Sunday, 12 March 2017

My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

Fig 1 - My Neighbor Totoro Poster
To me, Studio Ghibli has always been successful at capturing the nuances and little details that fill up our lives. As much as they adhere to the grand visual spectacles we've come to expect from the big-screen, I find myself getting lost more in the small things they do differently. For example in Spirited Away (which incidentally is still my favourite of Ghibli's) there's a spider-like man in control of the turbine in a boiler room who uses all his extra limbs to multi-task. He appears very little in the film but was so enticingly staged and lit and presented within the scene that I couldn't help wonder what kind of life he must lead within this universe. And that's exactly what director Hayao Miyazaki does right in expanding the lore of an otherwise concentrated narrative. He clearly wants to open up the possibility of these people existing a real and full life outside of the story we're being told, which is also a very evident part of My Neighbor Totoro.

I had no prior knowledge about My Neighbor Totoro other than the fact that I'd seen plushies of the title character more than any other of Ghibli's. Heck, he's the mascot for the company. He's in the first shot of every Studio Ghibli film. So I did admittedly have some expectation that this one might be something special. And it absolutely is.

The film begins with father Tatsuo (Shigesato Itoi) and his daughters Mei (Chika Sakamoto) and Satsuki (Noriko Hidaka) en-route to their new home in the countryside. We follow the girls as they explore the house and watch as the small family adjusts to their new dwellings, whilst in the background the girls' mother is stuck in hospital for reasons unknown to us. Eventually, whilst exploring the surrounding garden, Mei stumbles upon a small white creature which leads her on the path to the 'inner-sanctum' of the gargantuan tree close-by, where she finds herself face to face with the adorably rotund fluff-beast, Totoro.

Fig 2 - My Neighbor Totoro - Mei chases Lil' Totoro
Miyazaki clearly has a talent for grounding the story in a reality which seems totally plausible. And as I said, the little things really do that. So when the reality here becomes real, the surreal becomes even more captivating and magical to behold. I believed in the relationship between the sisters and between the parents, therefore I cared what happened to them. And this was enough for me to not question precisely whether or not the segments with Totoro were imaginary or real. For me, the sightings and interactions with Totoro were delightful and whimsical in their surrealism, as if pulled directly from folklore. And the way in which the mystery of his existence distracted the girls from the weight of their mother's situation made those scenes all the more gleeful.

All of which was achieved in no small part by the art direction of Kazuo Oga, whose mesmerizing landscapes have become a staple of the style Ghibli is known for. And the animation department who caught every emotional cue as would be expected of the studio. In particular, the way in which Mei interacts with Totoro's tail upon meeting him really gave a sense of his mass and texture. Every frame seemed to capture the sensation of bear-hugging this mythical fluff-ball and I got a true feel for the character the more he was played around with.

It was a lot of fun overall, perhaps not as much fun as I have come to expect from Ghibli, but as this was one of their initial features it should be forgiven. Like the Coen Brothers of animation, Ghibli jumps from genre to genre, often straying entirely from a traditional 'plot' without sacrificing it's core style. And if rumours of Miyazaki's return are true, the journey might not be over just yet.



Fig. 1 My Neighbor Totoro Poster (1988) From: My Neighbor Totoro - Directed by: Hayao Miyazaki

Fig. 2 My Neighbor Totoro Screenshot (1988) From: My Neighbor Totoro - Directed by: Hayao Miyazaki

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