Reviews of My Neighbor Totoro (1988) and related work

My Neighbor Totoro (1988Moving picture, 86 minutes)

Miyazaki Hayao (writer-director).

1950s Japan. A father moves out to the country to be closer to his wife. She’s in a rural hospital. Her disease, not mentioned by name, is tuberculosis. Worried and imaginative, their two young daughters eventually meet the guardian of the nearby forest.

Children’s movie, though not in the contemporary Western sense of entertainment so insipid only children will swallow. “Supernatural adventure” has the wrong connotations. It’s charm beyond anything to which the name of charm is given.

Totoro borrows significantly from “Panda! Go Panda!” (1972), whose Papanda character is a talking proto-Totoro, halfway between Disney’s Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland (1951) and the final product. Another similar character is the giant cat from episode 51 of Urusei Yatsura (1981). The lineage could be described as a secularized yurodivy along with what C. J. L. Almqvist called an animal coeleste, a creature of innocent power and holistic enlightenment, symbolic of nature. A human animal coeleste appears in Almqvist’s The Queen’s Tiara (1834).

Apropos of Totoro’s origins, its flying and the umbrella suggest a connection to Mary Poppins (1964). Indeed, Totoro fulfills roughly the same function as Poppins: It is a temporary, adult, supernatural visitor who plays with the children of a troubled family and then disappears. Some of the wishful thinking is preserved but there is no moral to this story and there are no bad people. Totoro doesn’t clean up your room or get your dad his job back. You don’t need to be upper class to afford its services, and it really doesn’t care about your tuppence. Almost everything the 1964 film does wrong, this one does right.

The Swedish dub is pretty good as these things go. The child actors occasionally butcher Satsuki’s name as both “Suzuki” and “Tzatziki”, but they mostly get it right.

References here: Ghibli movie titles, Totoro in Space, Like the Clouds, Like the Wind (1990), Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride (1996), Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation (2001/2005), Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working with Time (2001), Mai Mai Miracle (2009), The Secret World of Arrietty (2010), When Marnie Was There (2014), Mary and the Witch’s Flower (2017).

animation fiction Ghibli Japanese production moving picture

“Mei and the Kitten Bus” (2002Moving picture, 13 minutes)

Miyazaki Hayao (writer-director).

Seen in 2018.

On the night of a gale, Mei is alone with a little bar of a hard caramel candy.

It’s a little painful. For years, Miyazaki seemed to resist the idea that the sisters ever saw Totoro again. Here, he embraces it. He shows some restraint, in that Mei hasn’t aged or gotten used to the supernatural, and the Todorovian blur is still there, but the escalation in worldbuilding is huge and flawed. The implication is that the many-legged, many-tailed cat of the original was not an old individual who, as per folklore, took an interest in a bus and learned how to change shape. Here, there’s a mini-bus, a train, an airship, and therein lies the implication that supernatural cats are somehow aligned with modern mechanized transportation. That is distasteful to me, devaluing the animals both as individuals and as natural creatures. Totoro instead becomes the sole individual among a huge number of insufficiently distinct creatures of his kind. These show less character than the exotic extras of the spirit realm in Spirited Away (2001).

I found those choices surprising coming from Miyazaki himself, but as sequel material goes, there is nothing particularly unusual about this short. I wish it had dealt more with family and less with the supernatural. Imagine Shōtotoro instead of Mei having a grand time in that kitten bus, careening through a network of foxholes and playing at building a literal どんぐり共和国 with Mei until she hears her mother’s voice. She’s home from the hospital: Mei immediately rushes off, scattering the acorns. Ōtotoro rearranges them into a final message and leads its suddenly melancholy young one, fading from view, in among the trees.

animation fiction Ghibli Japanese production moving picture sequel