The crayon doodles, chalk scrabbled floor and walls, silly games of following the clouds, the butterflies and the wind, toying with fairy tale thoughts, dancing in the rain, eating snowflakes, and living in the inverted fable world… all this and every other childhood memory comes alive in Miyazaki’s masterpiece anime, My Neighbour Totoro.
Those whispers, secrets, and myths that we all have heard, in which the happy spirits rise to guide the one who dares and bridges her to the magic around, which world-wide have different versions, which are absurd yet possible, forms the core of this motley work.
Two little girls, Satsuki and Mei, move to the countryside in Japan along with their father, Tatsuo Kusakabe. Mama Yasuko Kusakabe is not well and so she is admitted to the hospital which is closer to this countryside house.
“But she will recover and come back home soon”, says Dady Tatsuo, “when, will she be back by tomorrow?” asks four years old Mei, “there she goes again with tomorrow”, says Satsuki and they all laugh.
Mei is courageous, she even catches a soot gremlin to show it to Satsuki but it ends up only in making her hands black.
As Satsuki goes to school, little Mei plays around the house alone; carrying her packed lunchbox, she explores the place with a clear and light mind, giggling, following two small bunny-like Totoros to the colossal camphor tree and ultimately meeting the big Totoro there.
Totoro is a furry giant animal, with whiskers, big eyes, and a bigger smile. He lives in the huge camphor tree in the forest neighbouring Satsuki and Mei’s house.
While the little Totoros collect acorns, the giant one helps it to grow; together they play the ocarina like music instruments at night, sitting high on a branch, guarding the forest, and all the beings living in it.
Totoro in some ways is like a Kami – a spirit in Japanese religion of Shinto – which can be anything, from forces of nature to spirits of an honoured dead person like a King. Possessing both positive and negative qualities, these spirits are to be worshipped and thanked for their blessings and support.
Kami cannot be seen by everyone, but the one whom it chooses to reveal itself to. Being aware of the powers of Kami means being aware of the powers of nature, respecting it, and also showing gratitude for what it grants.
After Mei’s first encounter with Totoro, their father takes both the girls to a nearby Shinto shrine to thank the Kami for looking after Mei and asking it to continue looking after all of them. The shrine is next to the giant camphor tree which Mei happily recognises, but doesn’t find the way to Totoro’s den as she did the last time.
Two Little sisters, Mei and Satsuki
As children look at the world with the hope to see a miracle every second and love as if it is all theirs, it is only Mei and Satsuki who get to meet Totoro. It all starts with Mei, she sees the soot gremlins twice and then the three Totoros. Little Mei’s world, it seems, is still more magical than Satsuki.
When Mei tells Satsuki about Totoro, she tells her father that she too wants to meet Totoro, but on one occasion when Mei accompanies her to the school and draws Totoro’s image on a sheet, Satsuki feels embarrassed amongst her giggling friends, typical of a growing-up kid.
On a rainy late evening, Satsuki and Mei go to the bus stop to receive their father who had not taken an umbrella, there Totoro joins them. Satsuki is elated to see him but stays still. She then gives him the spare umbrella and shows him how to use it.
Raindrops falling on the umbrella from the branches above give Totoro the shivers which he enjoys; he jumps up and down and a heavy splash of raindrops fall on them and Totoro beams magnificently. The magic only multiplies then as a Cat Bus arrives there, Totoro climbs on it and leaves.
That same night, Totoro comes with his two little friends to silently perform a ritual in the yard where Mei and Satsuki have planted the acorns; the girls wake up and join the Totoros.
Their prayers are heard and the plants sprout magically to form a giant tree, just like the camphor tree, right before their eyes. Totoro then takes all of them to the top of the tree to sit on the branch and play the ocarina.
Next morning the girls find that the tree has vanished, but the seeds have indeed sprung; both of them then repeat the ritual ecstatically shouting “I thought it was a dream, but I was wrong.”
Mei repeats whatever Satsuki says, she gets excited when Satsuki is, dances along and follows her everywhere trying to match her speed, happy to be around her elder sister. But when she gets the news that their mother will not be returning soon as planned, she gets angry.
Both the sisters argue and Mei leaves for the hospital all by herself to give her mother an ear of corn that Granny had said would make her perfectly healthy.
In the evening when Satsuki realises that Mei is not at home, she, Granny, Kanta, and his family all start looking for her. Sure that Mei must have left for the hospital Satsuki takes to the road, running all the way and calling out Mei’s name, but she does not find her there.
Satsuki then goes to meet Totoro, praying to the camphor tree to allow her to meet him; she tells Totoro that Mei is missing and she cannot find her on her own.
Totoro smiles and immediately calls the Cat Bus, the destination indicator blinks Mei’s name, an awed Satsuki climbs on the bus and on its many legs the Cat Bus leaps from one farm to another, tiptoeing from one utility pole to another, finally stopping at the roadside where Mei was sitting and crying.
The Cat Bus then takes both of them to the hospital; there sitting on a treetop the little girls feel relieved to see their parents together and happy.
