My Neighbor Totoro is, undoubtedly, one of Studio Ghibli’s (in general) and Hayao Miyazaki’s (in particular) most beloved films. IF there was a film that established, clearly, Miyazaki as the “Japanese Walt Disney” to international audiences outside of anime fandom, this was it, whether Miyazaki wanted the title or not.
My Neighbor Totor’s strengths are its tremendous naturalism – both in characters & environments, and how very (and this shouldn’t be taken as a negative) non-threatening it is. The movie, like Totoro themselves, is a big, fluffy, teddy bear.
The premise of the film is that the Kusakabe family is moving to rural Japan, where the mother of the family – Yasuko – is currently in the hospital. Tatsuo, the father, is a university professor in Tokyo, and they have two daughters – who are our viewpoint characters – Satsuki (age 10) and Mei (age 4). Near the house is a large Camphor tree, with an associated shrine, and inside the tree lives Totoro. Totoro is – and I’d missed this on earlier viewings – strongly implied to be a kami. Over the course of the film, Mai and Satsuki go on various low-stress adventures with Totoro as they get used to living in the countryside.
First off – the naturalism. Miyazaki had done heavily pastoral films and series before this, such as Future Boy Conan and Castle of Cagliostro. However, the Japanese countryside feels much more of a part of this film than the countryside was in those works. Even when we’re indoors, we spend more time looking out, and because the film is so non-threatening – there is no villain, no real peril – the scenery also represents no threat, and instead is quite relaxing.
Additionally, the behavior is naturalistic – the kids, Satsuki & Mei (along with some of their peers they interact with in school) feels a lot like how kids act. The way Mei echos her sister’s actions, Satsuki’s presentation of aspirational maturity and responsibility while also not having developed an adolescent rejection of the perception of being viewed as a child. It all feels natural and never forced.
Finally, there’s that non-threatening nature. It is important not to forget that anime fandom has, as almost part of its core, latched onto its idea that Anime is not “family animation” as it is perceived in the US. Whether that was Akira, Ninja Scroll, or Ghost in the Shell in the ‘90s, or Attack on Titan and Demon Slayer now, there is a chunk of fandom that wants to present our fandom with a healthy (or sometimes unhealthy) degree of distance from The Mouse – like we’re wrapping ourselves in KMFDM to prove a point.
However, to be blunt, there’s a larger audience out there that finds that off-putting. That’s the reason that the perception of anime as “hyper-violent porn” persists, and why (in addition to racism) why so few works of Japanese animation have been nominated for Best Animated Feature, and the works that have been nominated have either been from Ghibli, with the exception of Mamoru Hosoda’s Mirai. And even the arguments of the racists play into the “hyper-violent porn” angle.
So, for audiences who are put off by the intensity, sexuality, violence, or complexity of all the other anime being released in the US, My Neighbor Totoro is a breath of fresh air, and it’s setting gives it a timeless-ish quality that keeps it resonating for modern audiences in general – alongside fans of anime.
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