Studio Ghibli is an animation studio that can make films about the slice of life that no other studio can make. Unlike their larger scaled epic adventures filled with dazzling thrills and excitement, these are films that take smaller approaches that show the nature of simple human life with wonderment and awe which have rightfully been lauded by critics and audiences alike. Hayao Miyazaki is certainly a director that knows how to make great examples and one of his best is "My Neighbor Totoro". The film from 1988 was the first animated film by Ghibli and Miyazaki to have a smaller approach compared to films like "Castle in the Sky" and "Grave of the Fireflies" and it has been considered one of the greatest animated films ever made, a sentiment I share as well. This is an animated film that put me under a spell for an hour and a half and it's one that made me feel wrapped up in a big blanket and cozy and I love it. It's so endearing from start to finish and one that truly earns its title as a great animated film.
In rural Japan in the mid-1950s, a family named the Kusukabes has moved out to a house in the rural countryside to be closer to the hospital where the mother Yasuko (Sumi Shimamoto) is currently staying out. As the father Tatsuo (Shigesato Itoi) settles into the new home, the two young daughters Satsuki (Noriko Hidaka) and Mei (Chika Sakamoto) soon discover that the area around the house is filled with magical creatures including a tall furry creature named Totoro (Hitoshi Takagi) who lives in the forest nearby with other smaller Totoros. From there, the film indulges in a slice of life as we see Satsuki and Mei settle into their life in the countryside and interact with their fellow neighbors including the elderly caretaker named Granny (Tanie Kitabayashi) and young boy Kanta (Toshiyuki Amagasa).
This is an animated film that really is filled with delight from start to finish and one whose praise is rightfully earned. Many people have lauded this film as a masterpiece with one notable example being acclaimed Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa who named it as one of his favorite films ever made. Considering this is the same man who made films like "Seven Samurai" and "Rashomon" and was thought highly by other acclaimed filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Orson Wells, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Stanley Kubrick, that is saying a lot. And I can see why he named this as one of his favorites because it was a film that just enveloped me with its charm and had such a pleasant nature that has made it stand the test of time. I think what made this film so endearing is how Miyazaki presented the story. The whole film may not be much of a plot or structure even with a third act that might not feel spectacular on paper as well as feeling like very little has happened, but yet it feels like everything has happened and sucks you in with a world of wonderment, delight, and joy. There are so many iconic and memorable scenes in the film that will put a smile on any viewer's face no matter what age. I think some of my favorite scenes are the ones where Mei ends up going to Satsuki's school and stays with her all day as she misses her sister and doesn't want to be alone and the iconic scene at the bus stop where Satsuki eventually sees Totoro for the first time as she is waiting with Mei in the rain for her father to return home on the bus. However, I personally feel what makes the film work is how Miyazaki handles the themes of childhood innocence and what is going on with these two sisters. We know that the mother is in the hospital with some undisclosed illness and that the girls are trying to distract themselves from the cold disturbing fact that their mother might die of the illness and it makes the appearance of Totoro and the other spirits around the area very interesting to think about. Is Totoro real? Is he just an imaginary friend in the girls' minds? Miyazaki doesn't explicitly say whether or not it's real or not and it's genius that he left it that way. An audience's interoperation will always be stronger than the artist's. Other animated films like the misguided and miserable "Wonder Park" have tried to do story elements like this film, but most have failed to come even close.
It's also a great film that really helped Miyazaki and Ghibli spread their wings after their previous films and I think that putting this film as a double billing alongside "Grave of the Fireflies" was a stroke of genius in hindsight. If "Grave of the Fireflies" was a film that showed the death of childhood innocence in wartime Japan, this film is showing the growth of childhood innocence in a post-wartime Japan. It's fantastic contrast. As far as the animation goes, it once again is exceptional. There's a lot of focus on the nature and serenity of the valley in this film and it is really what helps us get enveloped even more in the film. Miyazaki puts a lot of attention to detail in nature as we see ponds with dripping water, farmlands where rice patties grow, trees that shoot into the skies, and even smaller details as we see an old bottle at the bottom of a small stream. It's also a film where the small character animation details really make all the difference too. One notable example is when Satsuki opens an umbrella to give to Totoro, his eyes widen in surprise at the noise. I adore small details like that. Then there are the characters who are also exceptionally well realized. The two sisters, Satsuki and Mei, are particularly well realized. The two share a fantastic bond together that doesn't feel forced and both are shown to act like actual children without coming off appearing too smart or like brats. I think one notable example is when Mei accidentally trips when falls into the rain, Satsuki runs back to help her out and doesn't yell at her for tripping. I love the father as well and how he feeds into the girls' imagination and encourages them rather than shuns them for it compared to other animated films and Granny and Kanta also share some great moments bonding with the two sisters. Then of course, there's Totoro himself. While the character doesn't show up as much in the film, the brief moments he does really leaves an impact and help the film with its wonderful charm.
And personally, wonderful is the best word I can use to describe "My Neighbor Totoro". The story is endearing and handles its themes exceptionally, the animation is gorgeous with its look at serene nature, and the characters are all lovely and fun to watch. This is an animated film that truly earns its title as one of the best ever made and I cannot recommend it enough. Much like "The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh", this is an animated film where nothing happens and yet everything happens at the same time and its charm will stand the test of time. Roger Ebert once wrote about this film that it's one that made him smile, smile, and smile. I couldn't have put it any better myself.