This is the movie that introduced me not only to the world of Miyazaki, but Japanese animation as well. I was 3 or 4 when I first saw this movie, and my sisters and I, upon first watch, were hooked. It was on a lot when I was a kid. I know this movie like the back of my hand. As such, my notes for this movie while I was watching consisted of one sentence written in all caps. PERFECT FAMILY FILM. Lets see if I can explain why.
Side note: My husband actually hates this movie. He says it’s boring. He fell asleep during it the first time he watched it. He says that nothing happens. And… he’s right. There really is not a huge plot. Here, you want it?
A dad with two young girls, Mei and Satsuki, move to the country to a new house. It’s never really said why, but their mother is in the hospital, so maybe to be closer? Don’t try to make sense of this movie… this is one you just experience. It’s a slice of life. Anyway, the girls have some adventures in the woods near their house, starting with when they find dust sprites in the attic. They then find the forest spirit, a Totoro, in the big tree that grows next to their house in the woods. Trouble ensues until one day when their mother is supposed to come home from the hospital and doesn’t, and Mei disappears. Satsuki goes searching for her with the help of Totoro and the Catbus (I’ll explain later). They find her and everyone is happy.
That’s seriously the whole movie. It really isn’t much. There really is no plot. It’s just kids, arguably, being kids. And that is what makes this movie so incredibly great. It doesn’t need fancy plots or action to keep a kid’s attention. It just does through its magic. That’s it.
There is so much about this movie that is just part of my life. There is so much about this movie that is so much of everyone’s life. The hesitation with moving to a new place and the excitement in exploring a new house, backyard, town, and forest. Dealing with meeting new friends. The anger felt when your sister doesn’t listen to you. The fear when you realize she’s gone and you have to be the adult because your father is still at work. This movie just gets kids. It gets what they’re feeling, because we’ve all felt it. It’s a movie about growing up. It just happens to have forest spirits in it as well.
Let’s talk about those guys, because they are, of course, what a lot of kids remember about the movie. Totoros are forest spirits, and in the movie there are three: the little white ghost one, the blue one that carries acorns, and the giant grey one. In case you don’t know what Totoros look like, here you go (The girls are in this picture too):
You’ve probably seen one in a movie and not known it. There was one in Toy Story 3. Totoro is the symbol for Studio Ghibli. It’s as recognizable to Japanese children as Winnie the Pooh or Mickey Mouse is to us. Along with those three guys we also have the dust sprites (aka dust balls with cute little faces), and my favorite, the Catbus. It’s exactly what it sounds like. Here:
It’s creepy but at the same time extremely cool. It’s like Miyazaki went into a kid’s head and created a character based on something an actual kid would draw. So cool.
All these creatures actually do have personalities, even though they don’t really talk. The largest Totoro is the one we see the most, and he listens quietly as the kids talk to him, finds happiness and fun in rain drops hitting an umbrella, and is responsible for making everything in their forest grow.
I do want to mention before I start talking about the characters that there are actually two english dubs of this movie. One done by Streamline and the other by Disney much later. I have only ever seen the Streamline version and this is the one I own. I can’t bring myself to watch the Disney version. The other one is just such a part of my childhood, I think watching Dakota and Elle Fanning voice Satsuki and Mei would ruin it for me. So I don’t know which dub is better. I don’t know if they changed wording between the two. I just know the one I grew up with, and the one I’m reviewing now. Ok, good.
The sisters, Mei and Satsuki, are extremely realistic. I don’t know if I can think of any other depiction of kids, especially two sisters, that is this good. They’re sisters and everything that comes with it: they fight, play, laugh, hate each other and love each other at the same time. Normally in movies when there’s siblings, you see a bit of arguing, but a lot of the time they’re either depicted as being best friends, or mortal enemies that never speak to each other or evil step sisters. In this movie, their relationship is very real (and I can speak from experience: I have two sisters. I’m in the middle so I know what its like to both be the older sister and the younger sister and to have an older sister and a younger sister.) Satsuki, the older one, is embarrassed when Mei comes to her school and requests to sit in with her. At the same time, Satsuki knows she has to look out for her with their mother in the hospital. She doesn’t quite believe Mei when she said she found a Totoro, but excited and a bit scared when she does finally meet him. The two sisters argue and fight constantly about stupid things. Then they’ll turn around the next minute and play with each other. Like I said, they love and hate each other at the same time.
Mei, the younger sister, is so good it’s scary. I remember watching this movie later in life and going “yeah… that’s about right.” She’s full of life but extremely annoying to her sister at times. She follows everything Satsuki does because that’s how much she idolizes her sister and that’s how excited she is. She’s a little imp that runs around and tries to catch dust bunnies and follows Totoros into the forest. She’s not afraid of anything. She has temper tantrums where she literally doesn’t talk to anyone and just has a sad/annoyed look on her face. She doesn’t understand why her mother isn’t there, but knows something is wrong.
Satsuki, on the other hand, is the older sister that has much more responsibility. With her mother in the hospital her father looks to her to help out, and she does willingly. She’s mature but at the same time super innocent. She loves to help out but also knows how to have fun. She doesn’t believe Mei about the Totoro but is still interested and when she finally sees him she’s smitten. She is, arguably, the one in this movie that grows up too fast, because she has to. In some ways, this movie is all about her and what she goes through losing her sister. It’s about growing up and not being able to see those spirits as you once saw them (because supposedly adults can’t see the Totoros).
We don’t get to know dad much, but he seems like a fun dad who tries hard to balance work and being a single parent (which in Japanese culture is actually saying a LOT). He plays along with the girls and their “imaginations” with the Totoros, encouraging them to pay tribute to the spirits of the forest and saying that seeing one is good luck. The only other characters we get to know are a grandmother and a little boy that live down the road. The granny is typical old lady who occasionally watches Mei, and the boy is a hilarious little Japanese boy who is afraid to talk to girls and almost has a little crush on Satsuki. They’re both minor characters but they add to the atmosphere of this family having just moved to town.
For the first time I’m going to pull in a quote from another critic that I found on the Wikipedia page. I feel it sums up exactly what this movie is about. This is Roger Ebert’s take:
“..it would never have won its worldwide audience just because of its warm heart. It is also rich with human comedy in the way it observes the two remarkably convincing, lifelike little girls… It is a little sad, a little scary, a little surprising and a little informative, just like life itself. It depends on a situation instead of a plot, and suggests that the wonder of life and the resources of imagination supply all the adventure you need.”
That quote says it perfectly. I’m not going to go into any more depth with this movie. It’s just one you have to experience. There’s no ending to give away or any villains. It’s just life. The life of these two girls, and we get to experience it. Were the Totoros real, or were they just imagined? Who knows. I like to think they were. But even if they were just imagined by the girls, why does it matter? It’s a testament to creativity, and the way I know I lived my childhood.
That, in a nutshell, is Totoro. It’s perfect just the way it is, and it’s not trying to be anything except what it is. If you find it boring, maybe you just need to open yourself up and remember what it was like to be a kid again. Have a little imagination, and maybe a Catbus will show up on your roof and take you to a Totoro spinning on a magical top.
I give My Neighbor Totoro (1988) a 5 out of 5. Cause I just have to.
Up Next: Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)