2016 Film Essays

Studio Ghibli Forever: An Initiation – ‘My Neighbor Totoro’

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“Studio Ghibli Forever: An Initiation” is a series in which Jordan Brooks, having no experience with the animation house, seeks to discover the basis for the worldwide phenomenon that is Ghibli. The international theatrical retrospective of some of Ghibli’s most beloved features serves as the perfect introduction to the studio giant, and will hopefully afford fans and newcomers alike a chance to see these monumental films as originally intended.

Despite my Ghibli ignorance, I know Totoro. It is almost impossible not to recognize his egg-shaped body, puffy white eyes and pointed ears. He might not be on par with a figure as universally magnanimous as Mickey Mouse, but he’d definitely give Winnie the Pooh a run for his honey (pun status: dad). Released as a double bill alongside Isao Takahata’s much more thematically dense, subdued and down-right tearful Grave of the Fireflies, Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro is a film for and about young children. But what exists for adults is far beyond the snarky sex jokes and innuendo Disney likes to sneak past the under-10s. An astonishing achievement of handcrafted animation, Miyazaki’s third Ghibli film solidified the studio’s presence, and has become an enduring symbol of its excellence.

Set in a timeless rural village, My Neighbor Totoro mixes it up with modernity and antiquity, reality and the sublimely fantastic, while stunning viewers with some of the most spectacular landscapes to ever grace the medium. Sisters Satsuki and Mei have just moved to the country with their father in order to clear out their new (old) dusty house before their mother comes home from the hospital. Trapped between the sad reality of life without an omnipresent mother and the joyful ecstasy of being kids with boundless imaginations, Satsuki and Mei have found a peaceful balance to their lives. When things with their mother take a turn for the worse, the girls find help from an unlikely source: King Totoro, the forest guardian. Discovering the world as if new, Satsuki and Mei are distracted from the harsh circumstances of their home life, and become enthralled with the spiritual realm of the ancient wood.

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Even those impervious to empathy and childhood glee would struggle to maintain a cool air against the unparalleled exquisiteness of Totoro’s landscapes. A color palate of pastel greens, yellows, pinks and earth tones (Miyazaki’s team may have actually invented a pastel brown) dominate the sisters’ world. Trapped in a perpetual kind of springtime, the small farming village is a lush pastoral vision of heaven, cooled by a lazy breeze (it wouldn’t be Ghibli without some wind) and the occasional heavy rain. The intricacy with which Totoro is animated seems to engage all the senses, as individual leaves and blades of grass twitch and flutter in the shifting winds. If believing in sentient environmental crusaders is crucial to the enjoyment of My Neighbor Totoro, Miyazaki and his animation team have made sure to make this paradise somewhere worth protecting.

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Totoro is the first Ghibli film to make me feel old — not because of its childish leanings or because there is a Cat Bus (Cat Bus is totally awesome), but because it acknowledges my shifting priorities. As a child, the thought of losing a parent was completely unthinkable, but as an adult, I could not help but relate more closely with Satsuki and Mei’s father, Tatsuo. I have no doubt that I would have cried as a child watching the visits to the hospital and thinking about myself in similar circumstances, but now, I am struck with an equal reaction to their mother’s strength and resolve. I empathized with Tatsuo in those moments watching his girls fight over their mother’s attention, and for the first time in my life, I related not to a hero or villain or even a sidekick, but to a small side character just trying to do his best.

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While My Neighbor Totoro is not the most profound or heady Studio Ghibli film, its impact is undeniable. Producing one of the most beloved characters of all time, and some of animation’s most blissful single shots, Miyazaki’s film holds a special place in the hearts of fans, and in the heart of this writer.

Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinefile based out of London, England. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.

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