“Trees and people used to be good friends” | My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

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Japanese animation turns 100 years old in 2017. The art form initially flourished in 1917, as animators including Oten Shimokawa and Seitarou Kitayama produced short comedic films that ran for only a few minutes each. While the vast majority of those early animated shorts are now lost – due variously to time, humidity, earthquakes and the American fire-bombing of Tokyo – Japan’s animation (or ‘anime’, to use the borrowed Japanese term) industry has continued to thrive ever since.

Numerous directors have been and gone over the decades, and the industry has expanded and contracted. If we were to highlight a single filmmaker as the best artist anime has produced over that time, it’s a fairly safe bet that the majority of fans, critics and observers will cite Hayao Miyazaki. Furthermore if we were to highlight the very best film Miyazaki had directed, I suspect the majority would cite his 1988 fantasy My Neighbor Totoro.

The film is a pure delight. It is warm, imaginative and inspiring. It is heavily seeped in a particularly Japanese sense of identity, so much so that it seems unimaginable for any other country to have created it. Miyazaki has written and directed many of the best films ever made, including Nausicäa of the Valley of the Wind, Porco Rosso, Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away, but when comes down to pure iconic imagery and long-term cultural impact Totoro is always going to be his crowning achievement. If we were to jump forward a century, and look back on almost two hundred years of Japanese animation, Totoro would still be one of the first films that came to mind.

I don’t usually apply quite this much hyperbole when discussing a film, but occasionally a film comes along that simply deserves all of the acclaim that it gets.

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The film focuses on two sisters in Japan in the mid-to-late 1950s. Satsuki and Mei move with their university professor father to a dilapidated house in the country after their mother is hospitalised. As they explore the countryside around their new home they gradually discover an entire ecology of supernatural creatures, including Totoro – the keeper of the forest.

The idea for Totoro came in part from Miyazaki’s own childhood. His own mother was hospitalised with tuberculosis, and he too spent a great deal of his childhood exploring the local woods in rural Japan. It is likely, all things considered, that it is the closest thing to an autobiographical film that Miyazaki has made.

Following the runaway success of his 1984 feature Nausicäa of the Valley of the Wind, Hayao Miyazaki teamed with that film’s producer Toshio Suzuki to establish a new independent production company, Studio Ghibli. Together they approached fellow director – and long-time creative collaborator – Isao Takahata to join the new outfit. Studio Ghibli was founded in mid-1985, and work commenced immediately on two feature films: Miyazaki’s Laputa: Castle in the Sky and Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies.

Laputa was released first in August 1986. The film was distributed by the Toei Company, who had also distributed Nausicäa two years earlier. While critically acclaimed the film was nowhere near as popular as its predecessor. Its initially lacklustre performance put pressure on Studio Ghibli to launch a more successful film as soon as possible. This presented a problem, since the next film scheduled for release was Grave of the Fireflies.

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Since its release Grave of the Fireflies has established a couple of strong reputations. Firstly – and I think it is important to stress this before anything else – it is a widely acclaimed animated drama with a striking humanistic touch. We relate very closely to its two protagonists, and care very much about them as the events of the film unfold. Secondly, it is a remarkably naturalistic film. The animated style is slightly abstracted, of course, but it tells a human story without any reliance on fantastical or unreal elements. Finally, and certainly most relevant in terms of its commercial prospects as a profitable film, Grave of the Fireflies is widely observed to be the most miserable and depressing animated feature films of all time. The film is set during World War II and follows two children – a brother and a sister – as they are orphaned by an American firebombing of Kobe and made homeless by an unsympathetic aunt.

Since the grim and unremittingly bleak tone of Takahata’s film did not seem a likely crowd-pleaser, the decision was made to pair it with a short feature. This 40-minute film could present a more lively and enjoyable experience for audiences and boost Grave’s commercial prospects in the process. As he was not working on any film projects himself at the time, Miyazaki was persuaded to develop and direct this prospective short feature: My Neighbor Totoro. With Grave continuing to occupy the Studio Ghibli animation studios, an entirely new temporary facility was set up to accommodate the Totoro team.

