A Conversation about Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro

By  · Published on July 28th, 2016

This month’s Remedial Film School with guest critic David Ehrlich.

I am a film critic, but almost all of the movies I watch are new releases. That is going to change. With Jeff Bayer’s Remedial Film School a notable film critic or personality will assign me (and you) one film per month. Film critic David Ehrlich from IndieWire is our guest, and he chose My Neighbor Totoro, currently available at video stores. It is also available online for free through many websites that all seem very sketchy. Each section begins with a quote from the film.

“Do you like spirits Mommy? Even fuzzy ones?”

David Ehrlich: My Neighbor Totoro is an easy film to take for granted. One of the most popular and beloved animated movies ever made (especially in Japan, where its characters are as ubiquitously ingrained in the culture as Mickey Mouse or – shudder – the Frozen princesses are here), the 1988 classic cemented Hayao Miyazaki as the Walt Disney of the Eastern world and paved the way for a generation of iconic entertainment. It’s like the anime equivalent of Sleeping Beauty, in that it’s an “old-fashioned” entertainment that people assume it’s easier to revere than it is to enjoy.

Well, people are super wrong (as they usually are).

My Neighbor Totoro isn’t the best of the Studio Ghibli films (that would have to be The Wind Rises), but recent experiences have made me realize why it deserves its reputation as the most important. When my sister asked what her 3-year-old daughter’s first movie should be, I reflexively went with this one – later, when I saw photos of the little girl sitting in front of the screen (a stuffed Totoro clutched in her little arms), it all clicked into place.

My Neighbor Totoro is the truest film ever made about childhood, it bridges the gap between what it felt like to be a kid, and what it is like to be a kid. The Amblin fare speaks to certain generations of Americans, especially on an experiential level (if you have any memories of riding a bike around suburbia, it’s hard not to be a sucker for that stuff), but Miyazaki’s serene masterpiece nails the infinite possibility of growing up, the sense of wonder, and the life-or-death urgency that comes along with it.

The story is so simple: Two young sisters move with with their father into an old house in rural Japan, and promptly start palling around with the lovable local forest spirits while waiting for their ailing mother to be released from the hospital. There’s no villain, there’s no great adventure, there’s not even really any explicit conflict – just two kids in a world that won’t be able to keep them safe forever. And yeah, it can’t be overlooked how the lush hand-drawn animation adds a certain tenderness to the whole thing, that makes watching the movie feel like coming home. My Neighbor Totoro is always there for you when ya need it.

“Let’s walk. I feel great.”

Jeff Bayer: That opening theme song is addictive, so that is what I chose for the quote before this section. It is ridiculously simple, which fits for this, Miyazaki’s simplest, most digestible film (that I have seen).

I feel like this column has made me hyper-focused when watching the beginning of films, which is why it took me just a little while to fall in love with the sisters. First, they hide from police, while their dad is driving them to their new house. Why? That’s an unnecessary tease. It fits with children imagining and pretending about the universe, but doesn’t fit this story at this time. I actually assumed they were on the run for a few minutes. Plus, I was worried that Mei’s over-laughter would drive me batty. Then, they love the potentially haunted house a little too much. But, as soon as they walk into that kitchen, with all of the soot spreaders, they have a wonderfully sweet moment of fear and bravery. That’s all I needed. From that moment on, I was on this adventure with them.

There is a limited amount of craziness in this Miyazaki film (compared to the others … that I’ve seen … this feels like a preface I must keep making. It’s very similar to me never falling in love with the band Radiohead). That’s right Ehrlich, I am not a fan of Miyazaki’s work. Before you pass out, let me correct that statement, I wasn’t a fan of Miyazaki’s work.

The Wind Rises didn’t work for me, Ponyo drove me nuts, and Spirited Away made me think I needed drugs to enjoy it. That’s all the Miyazaki films I bothered with. Let’s not focus on those things though. Let’s be happy that you have given me the gift of fully appreciating a Miyazaki film, and maybe you’ll be able to do it again.

Before I gush all over this film, there are some moments of oddly paced or delivered lines, right? Literally like they stall for one simple second for no reason. I had noticed this a lot more in Ponyo and assumed it was because of being dubbed (I watched My Neighbor Totoro subtitled).

I love that the story is under-explained. We know their mother is in the hospital, and that is it. Their father works at the university, but the film never goes into further details. This is truly a film from the perspective of childhood.

It was nice not to see Totoro right away, it is just about these girls getting the lay of their land. And when Totoro and his smaller friends do show up, the musical score puts us at ease to let the kids know they don’t have to fear this beast. The fact that this giant bunny with useful hands could potentially be Mei’s imagination from one of her picture books only helps build the fantasy world, with their dad willing to allow that to flourish.

I was impressed with how grounded this story felt compared to Miyazaki’s other films. Then Catbus shows up. It feels out of place, right? We have established the soot spreaders, but they’re barely anything of note. Then we have the three bunny things. Out of nowhere this world now has a Catbus, but that’s it. Catbus seems like a pretty crazy leap. Plus, Catbus is really the one who eventually saves the day.

At first the third act felt a little forced, with Mei getting lost. But there are such wonderful moments that come from it, such as the sandal scare, and Satsuki truly in panic mode over her little sister’s whereabouts. Just like kids should watch Requiem for a Dream to learn about the dangers of drugs, they should watch My Neighbor Totoro to learn about the fear of running away/getting lost. They should probably have a sizable gap between these two films though. Even having the mother remain on the sidelines for most of this film makes it feel like a more authentic experience for the girls. Thankfully, this is G and not a film that deals with a mother’s death (I’m looking in your direction, Disney). It ends happily. For all of the fantasy, it deals with the real world in a very mature way.

