It’s big, it’s furry and it’s adorable: It’s…Miyazaki March! Today we will take a closer look at the furry monstrosity that we all know and love so well, since it is the Studio Ghibli mascot: Totoro. From My Neighbor Totoro fame, brought to you by none other of course than Mr. Hayao Miyazaki. All other Miyazaki March posts can be found HERE in the directory.
Double-billed with the non-Miyazaki-directed Grave of the Fireflies, My Neighbor Totoro was the (arguably) 3rd Studio Ghibli animation feature film and the third Miyazaki directed for the studio, released to Japanese theaters in 1988. The film has received its fair share of praise throughout the years and the name-giving creature Totoro has become one of the most iconic Anime creatures to date. It is not only featured in the Ghibli company logo, but there is even a comet named after it and the creature got some cameos in various other animation films and series (Drawn Together, Toy Story 3, South Park).
A 1993 US release came out under the title My Friend Totoro, but the feature was later re-dubbed and is now, like all Ghibli releases, internationally distributed by the Disney company.
An official sequel to Totoro exists: A 13 minute short film entitled Mei and the Kittenbus (2003), focusing on the little sister Mei and her adventures in the Kittenbus, which is the offspring of the Catbus (yay for originality in names). I’d be happy to provide a link to watch it, but apparently you can only watch it in the Ghibli Museum in Japan, so: Sorry!
I don’t want this to be misunderstood as an insult, but it needs to be said right up front: Totoro does not have much of a plot. Which is an understatement since it really has no plot. Well, ok, they move into the house in the countryside, they discover the Totoro’s, the mother is sick and Mei gets lost and people run around looking for her in the last 10 minutes. But let us all be real (cause keeping it real is what we’re good at, ha!): This is not a plot.
But: that don’t matter! Because Totoro is nonetheless a really really good movie. I am consciously not labelling it as great, because I feel that there are a few Miyazaki movies which are truly great and outshine the others, and Totoro, despite all the goodness and cuteness, is not one of them. But it is a really good movie in that it creates scenes and let’s us follow the characters and get to know them to the point where it’s just very interesting to see how (fictional and hand-drawn) people live their lives.
I’d argue that there are two major reasons for Totoro working so well and being such a good movie, despite the absence of a plot.
Number one is probably more obvious: It’s name is Totoro.
How can you not love this creature? Years before Pikachu ever hit our international minds Totoro was there to provide some Japanese furry cuteness in the form of a big lazy monster with a charmingly naïve and curious outlook on the world. Isn’t it just darling how it gets all excited because of an umbrella and the sounds that the raindrops make on it? How it enjoys roaring or playing the flute in the treetops? Or just sleeping? I mean, man, if I can relate to one character trait in Totoro it’s the obvious enjoyment it gets from sleeping and general lying-around-laziness.
And all of this doesn’t even cover the two smaller Totoro versions. The little white and at times invisible one and the slightly bigger blue one. They bring even more cuteness to the table, which culminates into an explosion of super-awesome-cuteness when they perform the dance around the seeds that Mei and Satsuki planted.
And speaking of the seeds: Not only is it ridiculously fantastic that he leaves them as a gift, they also serve to remind us that Totoro is actually more than just a big furry thing sleeping in a green grove all day. Totoro is a forest spirit and as such it is no wonder that the tree it chose to live in – a camphor tree and in case you’re interested you can learn what exactly a camphor tree is HERE (see you in half an hour!) – is the biggest tree around. And that is why its dancing around the seeds it gave the sisters is not only cute, it also shows it’s, rather their powers. Their dance makes the seeds sprout and the trees grow to enormous heights and magnitude. But hey, it might all just also have been a dream…
Which brings us to the ones who potentially dreamt it: Mei and Satsuki, reason number 2 why My Neighbor Totoro works so wonderfully well as a movie. The portrayal of the two sisters is so amazingly lifelike it always floors me. The way they get the sisters right, in their activities, their behaviour, their fears, their quabbles and their mutual affection – this is all so close to how real girls in real life behave and act that it’s simply astounding. I totally buy that Satsuki is a 10 year old schoolgirl, that Mei is that 4 year old curious little thing, that they are excited about their new surroundings and that they feel betrayed by their mother not coming home as promised. And it is nice to see that they are not classical western animation kids who defy every word and request by their parents. They actually have a healthy and happy relationship with their parents, to the point where – as children that age actually are – they are very well aware of the potential implications of the long time their mother has to spend at the hospital. What if she dies? And why won’t any of the grown-ups just say it for once? But the reverse is also true: It is, even in 2012, refreshing to see an elderly animated woman in a feature film actually express her fear that the child they are all looking for is actually dead. That the shoe they found is hers and that she has drowned. Animation, especially targeted at children, rarely dares to go there, but it’s very gratifying if done right. And in Totoro they nail it.
All this is nice and cool, you are probably saying, but WHY THE HELL ARE YOU NOT TALKING ABOUT THE CATBUS? Because let us all face the bitter truth: The catbus is the secret star of this movie. While it is not the reason that makes this movie such a little gem it really is the icing on the cake (and the cherry. and whip-cream. and chocolate sprinkles…), because A GIANT CAT? WITH SEARCHLIGHT EYES? AND 16 (I think) LEGS? Awesome! Seriously, is there any person on this planet who would not want to ride the catbus? Enter its flexible doors a.k.a. parts of its body? Fly? Go faster than wind? Hell to the yes, all of the above. Totoro is a massively iconic character, but let us all just admit how genius the creation of the catbus is. Which makes me think about how awesome it would be to sleep in a bed in the shape of the catbus. All furry and encompassing and it’d purr when you lie down inside it.
Oh and one more thing regarding the catbus: Tim Burton, we know exactly where you got your inspiration for the Cheshire Cat in you Alice in Wonderland travesty (yeah, tragedy would also be an appropriate word) from. Don’t you even dare deny it! And now that I’ve written that I’m pretty sure he freely confessed it in some interview for it to be rubbed in my ignorant face.
Before I close this post with restating my love for Totoro once more, I should maybe offer a little explanation as to why I think it is not up there with Mononoke or Spirited Away in the League of super-Miyazaki-movies.
I guess that what it is is ultimately really the absence of a plot, since all of this is really nice and warm-hearted and well executed but I feel it lacks the depth that it could have if there was a story told and stakes involved. There are hints of that, but Totoro is nowhere near ambitious in scope or morale like Princess Mononoke is. And while that doesn’t make it a bad movie at all, it also means that there is one step further that could have been taken.
But really: let’s just appreciate it for what it is. Cause what it is is damn fine.