Reviewing Ghibli: the music of My Neighbor Totoro
After a busy day at Anime Boston, I’m too tired to watch AND review a new anime film like I hoped to do every day. So to fill the void, here’s my next entry in my Reviewing Ghibli series: the relentlessly charming “My Neighbor Totoro”.
There are two authorities on film I trust more than any other: the late Roger Ebert (goes without saying), and my 14-year-old sister Rosie (whose knowledge of old Hollywood cinema is pretty astounding).
Ebert listed Totoro in his esteemed “Great Movies” collection (one of three Ghibli films in the list; “Grave of the Fireflies” and “Spirited Away” are the others). Ebert, in one of my favorite lines of his, said of the film: “Whenever I watch it, I smile, and smile, and smile.” My sister described it as one of the few films she loved as a small kid that makes her as happy today as it did then.
Those two observations sum up the unique appeal of this film. In his recent, brilliant speech at the San Francisco Film Society, Steven Soderbergh expressed fear that the increasing reliance on overseas grosses in Hollywood, and appealing to as many people as possible around the world (let alone just the USA), is leading to more watered down, uninspired movies. Films are increasingly sterilized to be as generic, and easy to market, as possible. It’s a legitimate concern, and I encourage anyone to read the speech in full.
But not to stray. I bring the Soderbergh speech up because with “My Neighbor Totoro”, Hayao Miyazaki created one of the most universally appealing of films, a movie that still is as imaginative and unique as anything else in his canon. In this case, the appeal stems not from homogenization, but in mining the truths of childhood or, more accurately, in his crafting of the most honest child’s-eye-view of the world the movies have seen. The film is enchanting, yes, but it’s also full of moments that will ring true to anyone who remembers what it was like to truly believe in monsters, magic, and catbuses.
To dismiss (playing devil’s advocate) “My Neighbor Totoro” as cutesy and childish is to willfully ignore its craft. I talk a lot about rhythm in film, and I swear that I’m not crossing streams. Watching a movie that is on a plot-based autopilot is like listening to song without rhythm or melody. “My Neighbor Totoro” has plenty of both. It finds its rhythm section in its day-to-day observance of the lives of its characters. I love when films let us learn about characters through observations detached from the main plot. “My Neighbor Totoro” tells us more about the sisters Satsuki (older) and Mei (younger) in a scene in which they race through their new house than any amount of expository dialogue could. Satsuki opens and closes doors and windows and Mei, as younger siblings do, tries desperately to keep up and copy her older sister’s every move. Rather than impose his own rhythm on these characters, Miyazaki observed them as actual people, and found a rhythm in their lives.
The film’s finds its melody as a showcase for Miyazaki’s unmatched imagination. Has there ever been a filmmaker capable of conjuring such images as Miyazaki, and then fitting them seamlessly into a story? The Totoros are timeless characters. They lack dialogue, but they are full of expression, movement, and sound. Their motives and day to day routines are mysterious. Miyazaki never tries to explain why these creatures do what they do. The girls don’t care, so why should he?
I find pointless explanations a bane of good storytelling. If you’re explaining something for the sake of it, then you have begun to miss the point. Satsuki and Mei instantly accept their new friends, and why not? They are completely non-threatening, and can summon trees from mere saplings. Miyazaki also resists the urge to even suggest that the Totoros are simply figures from a dream, or worse, to have the girls’ father try and dissuade them from their belief in the Totoros.
The girls’ adventures with Totoro and his Totoro-minis are a distraction for them from their mother’s illness. The exact nature of the illness is not elaborated upon, nor is it played for much drama, aside from the occasional panic caused by misheard information. Like much else in this film, it is simply a part of their lives. They deal with it as they must.
And yes, part of dealing with it involves their fun with their new fuzzy pals. But these interludes are not played for sentimentality. Miyazaki is relishing in the sheer joy of his creation. These characters could be interacting under any circumstances. The scenes are not a dramatic device or a sugar dispensary. They exist because because, in the world of this film, they could happen. They are the melody, floating in time with the film’s rhythms.