I saw Hayao Miyazaki's animated children's film My Neighbor Totoro for the first time many years ago, but I don't seem to have ever reviewed it here, and this morning I got to be with my son when he watched it for the first time, so I thought I'd give it a bit of a write-up now.
Last night, Griffin actually picked Princess Mononoke out of the DVD cabinet and tried to get us to put it on for him. I definitely want him to see that eventually (it's one of my favorite movies of all time), but at the moment we feel like it's a little too violent and scary and adult for him, so we turned him down. We offered him My Neighbor Totoro as a replacement option, but he refused it at the time. However, this morning he was more amenable, so poppy put it on for him.
Well, I can't describe to you how fantastic it was to watch him watch that movie. The joy and wonder on his face, and the way he cheered and laughed - it was just amazing. I was so pleased. (And relieved - I might have had to disown him if he didn't like it.) After it was done, he wanted more, and when told there was no more, he wanted to watch it again. I think it's safe to say he's a fan. (UPDATE: I should mention that at the end he said, "Good-bye, Totoro! Good-bye, Catbus!" It was beyond cute, I tell you!)
Of course, watching the movie again, now as parents, and with our child actually sitting beside us, poppy and I had pretty powerful emotional reactions to it. There's a sequence in the film in which the two little girls who are its main characters are upset because they think their mother might die, and they get angry at each other, and one of them runs off and gets lost while trying to bring food to her mother that she thinks will save her, and it is just wrenching. Of course, this kind of material, even in the hands of a novice filmmaker, can be pretty powerful stuff - a cheap shot to the heart. But Miyazaki is no novice. He isn't cheap; he's economical. Precise. He doesn't milk it. This is a subtle and careful and very realistic movie, despite the elements of magical fantasy. The sequence wouldn't work if you didn't care about the characters, and he spends the first half of the movie making sure you care about them deeply, by making them very real and likable people and putting them in a very real and beautiful place. The setting - a small rural village outside Tokyo - is carefully developed through slow, lush shots of the scenery until it seems to be another character in and of itself. Which makes sense, as the trees and the wind and the fields and the dust and the soot are all embodied or governed by spirits which only the children can see, and chief among these is the huge furry beast known as Totoro.
One of the things I like best about the spirits in the film - especially Totoro and the Catbus - is that even though they are cute and always helpful, they never seem quite safe. There is always something just a little bit creepy and scary about them. In their eyes you see that they are wild and inhuman, and not to be trifled with or defied. And indeed in Princess Mononoke we find out what happens when you anger a creature like Totoro.
One of the amazing things about My Neighbor Totoro is that, when you think about it, very little happens in the movie. I feel like, if you tried to pitch it to Hollywood, they'd laugh in your face and walk away. (Warning: some spoilers ahead.) A family moves into a small village. The children meet some magic spirits. The mother is sick, but eventually gets better. One of the girls is lost, but then found again. That's it. But Miyazaki does so much with this tiny, simple story, invests you so much in it, puts you so much into the skin of the main characters, that even the smallest events are full of wonder and drama. When the little acorns the girls have planted sprout overnight into tiny plants, you celebrate with them. The scene where the little girl is asked to confirm whether a sandal belongs to her sister or not is tremendously powerful, even when you already know the answer. Miyazaki forces you to slow down and appreciate the silences, the stillness. Wind passing over grass. Water dripping from a tree. He makes you see the wonder in the world. Miyazaki makes you a child again.
My Neighbor Totoro is really a masterclass in the art of filmmaking. Even taking into account the slightly cheesy soundtrack, it is about as perfect a film as you can make. I look forward to showing it to Griffin again. Although I'll have to keep the tissues handy.