Dir. Hayao Miyazaki
For my part, I have seldom known external rupture. From my birth to when I left for college I lived in the same place, never once changing school districts or towns. Internally my experience was bread and butter: as a youth I created adventure and occasion out of the most commonplace objects and ordinary events. As a teenager I rebelled against my perceived commonality and turned inward, discovering (or perhaps inventing) all sorts of meaningless melancholy and angst. I sometimes wonder what my childhood and subsequent adolescence would have been like had they not been so regular and consistent. What if I had been faced with a real outside threat to the stability I had long ceased appreciating? It is this sort of hypothetical question regarding the universal experience of childhood that Hayao Miyazaki has been exploring for years. It is in My Neighbor Totoro that he answers the question as firmly, simply and gracefully as possible.
Miyazaki makes kids films about what it's like to be a kid, as opposed to the contrived schlock of so many Hollywood G-rated films which are all slick production and dichotomous simplification. In regards to the smooth and undoubtedly coercive experience of Hollywood versus the challenging, exciting and sometimes a bit frightening world of Miyazaki, one might argue that while it is certainly important at an early age for a child to feel empowered, it is also important for them to feel safe. Miyazaki knows that the former is, if not more important, generally less of a priority. Miyazaki's films feature children, divorced from the protection of their parents, making decisions for themselves. These decisions, which are often physically realized in a surreal, quasi-fictional environment, are nonetheless grounded in day-to-day reality and informed by the strange yet beautiful rationality of children.
For the girls in My Neighbor Totoro the challenge to their confidence is a move from a town to a rural farming community. A country idyll, initially fixed in animated realism turns magical when the younger of the two girls follows a small creature into the trunk of a massive Camphor tree and discovers the drowsy giant Totoro. What is perhaps most impeccable about the film from this point forward is how the discovery does not launch a serious narrative arc of any kind. As viewers we are privy to the growing bond between the sisters and the relationship between the two and their father and mother, the latter of whom is in a long-term care hospital.
While rich with moments of childhood fantasy which cross over into reality in a characteristically Miyazakian way, the film does not eschew seriousness. When their father fails to return on time from the university he teaches at, the girls hold a vigil at the bus stop where Totoro joins as a surrogate father figure. Fantasy characters as stand-in family members are a recurring theme in Miyazaki's work which further suggests the symbiotic relationship between the real and the imagined. At the news that their mother has fallen ill again, the younger girl attempts to walk to the hospital and along the way gets lost. Her elder sister and an collective of neighbors begin a search that turns desperate when a girl's shoe is located in a nearby pond. Faced with mounting tension the film elegantly unwinds with the family united around a symbolically charged ear of corn.
A beautiful film from first frame to last and an evocative excursion into the minds of children, My Neighbor Totoro delicately balances subtle character development with a heartwarming story of family and community. Without moralizing or becoming heavy handed, Miyazaki illustrates the dramatic conversion from conventional life to exotic adventure that only children are capable of. As our frontal lobes develop and we begin to reason away the more fantastic trappings of our imaginations, so too does it become more difficult to face the darker shades of reality. While children may not have an understanding of death, adults often struggle to find a means of coping with that knowledge. My Neighbor Totoro exemplifies the courage and strength in children who are given the opportunity to feel empowered and independent; who are not sheltered from reality but rather use the real world as a building block for something far more exciting but no less profound.