Also, “Here, Papa, you can be the flower shop!” is exactly the kind of thing a girl that age would do.

    One of the lesser but still important reasons it all works is that the father hasn’t totally lost his own child-like sense of wonder. To some extent he vicariously experiences it through his daughter, and he recognizes it as being precious, something to be valued and encouraged. Nor is it clear that he’s actually skeptical of the stories they tell him about the Totoro; he might well believe them.

    It’s OK to jest with the girls about the house being haunted when it’s bright and sunny and the girls are in a good mood, but when it’s stormy and dark and the girls are genuinely a bit frightened, his response is perfect. He’s a good man.

    And it really is an amazingly good film.

  2. The two rules of childhood:

    1. Never walk when you can run.
    2. Never speak when you can yell.

  3. spot on. My daugter is *exactly* like that.

    Had the characters been little boys, or if I had a son instead of a daughter, I wonder if I would have seen the same resonance. Some of my friends have sons the same age and none of them who have seen Totoro report the same kind of “yes – exactly right!” observations.

  4. Shamus says:

    Had the characters been little boys, or if I had a son instead of a daughter, I wonder if I would have seen the same resonance. Some of my friends have sons the same age and none of them who have seen Totoro report the same kind of “yes – exactly right!” observations.

    Interesting observation. I have two girls and a boy, and you are right that the characters connect with the girls far more strongly than my son.

  5. how old are your kids, Shamus?

  6. Shamus says:

    Me=decrepit old man :)

  7. You’re not a decrepit old man until you start brooding about the moral failings of the younger generation.

  8. Shamus says:

    You're not a decrepit old man until you start brooding about the moral failings of the younger generation.

    I’m not sure what to think now. For years I’ve been railing against the moral failings of the previous generation.

    Damn hippies.

  9. Nathan says:

    Railing about the previous generation means you’re a teenager.

  10. Jayboots says:

    I bought this movie for 2 reasons… 1. Because the portrayal of the children is spot on and did bring back a lot of memories when my brother and I were that age. And 2. My daughter and her younger sister are just like Tatsuo and Mei to a ‘T’. I think the main satisfaction of this movie is watching the reactions of not only my kids but of their mother and others who watch it.

  11. Caitlin-chan says:

    The thing about this movie is that’s it’s absolutely steeped in Japanese culture and folklore. It’s harder to “get” the movie if one isn’t familiar with certain aspects of Japanese culture and Japanese folklore/mythology/religion. I mean, for example, the reason Tatsuo was walking around on her knees was because she hadn’t taken her shoes off before coming into the house. Traditionally, one NEVER walks around inside the house with one’s shoes on, in contrast to the US/Canada/whatever where it isn’t that uncommon. Shoes past the entryway are Not Done is Japanese culture.

  12. phobos says:

    Er, where did ‘Tatsuo’ come from? IIRC, Satsuki was the older girl, Mei the younger…

    (And I *do* remember correctly… I’ve seen the thing so many times now I don’t really bother looking at the subtitles :-)

  13. Sam says:

    i like this movie a lot!!!its a very funny movie,Listen…Mei is not a liar and she didnt lie…she’s a lucky child,I hope I will met Totoro too…im a child,too,so,maybe Totoro will visit me

  14. Arun says:

    THIS is my favorite Miyazaki movie ever! It made me wish I was a kid again… I’ve never felt so strongly bittersweet about any movie – a lot of people complain about the lack of plot, but I think that is point of the whole movie and an achievement in itself. Who needs a plot when a film can make you feel so warm and happy? A true work of art.

  15. Spider Dave says:

    Satsuki is the older sister! Tatsuo is the father’s name.
    Although, I believe in the recent Disney dub (which is not as charming as the older dub) they call the older sister something that sounds like Sasuke.

  16. Brandon says:

    Necroposter than I am, I have to note that this is my favorite Miyazaki film. I’ve watched a fansub or two and I own the Fox release. The film does indeed have a story and it is indeed about something. And I love the story and what it’s about. But I also love it for the reasons you, Shamus, seem to love it. It’s the slice of life bits. But you know, there’s a reason the Totoro are the logo and mascot of Studio Ghibli.

  17. Stefano Marone says:

    satsuki and mei are molded from the two daughtersof miyazaki, if I recall correctly

  18. Lars says:

    Totorro is the Gibhly Logo now. But on release day it’s hard to believe that Miyasaki himself didn’t belief in the success of this short movie. So he let his friend and Sempai Isao Takahata make “Grave of the Fireflies” to get released parallel to Totorro.
    The other best movie of Studio Gibhly. Highly Recommended – For adults and teens (not little children). In some scenes it gets the childish mood of Totorro to punch you in the guts right after – with start-up.

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