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As with all of Miyazaki’s films, My Neighbor Totoro commenced production without a finished script. ‘I don’t have the story finished and ready when we start work on a film,’ Miyazaki explained. ‘I usually don’t have the time. So the story develops when I start drawing storyboards. The production starts very soon thereafter, while the storyboards are still developing. We never know where the story will go but we just keeping working on the film as it develops. It’s a dangerous way to make an animation film and I would like it to be different, but unfortunately, that’s the way I work and everyone else is kind of forced to subject themselves to it.’[1]

One consequence of Miyazaki’s improvisational style was that Totoro’s length expanded significantly. It was originally conceived as a short feature, but Miyazaki’s final cut would run to 86 minutes.

Making any feature-length animation is a time-consuming and laborious process, particularly for a company like Studio Ghibli where exacting standards and Miyazaki’s insistence on personally approving every frame added an extra layer of stress for the company’s artists. Imagine then the stress in 1987 and 1988 for such a small company producing not one but two full-length features. Artists were regularly swapped between projects as and when they were required. The schedule was ultimately so tight that Grave of the Fireflies missed its final deadline, and the film was released into cinemas in an incomplete form.

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Toho Studios signed an agreement to distribute both My Neighbor Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies. The studio elected to release both films as a double bill, and scheduled their release for April 1988.

It is one of the strangest pairings I have ever witnessed: one film an immensely heart-warming children’s fantasy, the other a bleak and harrowing tragedy about the human cost of war. In Totoro, Satsuki and Mei venture into the wilderness and find magical adventure. In Fireflies, Seita and Setsuko venture into their wilderness and find nothing but each other.

It’s possible to come up with ways in which the double bill does make some sort of thematic sense. As I’ve mentioned, both films follow a pair of siblings into the forest with disparate results. It’s possible to argue that one shows the despair that gripped Japan in the latter days of World War II, and the other a sort of growing optimism that was developing in the country 10 years later (Grave was screened first). It’s also possible to argue that together Totoro and Fireflies showcase the broad range of stories that are possible within the animation medium.

Whatever justification you use, however, there’s no denying that giving a mainstream release to a film as confrontational and depressing as Grave of the Fireflies was essentially commercial suicide; strapping something as delicate and charming as My Neighbor Totoro to it on the way down was, I suppose, a sort of commercial murder. Audiences did not warm to Toho’s double, and they were initially written off as a costly misfire. It would be up to Miyazaki’s hastily developed 1989 follow-up Kiki’s Delivery Service to become a commercial hit and save Studio Ghibli from closing (which it did, ultimately become the most successful Japanese film of its year).

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With most films a commercial failure would mean its end, consigned to a slow trickle of home video releases and occasional television broadcasts. My Neighbor Totoro, however, turned out to have an unexpected longevity. It formed an immediate cult following. Toy companies unexpectedly approached Studio Ghibli with requests to make and market Totoro and cat bus soft toys. Television broadcasts started to gather greater and greater audiences. Within a few years My Neighbor Totoro had overcome its faltering start to become Studio Ghibli’s most popular feature film. Later productions would benefit from greater commercial success in cinemas – such as Miyazaki’s mammoth hit Spirited Away, which became the first film to gross more than US$200 million dollars before seeing the inside of an American theatre – but in terms of cultural impact, long-term popularity and legacy, My Neighbor Totoro became Studio Ghibli’s greatest-ever work. Totoro himself still forms the basis for the company’s logo, and the sale of Totoro-related merchandise continues to bring in more money each year than their films do.

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There are several striking elements to My Neighbor Totoro. One of the key ones is that the film has no antagonist. There is drama – particularly when Mei goes missing during the film’s climax – but there is no villain, and furthermore no serious threat of harm to the protagonists. This remains unusual for a narrative feature film.

Miyazaki said: ‘I can’t make films that are, you know – slay the villain, everybody’s happy. I can’t make those kinds of films. I think that when children become three or four years old, they just need to see Totoro. It’s a very innocent film. I wanted to make a film in which there’s a monster that’s living next door but you can’t see it. Like when you walk into a forest, you sense something. You don’t know what it is, but there’s a certain presence.’[2]

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Notably, and despite being his fourth feature film as director, My Neighbor Totoro was the first of Miyazaki’s films to be set in Japan. ‘In this age of internationalisation,’ Miyazaki wrote in the film’s original project plan, ‘we know that the essentially national is what can become most international. When, then, don’t we make fun, wonderful films actually set in Japan?’[3]

The film’s rural setting is unspecified, drawing inspiration from various parts of Japan including Seijo Sakuragaoka, Tokorozawa, Akita and the Kandagawa River. Similarly the time period of film is fairly vague. The fashions date it to the mid-to-late 1950s, but nowhere more precise than that.

