Simple but powerful film captures a child’s gaze

My Neighbor Totoro

(Japan, 1988)
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki

Review by Angus Luff

My Neighbor Totoro is a 1988 Japanese animated film directed by Hayao Miyazaki. The film tells the simple story of sisters Mei (Chika Sakamoto) and Satsuki (Noriko Hidaka) as they move to the countryside with their father to live closer to their hospitalized mother. In this new home, the sisters witness forest spirits that only they can see and they make friends with the creatures and embark on multiple magical adventures.

In many ways, My Neighbor Totoro is the perfect children’s film. It’s so easy and nice to watch for any age, but at no time is it cheesy or sappy – it’s so understated and meticulous in its approach. Many modern animated children’s films have licensed pop songs, celebrity voices, pop culture references, obnoxious characters and colours, yet zero passion, heart, care or purpose is included. With all those films in mind and thinking about what children’s animation has become, watching Totoro is such a breath of fresh air, the exact opposite of your usual Dreamworks or Illumination projects. The film is so peaceful and gentle, as many quiet and understated moments give the more fantastical big moments much more power and memorability. This simple, calm and peaceful film is ironically so much more powerful and memorable than most big-budget animated films today because of its unique charm, lifelike characters and genuinely wonderful and magical presentation and tone, even if what’s being shown on screen is something mundane and simple.

The joy and freedom of being a child is not captured better in any other film than this. A simple task such as getting a pail of water filled, exploring a new house or getting wood for the furnace during a storm becomes an exciting, wonderful or scary thing because of the lack of experience you have as a child. You haven’t experienced much as a child, therefore everything is more exaggerated, important and more exciting. We mostly forget as we get older how the world once seemed so large, expansive and wonderful, but to go back to see what that world was like, to experience that joy once more and to witness the earth’s beauty in its purest form is portrayed no better than in this special film.

Not only does this film understand what it was like being a child, it also conveys the experience of having a sibling and how enjoyable and difficult those relationships can be. The realism of this family and its ups and downs is absolutely astonishing, considering that this is an animated fantasy film from the 80s. It doesn’t entirely rely on showing the magical and joyous times of being a child; it also delves into the fears and dread of what may come of the hospitalized mother. That willingness to dive into both joyous and dreadful times of childhood says something about Miyazaki’s commitment to making a true, meaningful and timeless children’s classic that holds up much better than most media being put out nowadays.

Hayao Miyazaki and his team at Ghibli have made many great films, as their majesty and commitment bleeds into every project they create. Their films are so rich and lush in their details and visuals, yet equally amazing to watch play out. Miyazaki gets the most acclaim for his more awe-inspiring, majestical, bombastic works, such as Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke and Howl’s Moving Castle. All great films in their own ways, but this film speaks to me in a way no other film has – I feel it’s much more impressive that an understated, quiet film can be entertaining, interesting and conveys much more than some adult-oriented films struggle to convey in three hours. It’s such a beautiful, captivating and astonishing piece that it’s shocking it’s as good as it is. I encourage everyone to seek out this film, get lost in it and enjoy a reminder of why life is worth living.

Running time: 1:26
Available on Netflix

Angus Luff is a student at Glebe Collegiate. He grew up in the Glebe and is obsessed with movies.

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