Yeah all right, so the ‘week’ bit is totally out of the window. For no reason I can think of, I have been returning recently to the Ghibli titles I own, and after being wowed by a first viewing of the romp that is The Castle of Cagliostro (a review coming up soon enough, because it really deserves it) I found myself sitting down to the far more childlike My Neighbour Totoro.
A little like Kiki’s Delivery Service, this is a story without a baddie, and carrying very little plot to speak of. What it does cover is one summer in the life of two little girls, moving to their new home in the country and exploring their world. Their dad is the perfect father, an indulgent good egg who works hard yet has time to lavish on his daughters. He needs to. Mum is in hospital, presumably recovering from tuberculosis, though this is never made clear. Other characters include ‘Granny,’ an elderly neighbour who works the fields and looks after the girls, and her nephew, Kanta. Then there’s Totoro himself, the head of a family of spirits that reside in the neighbouring forest. Totoro’s hobbies include sleeping, roaring, helping the trees grow, riding on the cat bus and using the umbrella given to him by the older girl, Satsuki.
And that’s more or less it. 88 minutes of nothing more than the girls running around, exploring and making friends with the spirits surrounding them. Hayao Mayazaki fills his world with characters that will appear again, more specifically the soot sprites, who scutter around the house and watch its new inhabitants from a discrete distance. The younger sister, Mei, gets lost when she resolves to go to her mother, and Satsuki has to find her, but that’s the one note of real tension in the movie. Otherwise, it’s about playful innocence, exploration and a slightly sad note concerning the wonders of retreating nature.
Told entirely from the perspective of the girls, My Neighbour Totoro is blissful, and ever so slightly wonderful. In the hands of an American director, it would have been mawkish and helplessly sentimental. The soundtrack would feature tunes from the 1950s and the story couldn’t have been left without some elements of danger. That isn’t the case with this redoubtably ‘U’ picture. Vibrant, colourful and smooth, the animation in a film nearly 20 years old is luscious. The forest has an organic quality that no amount of CGI would improve, and the pace is allowed to crawl by lazily in time with Totoro’s endless sleep patterns.
The sisters are imbued with a degree of personality that develops on the screen quite naturally. Satsuki is a little bossy, filling in the void left by the family’s mother but entirely a child when faced with Totoro for the first time. It should be harder to make Mei seem real, yet the three year old is just as fleshed, all wonder and afternoon naps. If there is a weak character, it’s dad, who seems a bit too perfect, but then we see him through the eyes of his daughters. As such, he’s bound to be seen cavorting with his kids, giving them the time and attention they can’t get from their mother.
Giving this film any sense of weight is hard. Put it next to Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke and Porco Rosso, and it’s a featherweight, puny when compared with plot-heavy movies that have something substantial to say. And yet I think that’s partly the point. My Neighbour Totoro is supposed to be light, elemental and partly forgettable. It’s meant to be like the era it captures - a summer where nothing much happens - and it does so perfectly. Not many movies would even attempt to capture its sense of lightness. Fewer would dare to give it such a lack of plot, a vacuum in terms of tension, and yet get away with it. The film is nothing more or less than just under ninety minutes of joy, of showing what it’s like to be a kid, with all the marvel, awe and easy morals that childhood covers. It made me miss that time.