The Beginner’s Guide to Anime, No. 39 – My Neighbour Totoro

My Neighbour Totoro

As with last week we are sticking with Studio Ghibli for this week’s column, which given recent news, is fitting. This week it was announced that Ghibli’s co-founder Hayao Miyazaki is up for another Oscar, with his latest film The Wind Rises being nominated for the “Best Animated Feature” award. It is another Ghibli / Miyazaki film we are covering, one of the first and certainly the most iconic.

My Neighbour Totoro is a children’s fantasy film (Rated U), directed and written by Miyazaki, that premiered in 1988. Unlike Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind that we covered last week, this does not really have any true message or theme. It is just some nice family-friendly entertainment. You could argue that it is the most influential anime film ever in terms of its global cultural outreach. The “Totoro” in the title is one of anime’s most recognisable characters and later became the mascot for Studio Ghibli.

The story is set in rural Japan in 1958. The Kusakabe family, primarily consisting of elder daughter Satsuki, younger daughter Mei, and university lecturer father Tatsuo, have moved into an old house under the shade of a giant camphor tree in order to be closer to the ill mother of the family, Yasuko, who is in a nearby hospital. Satsuki and Mei notice that the house seems to be slightly supernatural. Upon arrival they discover it is inhabited by soot-like monsters called “susuwatari” (also known as “dust-bunnies”, “soot-sprites” and “black soots” in various translations) that later leave the house.

One day young Mei is out in the garden when she spots a mysterious creature. She later finds two magical animals, rather small, furry, with large ears, collecting nuts, seeds and acorns. Mei follows them in the direction of the camphor tree and there she discovers a gigantic version of the same creature. Due to the creature’s cry Mei names it “Totoro”. Later Mei tries to show the rest of the family Totoro, but she fails. Tatsuo humours her and says it is the “keeper of the forest”. However, later she and Satsuki encounter Totoro more times, leading to other amazing adventures.

My Neighbour Totoro is a truly charming, heart-warming film. Not just a great anime film, but a great film in general. It is full of wonderful sequences that have entertained people both in the East and the West.

Probably the greatest sequence occurs in a scene in which Satsuki and Mei go to a bus stop to wait for their father during the middle of a rainstorm, but he arrives late so the two girls have to wait in the rain with just an umbrella to protect them, while carrying their father’s umbrella for him when he arrives. Then Totoro turns up, only protected from the rain by wearing a leaf on his head. Satsuki offers Totoro her father’s umbrella, which Totoro takes and loves. Then Totoro gets on a bus, which is actually a gigantic feline “Catbus” whose eyes acts like headlamps, and leaves the girls. Their father arrives soon afterwards.

Sequences like this and others have made My Neighbour Totoro such a huge success. While it may not have nominated for Oscars like other Ghibli movies, many would argue it is the best of all the Ghibli films and it is my personal favourite.

A sign of how great the film became is evidenced by the popularity of the character Totoro. Totoro makes appears in many other Ghibli films and is arguably the most recognisable anime character in history, being rivalled by only a one or two others like Pikachu from Pokemon and Astro Boy. The Catbus and the susuwatari appear in other Ghibli projects too.

My Neighbour Totoro is also referenced in lots of Western projects as diverse as The Simpsons, South Park, the Toy Story movies and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman graphic novels. Totoro has both an asteroid and a species of worm named it. Film director, animator and Python Terry Gilliam claimed it was the greatest animated film ever.

I am not sure if you can ever claim there is a “perfect” film, but if I were to give My Neighbour Totoro a ranking, it would be 10 out of 10.

My Neighbour Totoro is released by Studio Canal in DVD, Blu-Ray and Steelbook Blu-Ray & DVD collections.