Wednesday, 24 November 2010

My Neighbour Totoro (1988)

You will see a treasure!

Image: Toho

When I can’t sleep I will sometimes stick on My Neighbour Totoro, and it always helps to combat my insomnia. Now, this might make the film sound boring, as one might watch Ceefax to force oneself into sleep through a total lack of interest, but this is not at all the case. Rather, Totoro offers a world of innocence and purity which is so attractive and comfortable that it helps me to relax entirely.
The film, from Japanese animation god Hayao Miyazaki, sees two young girls and their father move to a house in the country. The girls’ mother is in hospital with some unnamed illness, and the father is often busy at work. From the first moments in the new house it is clear that there are supernatural elements at work, as we see dark little balls, described by the batty old lady next door as house spirits, leap for the shadows when doors are opened. Far from being frightened, the children relish the idea of living in a haunted house. When older sister Satsuki goes off to school the younger, Mei, explores the garden, and discovers even more interesting creatures, leading up to her meeting with the impossibly cute and cuddly wood spirit, Totoro.
The dialogue is minimal, as is the plot. As with many of the works from the Studio Ghibli stable, the animation is king. But what animation! The children’s faces are beautifully evocative, the landscapes gorgeously shaded and the magical creatures are all unbelievably delightful. Even the balls of soot creatures have a personality thanks to the clever sound work. Special mention has to be reserved for the Cat Bus. Exactly as it sounds, the Cat Bus is a big feline bus, complete with huge Cheshire Cat grin. Everything about him is cleverly designed, from his squashy, organic doors to his mouse headlights.
The entire film is suffused with a sense of wonderment, with magic to be found even in everyday things. Watching Mei’s exploration of the garden, the plants and trees seemingly gigantesque against her tiny frame, one cannot help but be captivated by the irrepressible joy of discovery which she experiences, even before she catches sight of any of the magical animals hopping around. The scenes of father and daughters cleaning their house or bathing together seem every bit as special as the scenes of the girls riding the Cat Bus or growing impossible trees with their new spirit friends. You could almost say that the domestic and exploratory scenes touch on magical realism, if the rest of the piece wasn’t so damn surreal.
If any criticism can be levelled against the film it would be that the plot is perhaps too slight. While the atmosphere goes a long way to glossing over this, there are moments where the film loses momentum entirely, and a last minute effort to create suspense is too little, too late. However, it may be that I am looking for too much from the film. Perhaps it is necessary to always remind myself that this is a children’s film, and that the flaws I perceive are those that only matter in an adult sphere. This would explain why Totoro is the perfect “getting to sleep” film: there are no dangers or threats or worries in the world of this film, and any darkness which encroaches on the lives of its characters is sure to be repelled by their inherent goodness. With a little help from their fluffy friends!
A final mention for the brilliant, catchy and cute music – like the film, the lyrics are simple and self-explanatory, but this does not reduce their power. It’s really difficult to stop yourself humming along to the theme tune!
A beautiful, uplifting experience, My Neighbour Totoro is a joyous gift for children and a refreshing recall of innocence lost for us big kids. A triumph of simplicity which shouldn’t be missed.

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