The Simple Complexity of My Neighbor Totoro

As the first part of the title suggests, My Neighbor Totoro is an incredibly simple film. Two young girls, Mei and Satsuki, relocate with their father to a rural village in a beautifully sequestered home. For most of the film’s first half the high-energy and bubbly sisters explore their potentially haunted new house and aimlessly play around in their expansive garden. The only portion of the narrative which doesn’t feature their light-hearted childish endeavors is when they visit their mother whose be in the hospital for longer than normal – and they still find some fun in that. For the sake of maintaining its simplicity, the film doesn’t even mention exactly what the mother is sick from or if its fatal. And that’s about it. For just under 90 minutes we watch two girls make their own fun in their backyard, we meet Totoro and are introduced into a pre-existing world of spirits that is imperceptible to the close-minded gaze of adults.

For younger audiences Totoro is an engaging, easy to understand externalization of their own wild imaginations. One which finds fun, joy, and adventure in nearly every situation thrusted their way. But for older audiences, even those in their early teens who might think they’re “too old” for a G-rated film, Totoro simply won’t work if they’ve turned their mind off to its playfulness and imaginative world. Such audiences will fail to grasp the brilliance of Miyazaki’s work and dismiss it just as adults in the films dismiss and understood Totoro’s cat bus, as a seamless and unintentional gust of wind. But if you’re able to suspend your base in reality as an older viewer, particularly as one who hadn’t had the privilege to watch this masterpiece in their earlier years and can revisit the picture for nostalgic feels, you’re in for an incapsulating and moving piece of work.

For me Totoro, both the film and the character, really swept me away when the titular spirit nonchalantly helped the two lovable leads grow a few seeds into a towering tree. This scene harkens back to an earlier moment in the film when the girls’ father tells them, “trees and people used to be friends”. When considering this line, this scene is all the more magical and adds to the thematic density of the film . It’s telling of how our current industrial world has become far more occupied and interested with the material world and futher removed from the spiritual and natural world. As we’ve forgone our relationship with nature, and grow less spiritual at that, our ability to connect emotionally and be imaginative has lessened. We try to find peace and satisfaction in property and monetary gain and seldom look towards what the Earth has given us for a clear state of min. In a quiet fashion, My Neighbor Totoro is not necessarily telling us to return to a world where we can be friends with trees again but it does reveal to us just how peaceful, innocent and fun it may have been and could be.

Totoro is also so wildly unique in how it subverts damn near every convention of dominant narrative film. It’s absent of a central antagonist, hero, three-act structure, “love triangle”, or clear resolution. The film kind of just starts and ends. And the climax, which is when Mei gets lost, isn’t built up by a previous sequence of cause and effect chains. That too just also happens. And this simpleness is exactly what makes the film such a complex depiction of life. Contrary to how dominant cinema depicts our reality, we aren’t binded to such confining boundaries of “good” and “bad” people – Totoro possess no binary of this sort. Nor do certain events in our life end perfectly, or have meaning or possess any resolve. Life is just life. Things happen. We do shit. Shit happens to us and the sun rises the next day. Totoro doesn’t distort this reality but reflects it back to its audience with absolute purity.

Final note: Joe Hisaishi, the composer and other master behind Totoro and the bulk of Ghibli’s projects, creates a score which is nothing short of captivating. He somehow encapsulates the indescribable feeling and essence of childhood throughout the score but particularly in “The Village in May” which features a catchy, whimsical melody I can’t get out of my head.

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