This vagueness is a powerful tool for Miyazaki: in essence, nothing in the film is specified unless it needs to be. By refusing to pinpoint the details Miyazaki allows his audience to better engage with the story. It could be anywhere in Japan; indeed, a young viewer could easily imagine the events take place just down the road from their own house. Similarly Satsuki and Mei’s mother’s illness is never specified. As adults we can make a fairly educated guess that it’s tuberculosis, but why specify and deny the children watching a moment of identification? A sick parent is a reasonably common experience.

In short: everything in the film that does not directly relate to Satsuki and Mei’s experience in the forest is sidelined or hand-waved away. Every obstacle between the audience and the characters is carefully shifted out of the way. With one or two exceptions the entire film is animated from eye-level: no low angles, and very few high ones.

With the exception of the soot sprites, the Totoros and the cat bus, everything in the film is deliberately designed in a comparatively realistic and understated manner. ‘They weren’t things I had read about in a book,’ said Miyazaki, ‘but they were all things and scenes I recall seeing – the house, the land, the water’s surface, the trees and the plants. In that respect making the film was a delightful process. If the setting were a foreign country, I wouldn’t know about those things: what would be there when a door is opened or what kind of flowers bloom on the roadside.’[4]

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The extensions to Totoro’s length were largely made in the first half, with Miyazaki taking more time to properly establish Satsuki, Mei, and their rural surroundings. It is a bold choice, and an unexpected one. The traditional expectation of a children’s film about meeting fantastical creatures in the forest is that it will dive straight in and showcase scene after scene of strange, amusing fairies and goblins. Totoro holds off from revealing the title character for an incredibly long amount of time. Once revealed, he barely appears in the film at all.

‘I thought he shouldn’t appear too much,’ said Miyazaki. ‘I had also decided strictly against having scenes where Totoro sympathises with Satsuki because she is sad. Satsuki is so endearing as she searches for Mei. Totoro can see that Mei is right over there, so he provides a service and takes her on the cat bus… that’s all that scene is about. He may not even be conscious of being of service to her.’[5]

Totoro is a strange, utterly wonderful character. He stands about two metres tall; the other Totoro creatures we encounters are all much smaller. He seems an odd combination of several different animals. One can see a tanuki (a Japanese raccoon dog), or a bear. One of the major visual influences would seem to be Miyazaki and Takahata’s 1972 short feature Panda Go Panda, in which a young girl befriends an enormous, benevolent panda.

Totoro is a peaceful, oddly sedate character. He is not alarmed by the presence of Mei or Satsuki, but neither does he seem particularly engaged by them. This polite, slightly disinterested characterisation makes the film’s English title so apt: he is not a friend or a buddy, but simply a neighbour. It also lends itself to the film’s most accomplished and memorable scene: the bus stop.

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Satsuki and Mei’s father is late returning home from the university. They wait for him at the bus stop, and as the evening draws in and they continue to wait Mei falls asleep. After a time Satsuki hears someone else stand next to them at the stop. She peers out from under her umbrella, and discovers Totoro waiting there. Since she’s holding Mei, and Mei thus no longer requires her own umbrella, Satsuki offers it to Totoro. Totoro’s polite acceptance of the umbrella soon turns to fascination, and then to glee as he begins jumping up and down to make rain fall from the trees above and protect himself from the downpour with the umbrella.

There is no narrative reason for the scene to be included, but it is a profound moment of character. ‘Placing these scenes in a story gives me great joy,’ said Miyazaki, ‘because their meaning cannot be explained in words, only images. That’s what films have to do.’[6]

Scenes such as the one at the bus stop are simply little moments of life; something Miyazaki himself has referred to as ma, a Japanese word for ‘emptiness’. ‘If you just have non-stop action,’ he explained, ‘with no breathing space at all, it’s just busyness, but if you take a moment, then the tension building in the film can grow into a wider dimension. If you just have constant tension at 80 degrees all the time you just get numb.’[7]

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Another bus arrives, but it is not the one carrying Mei and Satsuki’s father. Instead, in what is one of the oddest moments in Japanese cinema, it is a cat.

The cat bus is a massive orange twelve-legged cat. It’s also a bus, with a door magically expanding on its side to allow its passengers to enter. Its back is lined with open windows. Its eyes shine like headlights. It smiles like Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat. To allow the 12-legged cat bus to move in a believable fashion, animators studied the movements of centipedes. The resulting animation is the perfect combination of realism and fantasy: it’s clearly a creature that does not and cannot exist, yet it runs in a manner that makes it easy to accept.

