‘My Neighbour Totoro’ is the latest in a continuing series of essays that will focus on outstanding and overlooked animation, as well as Blind Spots.
Hayao Miyazaki is one of the greatest living directors, period. When we think of great directors, we, of course, think of someone having a distinctive style, with particular themes and motifs recurrent throughout their filmography. Stanley Kubrick, Carl Dreyer, Martin Scorsese, Andrei Tarkovsky, Terrence Malick; each name evokes a feeling unique, distinctive. You know when you’re watching a Hitchcock film, a Capra film.
We do not usually think of animators, however. We recognise studio names like Pixar, Walt Disney, Dreamworks, Warner Brothers. Each studio releases in a particular style we can identify, but who can easily tell, just by viewing, which Pixar film is directed by John Lassiter, or by Andrew Stanton? A Dreamworks effort helmed by Tom McGrath, or by Tim Johnson? I find that much more difficult.
Hayao Miyazaki works with Studio Ghibli, but it is impossible not to immediately recognise one of his works. There are no villains in a Miyazaki film. His characters are complex, capable of change and adaptation. Water holds important symbolic significance in most of his films. His ability to limn the inner worlds of childhood, its innocence and evolution, is unparalleled–even by the great Steven Spielberg, and that’s saying something.
This entry does not seek to examine his entire oeuvre, however. I seek simply to celebrate one of his greatest achievements: creating the Perfect Family Film, My Neighbor Totoro.
A family film is not a children’s film. Children’s films are specifically tailored for children, and as often as not bore, annoy, exasperate, or otherwise displease older kids and adults. (Seriously, is there an adult that actually finds this movie tolerable?) A family film appeals to everyone in a family, regardless of age, and no film fits that description better than My Neighbor Totoro.
The film follows the adventures of two sisters, Satsuki and Mei, who have moved with their professor father to the Japanese countryside. The move allows them to be closer to their mother, in a now-nearby hospital. (The mother’s disease is unnamed, but in 1958 Japan… well, adults, this one’s for you.) The new house is beautiful, but old and creaky. Satsuki and Mei quickly find that the house is the dwelling of small dust creatures, seen only when casting light upon a dark space.
One day while Satsuki is away at school, Mei (who is too young yet to attend) sees two leporine ears sticking out of the grass. She follows them a ways through the woods, and into the hollow of a large tree. And there is where she meets the large, fuzzy spirit Totoro.
Totoro is a bit scary, at first. His luminous eyes and numerous teeth seem characteristic of a ravenous, carnivorous creature. If this were a Disney film, the young heroine would shriek and flee, and only accept Totoro as a friend after much trepidation (and a musical number). But this is a Miyazaki film, you see; he does not underestimate the intelligence of children. Mei looks upon this fuzzy fellow with interest and wonder. She trusts her instincts that he is benevolent, and falls asleep atop his big belly for a spell.
Soon, she wakes up and rushes home to tell her father of her adventures. In an American film, the father would brush off his daughter’s fantastical tales as nursery nonsense, creating an instant separation between generations. Ah, but again, Miyazaki is wiser and subtler than that. The father listens with amusement and understanding, eventually informing her that Totoro is the ‘keeper of the forest.’ The mother, too, responds positively when told, supplying her daughters with nothing but support.
So now, you may wonder, what’s the plot of My Neighbor Totoro? Where’s the conflict? Is there an antagonist? Every story needs an antagonist! (I have had this argument myriad times with creative writing teachers, screenwriting professors, theatre directors… none of whom, I’d wager, have seen this film. Or Gravity.) Miyazaki has created such a lush, elaborate world, there is no need to mash it into the mould of conventional storytelling. There is enough to delight, mystify, astound, that forcing a villain upon the story would simply tarnish it. There would be no room for the film to breathe.
Consider the wonderful scene where the children wait with Totoro in the rain for their father’s bus to arrive. A bus arrives all right–but it is Totoro’s ride: a large cat-bus, propelled by twelve legs. Again, scary at first, but Satsuki and Mei are strong, and don’t let appearances fool them.
