How can I describe the inexplicable power of My Neighbor Totoro, Hayao Miyazaki’s timeless, ageless family film? It is like how childhood memories feel, if you had a happy childhood — wide-eyed and blissful, matter-of-factly magical and entrancingly prosaic, a world with discovery lurking around every corner and an inexhaustible universe in one’s backyard.
It is both familiar and strange, at once universally human and culturally specific. Images and themes inspired by Alice in Wonderland have been filtered through sensibilities reflecting Japan’s animist heritage and given a surreal imaginative twist that is uniquely Miyazaki.
One might say there is there is something dreamlike about the adventures (if such nearly plotless proceedings can be described as “adventures”) of young Satsuki and her kid sister Mei, who arrive with their father in a new house somewhere in the rural Japanese countryside, a stunningly idyllic landscape of rice paddies, tree-shaded footpaths, and pristine forests.
But it’s not dreamlike in the manner of Miyazaki’s much later film Spirited Away, a few overlapping elements (like the fuzzy soot sprites) notwithstanding. In that very different but equally masterful film, poor Chihiro turned the wrong corner and crossed over into a world of shifting, often ominous realities, seemingly operating according to unknown and incomprehensible rules.
My Neighbor Totoro, despite a brief rabbit-hole tumble into the dreamy stillness of the Totoro realm, doesn’t leave the ordinary world behind and take Mei and Satsuki somewhere else entirely. The film keeps at least one foot in this world, but finds that world infused with mysterious magic and breathtaking benevolence. It is not that the rules are harder to understand, like in Wonderland or Chihiro’s spirit world. It is simply that for the most part rules are neither here nor there. Things simply are.
Though the world of My Neighbor Totoro is ultimately benign, it is not Pollyanna, not without anxieties or crises, or focused only on the bright side. Over the whole film hangs the shadow of the illness of the mother, who is hospitalized (her daughters don’t exactly know why). In a tense third act, the girls even face the possibility that their mother may be dying, and Satsuki deals with the crisis of Mei’s disappearance.
And here is one facet of the film’s uniqueness: While it ends on a reassuring note, it is not the story of the mother’s eventual release from the hospital and return to her family. In marked contrast to a typical Hollywood family film, which would end with all conflicts resolved and all plot threads tidily wrapped up, Miyazaki’s film achieves peace even as the hoped-for resolution is still in the future.
It is a rare wisdom in family films that not all problems are resolved in ninety minutes, and happiness doesn’t reside in coming decisively to the “happy ending.” I can’t help thinking how much more reassuring this could conceivably be to a young child coming to the end of the film and returning to a world in which his or her own problems haven’t suddenly evaporated.
Like all Miyazaki films, My Neighbor Totoro creates a lush visual environment, authentic and even authoritative in its specificity and detail. Dappled countryside, lived-in houses, tangled underbrush — this world is never less than mesmerizing, with a familiarity and strangeness at once appealing and intriguing.
The film exhibits a number of Miyazaki’s familiar themes and motifs: young heroines, competent and understanding adults, a wise old crone; responsibility, respect for elders, veneration of nature personified in enigmatic spirits. There are also little quirks that are left unexplained, like the social awkwardness of Kanta, the boy next door, who becomes openly agitated and tongue-tied in Mei’s presence, somewhat like the protagonist of Kiki’s Delivery Service around her young admirer Tombo.
As elsewhere, Miyazaki’s reverence for nature is here expressed imaginatively in terms drawn from the animist tradition of Japan’s Shinto heritage. Miyazaki’s films are rife with tree-spirits, river gods and the like.
By itself, this need not be cause for concern for Christians. Generations of Christian children have grown up reading classical mythology, and tree-spirits and river gods likewise inhabit in the Narnian fantasies of Christian author C. S. Lewis. Mythology as such, where it poses no rival to Christian faith, is not necessarily problematic for Christian audiences.
In Miyazaki’s films, though, it can be more complicated than that. Though its gentle pace and wondrous imagery give My Neighbor Totoro enormous appeal for even the youngest viewers, there are elements that Christian parents should consider carefully.
Take the soot sprites (or “dust bunnies”) that inhabit the family’s new house. They seem innocuous, and both parents express some sort of openness to their presence. Yet old Nanny next door smilingly encourages the children to “just keep smiling” in order to frighten them away, and later (while bathing) the father leads the girls in a round of artificially hearty laughter for just this purpose.
No one seems worried about the sprites (except Kanta next door); their presence is perhaps less like being haunted than like having squirrels in the attic. Still, the specific means of driving them away — deliberately affected happiness and merriment — seems a bit disquieting. The emotional disconnect of affected emotion is always somewhat uncomfortable, and as magical or ritual behavior goes, tricking spirits into leaving in this manner seems problematic in a way that driving them out by some more straightforward means might not be. True joy is seen in Judeo-Christian tradition as a source of strength (“The joy of the Lord is our strength”); the film’s strategic use of affected smiling and laughter seems distinctly sub-Christian. (The sprites’ apparent aversion to positive emotion is also a bit unsettling.)
More overtly problematic is a sequence in which the father interprets Mei’s experience of the Totoro as an encounter with the “king of the forest,” a spirit identified with the immense camphor tree towering over the surrounding forest and neighborhood. Standing before the great tree with his daughters, the father leads the girls in what is unmistakably an invocatory prayer to the tree-spirit his daughter has seen. Later, Satsuki returns to the tree to offer a petitionary prayer to the Totoro for Mei’s safety (even promising to “be good for the rest of my life”).
For some young viewers, the business of likable characters praying to a tree, or to the spirit of the tree, could lead to confusion; some could even find it upsetting. More positively, with appropriate parental guidance, the film offers a potentially constructive encounter with another culture, including glimpses of another religious outlook, that could help children take their first steps in learning to differentiate what is worth appreciating in other cultures from what is worth taking exception to.
But it would be a mistake to make too much of what are very minor elements (“glimpses”) one way or the other. What matters most in My Neighbor Totoro is the beauty and strangeness in ordinary and extraordinary things, the slow, soothing rhythms of rural life, the appealing presence of a happy family, and the practical wisdom of life going on despite adversity. Along with the similarly plot-light Kiki’s Delivery Service, My Neighbor Totoro is among the gentlest and most enchanting family films ever made.
This week, one of Hayao Miyazaki’s most beloved and accomplished features, along with one of his less successful efforts, debut on Blu-ray.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.