Both Mei and Satsuki come across as two real-life girls – their mannerism (in the first scene, sitting together in the small lorry, sharing candies), their reactions (when Mei sees the soot gremlins she freezes, holding her frock tightly), their silly arguments (when Satsuki teases Mei that she is afraid at night and that is why she cannot sleep alone), when happy (after meeting the Totoro for the first time Satsuki is overjoyed, she asks his father to hold both of them and they jump into his arms) when sad (both are disappointed to know that their mother will not be coming home soon), all these actions in totality make them appear like two actual kids.
Mama and Daddy Kusakabe
Both Tatsuo and Yasuko Kusakabe are loving, supporting, and open-minded accepting parents. They know that it is a tough time for the girls as they have been staying away from their mother and have shifted to a village for her sake, thus, they do not discourage them from any vibrant idea of theirs.
Whenever the girls talk about soot gremlins, Totoro and the Cat Bus, they both show excitement, honestly interested in their tales.
Tatsuo always listens to them and joins them in their fun activities. Yasuko misses both of them and worries for Satsuki as she knows she takes more responsibility than others do in her age.
When Yasuko tells her husband that she thought she saw Mei and Satsuki sitting on the tree, smiling, Tatsuo, familiar with the Totoro story by then, picks up the corn with the inscription ‘for mama’ on it lying on the window-sill and says that they must have been here.
Granny and Kanta
Mei and Satsuki’s neighbours, other than the Totoros, are Kanta’s family. While Granny is caring and full of warmth, Kanta hesitates even to talk to Satsuki.
On two occasions – delivering them lunch on their first day and giving his umbrella when it is pouring heavily – he simply hands over Satsuki the lunch box and the umbrella, grunting and without uttering a word.
As time passes by, they become like family to the Kusakabes; when Mei leaves for the hospital on her own, Granny gathers the whole village to look for Mei and Kanta goes to the hospital on a bicycle to check the way for her.
Granny hugs Mei when she returns with Satsuki. The four of them walk back home together as the cheerful closing track plays in the background.
The Charm of the Era
The film is set in the late 1950s Japan when life was simpler and the pace was kinder. On arriving at their new home, Mei and Satsuki get excited about seeing every new thing – the timeworn house (‘it could be haunted’, says Satsuki), the collapsing patio, the soot gremlins, the water pump, the small bridge that takes them to their house, the stream and of course, the giant camphor tree.
Raindrops falling in the rice paddies, the sudden downpour, the drizzles dripping from tree leaves, the puddles, all these scenes are beautifully captured in the film.
Totoro is overwhelmed with joy when raindrops fall on his umbrella which he is holding for the first time, this brings back memories of childhood.
Such simple happy actions become a habit unknowingly; whether it is raindrops falling on the umbrella for some or say, crushing the dry autumn leaves for others, it always gives us a sudden boost of cheerful energy.
Imagery & Music
The wonderful work done by Hayao Miyazaki and Kazuo Oga, the art director, makes the anime world truly alive.
The cushiony clouds, the rapturous scenery, the quiet stream, and every rock and leaf complement each other, aiding in and not shying from embracing the modernity.
When Mei, Satsuki, and their father visit the shrine for the first time, the ambience and even the cool moistness of the hidden place catches us and we are struck by the glory of the huge camphor tree.
And what gives the imagery this soothing life-like quality is the music in the film. The excellent soundtrack, composed by Joe Hisaishi, gives the film a mythical tone as if opening a door to a magical dream world while keeping it firmly grounded in its times.
Especially the score titled “The Huge Tree in the Tsukamori Forest”, which plays whenever we see the camphor tree in its glory, has become analogous to the spirit of the film. It is an uplifting majestic tune that marks the listener’s entry into a secret world.
The Credits Roll
The story goes on as the credits roll at the end. We see Mei and Satsuki spending time with their mother – taking baths together, reading storybooks – as they had been hoping to for a long time.
The girls continue living in the same region, making new friends, bonding with the old ones, making a snow Totoro in winters, and enjoying their childhood days.
My Neighbour Totoro is considered to be, both by the critics and the masses, one of the best Anime fantasy films of all time. Totoro has become a cultural icon and the film has a worldwide cult following.
Apart from being the company logo and appearing in Studio Ghibli’s other productions, Totoro has also appeared in Disney Pixar’s Toy Story 3.
Such is the love for the film that an asteroid discovered in 1994 and a velvet worm species discovered in Vietnam in 2013 were named after Totoro.
A smiley giant, guardian of the forest, Totoro does not have a dialogue in the film; apart from speaking his name out loud to Mei, he only beams, roars, flies, plays the ocarina, eats and sleeps.
His simplicity makes him a more welcomed, accepted, and believable character by one and all. Mei and Satsuki’s neighbour, the guardian of the forest, Totoro is a true friend, yours as well as mine.
My Neighbour Totoro
Written and Directed by – Hayao Miyazaki; Production company – Studio Ghibli; Music by – Joe Hisaishi; Cinematography by – Hisao Shirai; Edited by – Takeshi Seyama
Here is a children’s film made for the world we should live in, rather than the one we occupy. A film with no villains. No fight scenes. No evil adults. No fighting between the two kids. No scary monsters. No darkness before the dawn. A world that is benign. A world where if you meet a strange towering creature in the forest, you curl up on its tummy and have a nap.Roger Ebert, the film critic.
Read his review of My Neighbour Totoro here.
You can now watch the film on Netflix. Enjoy!