50th Street Films vis Everett Collection
The first time I watched My Neighbor Totoro, it was for a class assignment. I had seen several other Studio Ghibli films over the years, and yet for some reason, I had never gotten around to this one, and had been enduring the incredulous reaction of friends for years. When I put it on, I wasn’t expecting anything remarkable – enough material to write a paper, if I was lucky, and the chance to finally get them to shut up – and then I suddenly got it. I wasn’t even all the way through the film when I understood why everyone was so adamant about me watching this movie, because My Neighbor Totoro is, quite possibly, a masterpiece.
It’s not a sweeping epic; there are no grand chases or dramatic cliff-hanger or life and death stakes. It’s a small movie about the relationship between two sisters, Satsuki and Mei, trying to get through a difficult time, and the idea that there are forces in the world that will care for you, and protect you. In most fairy tales, the mythical creatures are often the threats, forcing kids to grow up and take care of themselves. In My Neighbor Totoro, Satsuki and Mei aren’t the ones being threatened (their mother is) and the “villain” (her disease) is beyond their control. The conflict and the characters are undeniably real, not just to adults, but to the childhood experience of feeling helpless but wanting to do something”?
In the case of My Neighbor Totoro, it’s the spirits that help look after Satsuki and Mei, that keep them feeling safe and loved, that keep them together and allow them to keep their child-like sense of wonder in the face of something so grown-up and scary. Even though life can be difficult and sad, there are still things to wonder at; there are still people who care about each other. The message of My Neighbor Totoro is about finding the magic in everyday life, respecting the world around you and relying on love and friendship to make it through tough situations. And even though all of these messages are directed at kids, they’re just as comforting to adults. I remember sitting in my dorm room, feeling happy and comforted and a little in awe of the potential magic all around me. Every time I re-watch My Neighbor Totoro, I get that exact same feeling. It was clearly a labor of love for Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki and that love is evident in every frame. That love seeps off the screen.
When I heard that Studio Ghibli might be shutting down, I immediately thought of My Neighbor Totoro, and all of the other wonderful, perfectly-crafted films that they have produced over the years, and the idea of never getting to experience another film like that for the first time is heartbreaking. They’re a studio full of original ideas, painstaking-detail and warm, comforting and exciting stories. But most of all, they’re a studio that produces each film as a labor of love, and nowhere is that love more evident than in the brilliant, heartwarming comfort of My Neighbor Totoro.