It Was A Dream, But Not A Dream: My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

This is yet another example of where pulling a quote into the title of my blog post also happens to reflect my feelings for the film on the whole.  My Neighbor Totoro, was perhaps the biggest blip on my "never seen" shame list, because having already encountered countless other Miyazaki films and being made constantly aware of this as a masterpiece, I was constantly putting it on the back burner, figuring that I would eventually get around to its viewing.  When it spent a year or so in a bizarre bluray upgrade limbo (at the time region free was not a viable option), I just sat hoping that it would magically appear in my lap at some point.  When the powerful of arm of Disney used its extension of Studio Ghibli to release this on bluray earlier this year, I knew that it had to be obtained, because much like all the decent stuff Disney releases, it is usually lacking in a wider audience, therefore resulting in it falling into limited print obscurity, a few copies being secretly passed amongst friends, or one would assume this to be the case with something like David Lynch's The Straight Story.  All of this is an aside of sorts to say that I finally caught up with My Neighbor Totoro, a work so heavily hyped and made to be something otherworldly that my expectations were nearly impossible, which I feared would result in a general hesitation to embrace the film.  Yet, when the film began to unfold in front of me I realized that the wonder that made Miyazaki's career was as present as ever, almost in a wildly subtle way, wherein, the magical realist elements that have become signifiers of his oeuvre creep into the narrative, as opposed to exploding into action as occurs in something like Spirited Away or Howl's Moving Castle.  Furthermore, never one to shy away from the tragedies in life, the threat of loss and the forced moments of youth being confronted with adulthood are at their most entrenched within this film, and for a filmmaker whose entire career has become predicated on breaking from realism, excluding his writing of the most recent From Up on Poppy Hill, My Neighbor Totoro, might well have one of the most hauntingly real of moments, so poetically executed, as to take on a surreal quality indicative of the hyper-tragic Grave of Fireflies.

My Neighbor Totoro, focuses on the experiences of two girls, the strong-willed, yet wide-eyed Satsuki and her younger sister the loud-mouthed but earnestly curious Mei.  The two girls are currently residing with their grandmother in the countryside, while their father moves too and from Tokyo for work, the reason for their needing to stay away is predicated upon their mother being hospitalized for an unnamed illness.  As such, the two spend many of their weekends traveling to visit her and awaiting the return of their father from work each day.  Of course, given that they moments, as well as attending school, only consume so much of their day-to-day activities, Satsuki and Mei spend their time traveling through the woods and meadows of the rural town.  It is during one of these trips that Satsuki and Mei meet a giant cat-like creature that Mei refers to as a mispronunciation of troll, therefore becoming known as Totoro.  This creature begins to appear intermittently during Satsuki and Mei's endeavors, often showing up in moments of trouble or fear as a means to put them at ease, for example, a large Totoro spends time awaiting the arrival of their father who is late from work, even providing them with a small gift of acorns and nuts which they plant in their yard.  These acorns lead to a gigantic tree growing in their yard, wherein Totoro and his various smaller forms take Satsuki and Mei on a wild flight through rural Japan.  When the girls awake the next day they realize it has been a dream, but also notice that the seeds have still sprouted, leading them to believe that the magic of Totoro might actually exist.  When Satsuki receives news that their mother has fallen ill, yet again, with a cold her and Mei panic, attempting to contact their father, who tells them to be patient until he can obtain more information.  Mei, unfortunatley, is incapable of grasping the necessity of patience and takes it upon herself to travel to the hospital, getting lost and become a cause for concern in the entire village.  Satsuki in a moment of desperation tracks down Totoro and uses his magical cat bus to find Mei and then visit their mother, although they do so from outside the window, leaving her a gift in the hopes of it leading to her quick recovery.  This act, assumedly works, or at least the closing credits animations would suggest as much.

Coming of age tales are often dealt with in a hyper-sentimental manner, leaning heavily on everything being perfect and avoiding the very real fact that for most people, growing up is tied to a point of fear or moment of tragedy.  Perhaps the best example of this working, while also being highly sentimental would be the lost love sequence of Summer of '42.  I would posit that Miyazaki also does this as a filmmaker, using the magical realist elements of his film to ease the heavy blow of tragedy, while also showing that necessitates growing older.  Totoro and the escapism it provides to the girls is also paired with Satsuki coming to realize that his escapist qualities do not factor into her mother suddenly becoming healthy.  Indeed, if anything Totoro is more a projection on the part of Satsuki to help maintain Mei's sense of wonder with the world, because Satsuki has her own moment of tragic awakening, when she realizes that her mother "having colds" indicates a white lie being propagated by adults to tell the two girls that their mother is sick, but not entirely playing into how truly troublesome her health might well be.  When Satsuki confronts an adult about his lie, they can offer nothing more than a defeated sigh, for they acknowledge the loss of innocence occurring, something that will never fully be the same.  Of course, Miyazaki realizes that the truly happy individual can still retain moments of innocence late into their life, pulling from it at moments of happiness, or as is the case with Mei and Satsuki's father, to help young persons understand the curiosities of the world, as is clear in the dust bunny discussion early in the film.  It is in moments like this were white lies are more fun stories in replacement of detailed scientific explanations which would be of little interest to a young person.  Yet, the most wonderful moment of magical realist escapism emerges when Satsuki and Mei's mother swears she sees her two daughters laughing outside her window, a moment that the viewers assume to be real, however, as their father suggests is only possible through the magical gift of the corn.  In this stroke of genius and subversive non-linear narrative, one can read the message as the father playing into the same "wonder in the world" rhetoric he uses when talking with his daughter as a means to ease the suffering of an ailing spouse.  To Miyazaki, tragedy is a reality, but it is also something that can be softened by a light-hearted and curious view of the world, because no all has to be heartbreaking, particularly when giant fluffy trolls can serve as emotional companions.

Key Scene:  The sandal floating in the water is stark, jarring and surreal and perhaps one of the single darkest frames in all of Miyazaki's oeuvre.

Buy this bluray.  Buy your friends this bluray.  Buy everyone this bluray.

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