The cat’s arrival is delightfully unsettling. Earlier edits of the scene used various musical cues by composer Joe Hisaishi; some made the scene too twee and sweet, others made it too creepy and frightening for small children. The final edit removed Hisaishi’s score for the scene entirely, enabling it to be just creepy enough, but also strangely wonderful.

In composing the film’s score Hisaishi deliberately avoided making any of the music sound mystical or fantastical, allowing more matter-of-fact melodies and arrangements to drive the film instead. As with the bus stop scene, much of the planned music was abandoned, as both Hisaishi and Miyazaki realised that the film’s visuals and tones carried the story forward well enough on their own.

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The only real conflict in the film arrives extremely late: terrified that her mother is about to die, Mei runs off with an ear of corn to deliver it to the hospital. She becomes lost, and Satsuki and the locals begin a frantic search to find her.

As with the film’s setting, Mei’s going missing was based on Miyazaki’s own childhood. A local boy had disappeared and his parents feared he had drowned in the river. The entire community mobilised to hunt for the body – only to discover the boy had been playing nearby all along. Miyazaki remembered this incident and incorporated into Totoro’s storyline.

Satsuki ultimately rushes to Totoro to ask for his help, and he takes her to the cat bus so that she can search the countryside faster. He never seems particularly concerned; to be honest, he never seems that actively interested. As mentioned earlier, he is never really a friend to the protagonists; just a benign character that they encounter.

Suffice to say that events end in happy circumstances and not in tragedy, and both Satsuki and Mei return home inside the cat bus.

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My Neighbor Totoro is a remarkable achievement in feature animation. It is created with a delicate touch, each element carefully drawn into the story in a free-flowing and organic manner. Despite its fantasy content it is to the largest extent an everyday character drama. In fact, once you start adding up the film’s various fantasy scenes it’s surprising how little characters like Totoro or the cat bus actually appear. The film is, in the end, drawn on a remarkably small scale, and by focusing on two small girls and their own experience Miyazaki has managed to create something with unparalleled nuance and depth. It is, in short, a perfectly formed gem: a folkloric picture of a Japanese countryside that makes you want to climb into the screen and live there.

‘I didn’t make this film out of personal nostalgia for that time,’ said Miyazaki. ‘I made it hoping that children would see it and then go out to run around the fields or pick up acorns.’[8]

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[1] Tom Mes, “Hayao Miyazaki”, Midnight Eye, 7 January 2002.

[2] Dan Jolin, “Miyazaki on Miyazaki: the animation genius on his movies”, Empire (http://www.empireonline.com/features/hayao-miyazaki/p1)

[3] Hayao Miyazaki (transl. Beth Cory and Frederick L. Schodt), Starting Point: 1979-1996, Viz Meida, San Francisco, 2009.

[4] Hiroaki Ikeda, “Totoro was not made as a nostalgia piece”, in My Neighbor Totoro roman album, Toho Studios, 1988. (Translated by Beth Cory and Frederick L. Schodt in Hayao Miyazaki, Starting Point: 1979-1996, Viz Meida, San Francisco, 2009.)

[5] Hiroaki Ikeda, “Totoro was not made as a nostalgia piece”, in My Neighbor Totoro roman album, Toho Studios, 1988. (Translated by Beth Cory and Frederick L. Schodt in Hayao Miyazaki, Starting Point: 1979-1996, Viz Meida, San Francisco, 2009.)

[6] Robbie Collin, “Hayao Miyazaki interview: ‘I think the peaceful time that we are living in is coming to an end’”, The Telegraph, 9 May 2014.

[7] Roger Ebert, “Hayao Miyazaki interview”, Roger Ebert, 12 September 2002.

[8] Hiroaki Ikeda, “Totoro was not made as a nostalgia piece”, in My Neighbor Totoro roman album, Toho Studios, 1988. (Translated by Beth Cory and Frederick L. Schodt in Hayao Miyazaki, Starting Point: 1979-1996, Viz Meida, San Francisco, 2009.)

  1. “Furthermore if we were to highlight the very best film Miyazaki had directed, I suspect the majority would cite his 1988 fantasy My Neighbor Totoro.”
    I’ve always felt Kiki’s Delivery Service would be regarded as his best. The characters of Totoro and the Cat Bus are definitely the most iconic though.

    Reply

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