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A Masterclass in Animation Storytelling, ‘My Neighbor Totoro’ Continues to Beguile Audiences 30 Years On5 min read

12 February 2020 4 min read


A Masterclass in Animation Storytelling, ‘My Neighbor Totoro’ Continues to Beguile Audiences 30 Years On5 min read

Reading Time: 4 minutes

When two girls move to the country to be near their ailing mother, they have adventures with the wondrous forest spirits who live nearby.

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Cast: Noriko Hidaka, Chika Sakamoto, Shigesato Itoi, Sumi Shimamoto, Tanie Kitabayashi, Hitoshi Takagi

Year: 1988

Country: Japan

Language: Japanese 

Runtime: 86 minutes

How is it possible not to be charmed by this film? My Neighbor Totoro となりのトトロ is a masterclass in animation storytelling that has inspired generations of artists with the absolutely enchanting world Studio Ghibli hand-lovingly crafts out of the Japanese countryside.  

The film follows two young sisters Satsuki (Noriko Hidaka) and her younger sister Mei (Chika Sakamoto) moving to the countryside with their father, Tatsuo (Shigesato Itoi). They are immediately beguiled by the lush sceneries surrounding them. From that point on, the film never lets go of its bewitchment.

There are no conflicts, emotional peaks and troughs, or really any narrative in My Neighbor Totoro. Its characters very much already make up the perfect family unit. Satsuki is as independent as Mei is headstrong with both under the tender care of their father. The only real blemish is mother Yasuko’s (Sumi Shimamoto) hospital stay due to an illness but even her return home is mostly seen as a matter of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’. 

Director Hayao Miyazaki sheds the restraints of a typical three-act structure to focus on the not-so-quiet first few days of Satsuki and Mei in their new home. Through its wondrous art style, the audience views the world through the eyes and infectious imagination of its young leads. Strangers – both human and otherwise – are scary until they introduce themselves. Rain and night are not presented as threats as much as completely new worlds to explore. 

Even watching My Neighbor Totoro as an adult, it’s hard not to share the girls’ excitement with their every gasp and bright-eyed smile; I can only imagine being overwhelmed with wonder to experience the film as a kid.

While its approach and patient pace does progressively build up a detoxing and relaxing atmosphere, I did find my attention tapering off – but that was until the Totoro(s) showed up! With sharp claws and a lifeless expression, this terrifying chimera between an owl and a raccoon dog could easily pass as a horror monster.

Yet, perhaps it’s exactly because the film flirts with light horror moments before twisting the intimidating beast into a fluffy, awkward friend full of lively expressions that makes Totoro such an endearing character. 

Oh, and there is a cat bus that has twelve legs with a constant cheshire grin and dead rats plastered on its back as rear lights as well. Yet, Studio Ghibli still manages to turn its design around into something adorable as it clumsily stampedes around the countryside.

This, again, speaks to how My Neighbor Totoro mainly expresses itself through its superb animation. 30 years on, the film’s art style hasn’t aged a day with its unique sheen of watercolour playfully bordering between realism and animated marvel.

It’s an animated film in every sense of the word – characters converse not necessarily through words but their spirited expressions against backgrounds that are simply brimming with life. 

Driving home the wistful tone is Joe Hisaishi’s unforgettable soundtrack, almost perfectly orchestrated to every movement. There is a hearty combination of variety here. Boisterous trumpets and cheeky string plucks punctuate the playful moments while widescreen synthesisers and soaring violins set a vast open stage for the audience to fully soak in the film’s whimsical parts.

My Neighbor Totoro is pure magic. It shies away from any sentimental messages ala Disney but still effortlessly presents an affirming tale of sisterhood and family. It’s constantly idyllic but never becomes diabetic or overstays its welcome. And it’s outright impossible to watch the film without grinning from ear to ear every once in a while. My Neighbor Totoro is a timeless classic that captures childhood wonder in a way that only animation can, and in a way few films can match. 

My Neighbor Totoro – together with a whole slew of Studio Ghibli features – is now (finally) available on Netflix.

Meanwhile, get a peek of the film below:

There's nothing Matt loves more than "so bad, they're good" movies. Except browsing through crates of vinyl records. And Mexican food.
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