Last night I was privileged to catch a big-screen viewing of this Ghibli animated children’s “hang out movie” classic. Although Spirited Away, which also came to the theater in May, is a much more complicated and visually stunning film, I would have to say that Totoro is the one that made me into a Ghibli superfan. I even have an Animal Crossing island that is currently being played, not a deleted one in a dream state even, that is named Totoro and features themed villagers and scenes from the films.
Totoro stars two little girls named Satsuki and Mei who move with their father to a rural home outside Tokyo, presumably in the late 40s or the 50s. Upon arrival they immediately realize the house is haunted with little balls of dirt called soot sprites. All the adults including their father, and a neighbor who acts as a “Granny” (because the girls’ mother is in the hospital), are matter-of-fact about the existence of these spirits, so the girls aren’t afraid. The neighbor boy (Granny’s blood related grandson) is afraid of the haunted house, though, and won’t speak to the girls until much later in the film.
Very shortly after they get settled in and Satsuki has made friends and attends her new school, Mei follows a strange little sometimes transparent, sometimes white, mouse like creature into the woods. There she finds a huge mouse/bear/rabbit spirit called Totoro sleeping in a hollow under an enormous tree. She naps with him, but when Satsuki returns from school Mei is asleep alone on the ground. Their father explains that they will sometimes see the forest spirits and sometimes not, but only when they spirits want to be seen. Then the little family offers thanks to the tree.
Through other gentle adventures, the girls get more acquainted with Totoro, and also with his friend the Catbus, which is as it sounds, a giant cat which is also a bus. There is no way I can do this justice with words.
In fact, I don’t want to say too much more because I want you to see this movie, in theaters if you get a chance, but on HBO Max if nothing else. You have to have a lot of patience. This isn’t a typical family movie with singing and dancing, “witty” sentient animals, and manufactured conflicts that frustrate you by always almost being resolved. No, My Neighbor Totoro is a trip back in time to Hayao Miyazaki’s childhood via a trip into his imagination, populated by long scenes of the girls standing in the rain, watching the wind blow through the grass, loving views of Ghibli cloud drawings, and dancing in the moonlight with spirits. If I could live in a film, it would be this one.
P.S. I was so enraptured at the end of the film that I left my favorite purple cardigan in my seat and got all the way home before I realized I didn’t have it. Due to the tone of the film I’m about 90% sure that sweater knows I miss it and is waiting patiently for me to pick it up when the theater opens again at 4, and 10% sure it’s just going to walk home by itself and will show up playing an ocarina.