Ghibli’s latest joint, THE SECRET WORLD OF ARRIETTY, is coming stateside soon. In anticipation of that, I figured it’d be fun to catch up on as many titles from the studio as I can, since I know my exposure’s woefully incomplete (to count, I’ve only watched PRINCESS MONONOKE, CASTLE OF CAGLIOSTRO, SPIRITED AWAY and GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES.) Also, doing long-form reviews for REDLINE and the EDEN OF THE EAST movies has allowed me to get into deeper analysis than the daily posts - - something I enjoy. Since new features aren’t exactly coming to the States every week, this seemed like a suitable pretext for doing more.
He and his friend, the Cat Bus, may have a Cheshire grins that are honestly a little menacing at times, but Totoro seems like an amiable enough fellow. There’s surely no better greeter in the world of Ghibli than the studio’s mascot (even if I do suspect that he’s actually some terrible Shinto forest spirit whom we’ve only managed to catch on his good days.) I’ve heard MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO trumpeted for many years in many places, but never felt that inspired to experience it for myself until now. To be frank, the simple premise of a couple of kids befriending a giant cat in the woods never captured my imagination with that solid a grip.
TOTORO is one of the significant anime outliers, of course. A proviso usually accompanied whatever superlative praise I’d heard leveled on it - - “I don’t like anime, but I love this movie!” Upon watching it, you can discern, quite promptly, that this was made with a different instinct guiding its creative process. Seeing this, I imagine that Miyazaki was the kind of art school student who opted out of drawing wild fantasia in his sketchpad to instead relish in the less-flashy basics of still life. The quiet rural scenery that would likely bore most animators is lavished with such attention to detail that you can be quite confident the studio actually did go out and conduct extensive field research on what a simple, dilapidated barn would actually look like. And the "performances" of Satsuki and Mei are just startlingly authentic to the way real little girls act.
Actually, for as much discussion as I’ve heard regarding the particular alley in the cross-cultural exchange of ideas - - Miyazaki was inspired by these filmmakers, then these filmmakers were inspired by Miyazaki, and so on - - it’s curious that neither the French New Wave nor the Italian Neo-Realist movement have ever been brought up. There really isn’t much point in stretching this conjecture far enough to figure out how likely it was that Miyazaki was actually inspired by these specific films but, watching this now, my immediate thought is that the man would’ve likely found a kindred spirit in a director like Francois Truffaut. MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO would fit well into a double-bill with THE 400 BLOWS (certainly better than it did with GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES, I’d reckon.)
Those specific cinema movement come to mind because this movie pulls off the nearly-bafflingly magic trick of presenting a plot without conflict (or even much complication, for that matter) and somehow getting away with it. See, the critical evaluation of a flick is almost entirely shaped by how it satisfies plotting expectations. Is a threat clearly introduced and properly maintained? Do the characters evolve in discernible arcs? Is there a well-constructed structure that escalates, at an even pace, into a climax, a resolution and a denouement?
MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO doesn’t hit any of those. It ambles along to a finish that abruptly calls in a deus ex machina before cutting to credits in a fashion that’ll tap off even the most positive viewing experience with an out-loud utterance of “Oh… that’s the end?”
I’ll back off on such analysis, lest this get into over-thinking, but it’s worth questioning why this works when so many other films where “nothing much happens” don’t. I suppose the answer lies simply in the angle it’s approached from. Like the aforementioned Euro art films, this is likely best understood as a serving of slice of life (only one that just happens to have some fantasy frosting on it.) The periodic appearances of Totoro and his pals are handled in such a way that you’re never entirely sure if they are actually doing all these amazing things while magically hidden from the adults, or if all their escapes are really just illustrations of these little girls’ active imaginations.
Actually, as I see, the deus ex machine at the end can be specifically be viewed in two ways. Either it’s jarring for how it abruptly provides something incontrovertibly-supernatural, not imaginary, or maybe it’s a little unsettling for the possible implication that it’s actually Sasuki's fantasy vision of how she wished the search for her missing little sister, Mei, turned out. The latter interpretation's in the vein of something like BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA and it gives Totoro’s fixed Cheshire grin an even spookier quality.
Again, let’s step away from such over-analyzing. I wasn’t as enraptured by this as most (check out the time Rorie inducted it into to the Besties on Screened for a more glowing take,) but I don't want to be the grouch who furrows his brow and harrumphs over a dandelion. The appeal of MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO is unmistakable. It’s an escape to a gentler time, when little girls could run into the bushes and find adventure with the critters they discovered; when they could wait for their Dad, alone in the woods at night, without the specter of abduction hanging there. It's not a plot to furrow one's brow over - - it's a hideaway to carelessly scamper into.