How do I love the 1988 animated classic from acclaimed director Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli? Let me count the ways. There’s the sweet relationship between young sisters, the child’s sense of wonder and imagination that pervades the film, the *CATBUS*, the father who dotes on his daughters, a rural community who supports them, and best of all, Totoro. I was an adult when I watched it for the first time (I came to Miyazaki’s works late, but I’ve been a fan ever since) and My Neighbor Totoro became an instant favorite.
In the post-war setting of the movie, a family moves to a rural village. Four-year-old Mei (voiced by Chika Sakamoto) and Satsuki (voiced by Noriko Hidaka), her big sister who has stepped into a caretaker position while their mother is in hospital, live with their professor father in what might be a haunted house. There are clouds of dust bunnies to be cleared away with smiles and large trees nearby that may be inhabited by spirits.
Miyazaki’s story doesn’t shy away from exhibiting feelings of separation the girls have while their mother is away, but also shows their eagerness to get to know their new residence. Their father tends towards absent-mindedness, but tries to make his girls feel safe in their new home. The trio spends their first evening in the house cleaning off and laughing loud (to send away dust bunnies).
Their home is surrounded by a lush forest and fields of rice paddies; the film celebrates natural splendor and the power of imagination. Totoro, a large dreamlike figure, only appears to the girls. The catbus, also invisible to adults, traverses speedily over fields on a gust of wind. The magical creatures watch out for the girls whether Mei and Satsuki are exploring, waiting at a bus stop for their father, or trying to find their way to their mom’s hospital.
During this week of awful news about horrible people, it seems strange to sing the praises of a whimsical, joy-filled movie. But if anything, such times call for art that delivers happiness. After many viewings over the years, I can trust that My Neighbor Totoro will make me nostalgic for the dreaminess of childhood and thankful that such a beautiful, hope-giving work exists.
My Neighbor Totoro is available on Disney Blu-ray, or pre-order the upcoming re-release from GKids, out in October.