Classic Corner: My Neighbor Totoro

Director Hayao Miyazaki is a master of his craft, with a career spanning nearly half a century. His commitment to traditional animation and the intricacies through which his characters are molded has rendered nearly all of his films classics over time. From the environmentalist epic Princess Mononoke to the groundbreaking Spirited Away to the under-the-radar gem Porco Rosso, his films are rife with empathetic narratives, defined protagonists, and thematic cores which permeate throughout all of his work. Regardless of personal selections, however, it’s 1988’s My Neighbor Totoro that remains synonymous with Miyazaki’s legacy, and not just because the Studio Ghibli logo wears the titular character’s profile. 

My Neighbor Totoro follows Satsuki and her sister, Mei, as they’re moved to an old country house with their father while waiting for their mother to recover from a recent illness. The sisters are able to stave off boredom and wandering thoughts by exploring their new home, introducing them to spirits that inhabit it and the nearby forest, and, of course, the massive, grinning creature known as Totoro. 

Miyazaki possesses a keen eye for how to make fantastical creatures real and regular beasts fantastical,by drawing from mythology or incorporating additional quirks which allow them personality and charm. Totoro is an example of contradicting parts, massive in build, cuddly in design, and enigmatic in personality. 

For those lucky enough to experience Miyazaki’s work for the first time, My Neighbor Totoro is the perfect starter pick for the uninitiated, as it offers a greater sense of his core values as a storyteller. His previous and future films are bound by declarative, ongoing thematic undertones. 

One of many is the perception of children, with those in their adolescence often at the heart of his stories. In films such as Spirited Away, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and My Neighbor Totoro in particular, the narrative highlights the ability of children to sense “wrongness,” even if they’re unable to determine the inciting issue. Miyazaki captures this unease through compositions where the world looms large — as it would look to a child — or actions of ill or good intents which inspire greater reactions, full body chills that ripple through the characters. Miyazaki recognizes the natural resilience of children, something given greater weight in My Neighbor Totoro due to Satsuki and Mei’s adventures acting as coping mechanisms — a means to escape from their real world where their mother is sick. 

Why wouldn’t they, when the natural world in the film is abundant in substantial life, overgrown and green, offering a level of vitality they seek? Environmentalism has also been a key aspect of Miyazaki’s work, especially in its relation to spiritualism and man-made catastrophe, so often the main destroyers of the natural world. Satsuki and Mei honor the world around them, in part due to the influence of their father.In return they receive gifts such as acorns which allow their garden to sprout, something they’d hoped their mother could see, or an early evening ride on the cat bus after the sisters are momentarily split. It’s another instance where, by welding together the fantastical with reality, Miyazaki creates potent imagery, suggesting a world in which good things are given to those who respect the natural world around them. 

One of the finest elements of My Neighbor Totoro is Miyazaki’s ability to bottle nostalgia. He captures the foggy memories of our youth, ones tinted by sunshine or sunburns, days aching with boredom or filled with adventure. We remember the big emotions and in-between days — the thunderstorms that roll through and leave the pavement steaming, the phone calls we weren’t supposed to hear where we get our first glimpse at parental vulnerability, to the feeling of sand-covered feet shoved into sandals. My Neighbor Totoro, for all its tranquility and visual poetry — just look at how the sun hugs the horizon or how the night sky bleeds in hues of blue — is beloved by so many responses. It’s greater still though as we age and are able to recall similar emotions, even as we can’t say we’ve shared the same experience. 

Miyazaki’s ability for empathetic storytelling is immense. My Neighbor Totoro remains timeless because it’s able to offer sweet adventure while simultaneously growing with us as we age, offering different perspectives and moving details that are lost in our youth.

“My Neighbor Totoro” is streaming on Max.

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