In the depiction of his young heroines, Miyazaki has always been peerless. I’m sure there are important life lessons to be gleaned from watching Disney princesses: how your father will always give you want you want eventually (Ariel), or how you can change a man so he becomes just what you desire him to be (Belle), or how good-looking guys are always better for you than ugly guys (Esmerelda). But Miyazaki’s young subjects are smart, strong, and perceptive. They rely on themselves and their own sense of self for orientation, growing and deepening their character by the end.
There is a bit of conflict at the end, I suppose. Mei tries to get to her mother’s hospital on her own and gets lost. I seriously doubt it is a spoiler to tell you that Satsuki finds her, with help from Neighbor Totoro and the Cat-Bus. Two reliable friends indeed.
It may help to understand how the narrative structure of My Neighbor Totoro differs heavily from the standard, three act mould of much of Western film and literature. The three-act structure is well known, and still widely taught in schools and universities (leading to the aforementioned clashes with certain professors who will remain nameless buttfaces). But here, Miyazaki employs a four-act structure known as kishōtenketsu. I briefly discussed this subject in my review of Children Who Chase Lost Voices, but let’s go a bit deeper here.
Kishōtenketsu, as I said, has four parts. Ki is the first, the introduction of all the characters and story threads. The second, shō, deepens and fleshes out the details of the first bit, but no significant changes occur. This paves the way for ten, which introduces a twist. Not a Shyamalany twist of course—a narrative incongruity, a brand new story element. Finally, these three threads lead to ketsu, the ending.
It is best not to think of ketsu as the ‘conclusion;’ rather, it is more of a reconciliation of the three previous narrative elements. Thinking of it as a ‘conclusion’ will lead you down the path of extreme consternation, when the story ends and there are narrative threads a-dangling. I think reconciliation is a good word. One of its definitions is ‘the action of making financial accounts consistent; harmonisation’ (hat tip to the Oxford Dictionary of English). Of course I’m not discussing finance, but it makes the incongruous element congruous and harmonises all the previous threads.
This structure applies to several Miyazaki works, such as Kiki’s Delivery Service. So how does kishōtenketsu pertain to My Neighbor Totoro? I would argue that ki introduces us to Satsuma and Mei, their father, and their new house. Shō has the sisters exploring their world, and beginning their excursions with Totoro and the Cat-Bus. Ten, the twist, is when the girls learn something is wrong with their mother and Mei becomes separated. Ketsu brings all the characters back together and shows us life for the family once the mother returns home.
So, does Totoro exist, or the Cat-Bus or the soot sprites? The parents accept their daughters’ accounts of them as fact, though they never seem to see them. Mei gets home somehow, and it wasn’t by walking. Totoro exists the same way that Calvin’s tiger Hobbes exists. Hobbes is not a stuffed tiger that springs to life when no one is looking. And there are times when it doesn’t seem quite possible for Calvin to be doing what he’s doing on his own. Hobbes is a being who is viewed one way by some people and another way by his best friend. Such as it is with Totoro, who appears when needed and is never too far away. We should all be so lucky to have such a friend.
Maybe you think you don’t like animation, or maybe you have a profound distaste for what you consider “anime.” I can only express sadness at the treasure you are missing. A film this rich, detailed, delightful, and rewarding deserves a relaxing of prejudices. Your kids will thank you. (And you’ll thank me.)
I’ll probably discuss Miyazaki more in the future. I’ve spent most of this entry enumerating the wonders of My Neighbor Totoro, in an effort to convey why it is the Perfect Family Film, and it isn’t even Miyazaki’s masterpiece (though it is a close second). That would be Spirited Away, and you know I’m gonna have to talk about that film at some point. Until then, I urge you to watch this amazing film. It is rated G in the US, U in the UK. For the youngest children who cannot read subtitles, it has been carefully dubbed by the team at Pixar, with Elle and Dakota Fanning voicing Mei and Satsuki. The perfect gift for the one-, or one hundred-year-old.