After years of hearing about how brilliant it is, I've finally taken the time to watch My Neighbor Totoro. In fact, this was the first Studio Ghibli movie I've ever seen. I discovered that the consensus is exactly right: My Neighbor Totoro is thoroughly delightful.
I went into this film knowing absolutely nothing about it. I didn't read any reviews, didn't read the back cover of the Blu-ray box or seek out the opinions of my friends. All I knew was that people who I respect thoroughly love this movie – no, love is too weak a word. People adore this film in the way that only real classic films are adored. When I posted to my Facebook that I was watching My Neighbor Totoro for the first time, I got a ridiculous number of Likes along with a slew of comments telling me what an incredible experience I would have. One friend even told me that they envied me the chance to experience Miyazaki's magic for the first time, without an idea what would happen.
That blank slate attitude was the perfect approach for me. My approach allowed the wonder of Hayao Miyazaki's filmmaking to wash over me, bereft of preconceptions or anticipation. Miyazaki's astonishing direction played out patiently for a first-time viewer, permitting his painstaking, affectionate scene-setting to play out without the anticipation for every single next major plot element.
Miyazaki creates a unique world of unadulterated wonder in My Neighbor Totoro, delivering a film that beautifully reflects the ways that children perceive their surroundings, full of magical joy that is as much about the innocent wonder of chasing butterflies around a yard as it is about the amazing supernatural creatures that surround a wonderful new home.
My Neighbor Totoro is as much about the more realistic elements of the story as it is about the more fantastic elements – or maybe more properly stated, the more magical elements are the key to the realistic side of the story and the reality provides a grounding for the supernatural. Miyazaki very specifically places his characters outside of a specific time and place, creating a timeless, almost folkloric world that young Sasuke and Mei wander through.
The setting in rural Japan is idyllic, calm and pastoral. This quiet region of Japan is an analog place in which phones are rare, radios are enormous, and neighbors care about their neighbors. It's a setting that is very specifically Japanese, with its Shinto shrines and bucolic feel, but any American can appreciate Miyazaki's nostalgic yearning for long-lost small-town life. The painstakingly detailed filmmaking – every cell was hand drawn in the traditional animated approach – makes the idyllic Japanese countryside beckon the viewer like a beloved memory. Every element of nature is painstakingly recreated as a kind of love letter for a quiet lifestyle of peaceful nirvana far from the big cities.
Sasuke and Mei love living in the country, and I was swept along with their deep happiness. Miyazaki diligently builds his scene-setting. We're a full 22 minutes in before first supernatural creatures appear on screen, and a full 30 minutes before we see the characters that transform My Neighbor Totoro from being merely wonderful to being truly transcendent.
When four-year-old Mei tumbles through a virtual birth canal into her discovery of the amazing Totoro, we're enraptured in a truly magnificent moment of innocent childhood magic that runs completely counter to our expectations as American film watchers. Mei literally tumbles head over feet down a hole, finding at the bottom, not fear or confusion but a happy, affectionate creature that immediately accepts and loves her.
The scenes in which Mei adoringly caresses the Totoro's fur is one of the sweetest moments I've seen in an animated film because the moment feels so earned. Mei's innocently small universe is the result of the filmmaker's diligent character development. We've come to adore Mei's pure, innocent, very open passion for the world around her. This delightful child discovers absolute bliss because she is open to her surroundings. Her unpolluted happiness makes viewers empathize with the little girl, and feels like a reflection of our own lost childhood.
As My Neighbor Totoro progresses in its measured pace, the story unfolds in its own very specific calm, majestic manner. Actually, there's not a plot in this movie in the classic sense of a narrative that moves a plot forward. Plot is secondary in Miyazai's vision. This film is all about its almost folkloric feeling and tone. My Neighbor Totoro is a poem about childhood magic, the way that our openness to our surroundings can allow even the most jaded adult to perceive amazing things. The enduring and rapturous popularity of this film comes from the manner in which that it communicates in a language beyond words, directly to viewers' hearts. That is the genius of great filmmaking.
My Neighbor Totoro is tremendously sincere and tremendously moving. There were several scenes that literally took my breath away, such as the scenes where the Totoros make acorns magically grow into majestic trees.
My Neighbor Totoro is pure magic.
I became indoctrinated into the brilliant world of Hayao Miyazaki because of the recent Blu-ray releases of both My Neighbor Totoro and Howl's Moving Castle (which I'll be reviewing separately). The Blu-ray transfer is perfect. The image quality of the Blu-ray is spectacular. Every frame is crystal clear. Maybe most importantly for Miyazaki fans, viewers have the choice between watching the Disney dub of the film or the subtitled Japanese version. Everyone says viewers should choose the subtitled version; the subtitles definitely gave me a much richer experience watching this film.
After finally viewing my first two Miyazaki films, I wonder why I waited so long to watch them. Great works of art enhance your life.