Now for some random thoughts and questions …

When did you first see this film? How many total times have you seen it, and is this your favorite rated-G movie?

Is anything cuter in this movie than Mei saying, “Pole-tads”? Is Satsuki the fastest, greatest distance runner we’ve ever seen in a film, regardless of age? She puts Tom Cruise to shame.

The most whimsical moment of the film is when Totoro grunts some plants up, then flies. My question to you is, do you even like whimsy?

Do I have the “rules” of this world, correct? Totoro can help plants grow. When Totoro or Catbus touches something or someone, they disappear too? Also, Totoro can obviously control dreams. Am I missing anything? There was also a moment at the end when the trees are moving out of the way when Catbus speeds by. Visually, that effect looks almost the same as the tree tunnel to their house in the beginning of the film. Do you think Catbus made that tunnel? Yup, that’s the deepest dive I can give you in this world.

My 3.7-year-old son will be watching My Neighbor Totoro in the next few months. Thank you for that.

Finally, give me three more Miyazaki movies and the order you think I should watch them. Yes, I will even rewatch one of the others I’ve already seen if you think I must. I think I’ve asked all the other former guests of this column to remake/recast their movie. This is the first one where I can’t imagine doing that.

Movie Score: 8/10

“Everybody, try laughing. Then whatever scares you will go away!”

Ehrlich: Jeff, I’m glad you liked the movie! In fact, I’m so glad you liked the movie that I’m willing to overlook my profound disgust in your apathy to Radiohead, who are the Hayao Miyazakis of modern rock (The Bends is their My Neighbor Totoro, Hail to the Thief is their Princess Mononoke, I could go on… but, to the great detriment of your readers, I shall restrain myself).

Anyway, questions! I love questions.

I wish I had some fun story about how I discovered this movie as a child and it opened the door to the magical kingdom of cinema, but that would be a dirty lie – as a red-blooded American child of the 1980s, that honor obviously went to Jurassic Park. In fact, My Neighbor Totoro wasn’t widely available in my formative years as a cinephile, as the film was a victim of those strange years when Blockbuster lumped all Japanese animation into the NC-17 section (which is hilarious, because there’s only two or three scenes of tentacle rape in this film). I don’t think I really got hip to Miyazaki until Miramax released a dub of Princess Mononoke in theaters. I vividly remember forcing my dad to drive me and a friend into the northern wilds of Connecticut in order to see it, just as I vividly remember him passing out as soon as Billy Bob Thornton started talking. I don’t think Totoro became a priority until the first time I visited Japan, and realized that he’s pretty much the country’s unofficial mascot. And then my niece rekindled my appreciation for it – she watches it more times each week than I ever have. And what’s a rated-G movie? I’m older than 17 and don’t have children, movie ratings don’t exist in my world.

I don’t really like whimsy – at least not since it killed my dog.

But seriously folks, I’m not really sure what “whimsy” is all about. I will say, however, that becoming hideously, hideously old has given me a newfound appreciation for movies in which hinge less on conflict than they do… well, to go with the most pretentiously pertinent example I can think of… mono no aware, a Japanese express that roughly translates to “the awareness of impermanence” or “white person writing about the ineffably bittersweet quality of many Japanese films.”

As for the “rules” of the film, I think you hit the nail on the head when talking about how the little girls are imagining their own universe. I don’t think the movie would have nearly the same charm and sense of self if its fantasy were able to fit into a neat little box. In other words, futzing with the world of My Neighbor Totoro *is* the world-building in My Neighbor Totoro. The beauty of being a kid is that things don’t have to add up. Still, I like your observation about how the path cleared by the Catbus resembles the tunnel the girls drive through in the beginning… I think that the sisters may not even be fully conscious of the role that their real lives have in shaping their dreams (and vice-versa).

Tell your 3.7-year-old son that the princesses from Frozen are SO good in a movie called In the Realm of the Senses.

Three other Miyazaki movies to watch, eh? Well, I’ll take it easy on you and only force you to revisit one of the ones you’ve already seen.

1. Porco Rosso. Imagine Casablanca meets Bojack Horseman, with all the sadness but none of the jokes.

2. Castle in the Sky. Adventure! The most purely entertaining of Miyazaki’s films. Very hard not to like (plus, the English dub features James Van Der Beek, so this is a no-brainer).

3. The Wind Rises. Deal with it.

“It was a dream, but it wasn’t a dream.”

Bayer: I am happy to hear you didn’t grow up on Miyazaki. The power of nostalgia didn’t compel you. Wow. That should be a internet fan boy meme chant or something. “The power of nostalgia compels you! The power of nostalgia compels you!” Think about all the time we could save on Twitter responses when anyone complains about a remake (because their childhood is being systematically destroyed).

My son hasn’t watched Frozen yet. He’s actually only seen eight films (in order): Winnie the Pooh (2011), Toy Story, Robin Hood (1973), Finding Nemo, Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp, Wall-E, and Fox and the Hound. Of those, with the power of hindsight, I would have saved Robin and Peter for a little bit later. He also never wants to rewatch films, which I’m a little surprised by. Frozen is coming though, since my wife is a little curious about it. That’s right, she hasn’t seen it either.

I shall accept your premise that Catbus should exist because of children, but just barely. I have never heard of Porco Rosso, and Bojack Horseman didn’t take when I tried to watch it, but any comparison to Casablanca is enough for me. Castle in the Sky … sounds like I should take drugs beforehand (to overcome the Beek). The Wind Rises … Fine, but my one thought (which will kill you) is that the movie would be much better if it wasn’t animated.

Your Next Assignment: Guest critic Kate Erbland (IndieWire) selected It Happened One Night (1934) starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. It is available to rent on Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, and your local video store (hopefully). You can also watch it on YouTube. Your due date is August 25.

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