Movie Review: Hayao Miyazaki: My Neighbor Totoro

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Boarding Now: Catbuses to Spirit Worlds

This is the movie that really started it all for Japanese anime as a worldwide phenomenon: Tonari no Totoro (“My Neighbor Totoro”). Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki and released in April 1988, it became the flagship of Studio Ghibli and can be found on lists of the most popular, the most iconic and simply the best movies and animations of all time. The title character, Totoro, was quickly incorporated into the studio’s logo and its popularity in Japan can be compared to Mickey Mouse or Winnie–the–Pooh in the Western world. Totoro has made cameo appearances in other movies outside of Studio Ghibli.

A period piece, set in 1950’s Japan, the story takes place in a region called “Satoyama,” denoting an area between the mountain foothills and the flat terrains, suitable for villages and farms. It’s not the only Ghibli movie to be located in a satoyama region — and together with other animations, it brought much needed attention to these regions, even prompting conservation movements on their behalf.

Two young girls, Mei and Satsuki, move to the countryside with their father to be closer to a hospital where their mother is recovering after an unspecified illness. Upon entering the old, long–vacant house for the first time, the sisters encounter Susuwatari — soot spirits.  Since Susuwatari live only in abandoned buildings, they soon depart to find a new home.  The next day, Mei spots two smaller “Totoro” spirits in the garden, and follows the magical rabbit–eared creatures back to their home in a camphor tree in a briar patch. Inside the tree, the giant Totoro is roaring–snoring in his sleep.

One night, the girls await their father’s bus in the rain. Satsuki finally sees Totoro when he appears at the bus stop. She offers him her umbrella.  He is delighted by the sound the raindrops make on the umbrella. A cat-shaped bus (“Nekobasu the Catbus”) stops and Totoro boards it, keeping the umbrella. The girls’ father finally arrives in a normal bus.

This is the third movie with its soundtrack composed by Joe Hisaishi, the first being Nausicca. Hisaishi became a frequent visitor to the studio and worked on scores for many of their other films, including the last of Hayao Miyazaki’s movies, The Wind Rises. His soundtrack in My Neighbour Totoro perfectly suits the atmosphere, adding to the nostalgic feeling evoked by the usually fondly described times between the old rural Japan and the head–long rush into modern technology.

Something I particularly love about this movie is the attention to the details, and I don’t mean just the backgrounds or the character design. My favorite scene is the night the small Totoro spirits and the girls perform a dance to grow a huge tree out of seeds that the big Totoro gave to Mei and Satsuki at the bus stop as a “thank you” for the umbrella. The sprouts entangle to combine into an enormous tree within a moment — and the whole growth looks exactly like a nuclear explosion, making a brilliant point in elevating creation and health in a magical and majestic fashion while at the same time condemning the wanton destruction and long aftermath of disease in the wake of the actual nuclear blasts. This is a powerful recurrent theme strongly entwined into every Studio Ghibli production.

In 2003, the studio released a short animation following Mei’s adventures and featuring two Catbuses, a kitten and its granny, with the latter voiced by Hayao Miyazaki himself. It wasn’t released to home video but is regularly shown at the Ghibli Museum.

Tonari no Totoro is in the top 3 of my all time favorite Hayao Miyazaki movies. It oozes positivity and makes the watcher smile, uplifts with its cuteness and, as always, it’s a treat for the eye with the traditionally painted backgrounds and well animated characters, each with their personal features. Absolutely recommended for watching any time, especially when you need something to lift you out of your blues and make you feel better.

anonymous's avatar
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Cinquefoile's avatar
I sometimes compare Totoro to Mickey Mouse. He's just so iconic for Hayao Miyazaki just as mickey is for Disney :3
AnimeGirl832's avatar
Beautiful and the cat reminds me of Alice In Wonderland.:-)
ImAwakeAndAlive's avatar
I love the Totoro for VHS.  I saw the Disney version, and it just ruined it.  The voices were annoying, especially on Mei, and they called the Soot Spirits "gremlins".
fantasystar124's avatar
i love this movie!! one of my favorite miyazaki films :D
DrowningInColours's avatar
Very good art. I watched the movie years ago and it was pretty creative. There unexpected happenings at times.
SamiraArts's avatar
I am afraid of Animes. Everything began as I was 6 years old with the movie Chiharos Reise ins Zauberland. (← It is the German name because at the time I don't know the original one.) There was so much weird things... a ghost eating people and puking gold... a dragon that can transform in small origami paper pieces... a bath full of mud where much animals drowned. (I just realized, this should presentate the litter in the nature.) I mean I like animes but I don't understand why they are so "weird" if you understand :D in my country, it is even not allowed to show blood in children tv shows/ series. In japanese animes people getting burned alive or get their head of with a knife... Im like okayyyy xD
g0tNoodles's avatar
This is also known as Spirited Away =]
SamiraArts's avatar
Uhm... okay... 😅 Thanks Im not native English speaker
Yasuuchi's avatar
Really nice article. You perfectly describe the film atmosphere and the art choices are really good so thank you because you remind me nice memories ^^
RainySpringMorning's avatar
A beautiful movie and a timeless classic. I recall watching it when I was little - long before I knew about anime and Studio Ghibli - and I watched it not too long ago. It was a satisfying, delightful, and inspiring film. The artwork featured in this journal is amazing!
raxom90's avatar
Thank you! after reading your article I watched the movie and really loved it! the whole 90 minutes were peaceful, beautiful & full of positivity. a true classic movie. (((:
TheAlwaysWrongGuy's avatar
What could I say? Miyazaki's work is always awesome no matter how old you are, favorite genre or quality of the animation, it's always turn out awesome just like others Miyazaki's work, even thought my personal favorite is Spirited away, Totoro is awesome and cute as well.
Entity1037's avatar
I watched this movie every night when I went to bed when I was like 2-7. I just ADORE this movie! It always makes me happy when I watch it.
IcykirlyA's avatar
catz537's avatar
Who else clicked on half those images just to favorite them? :D I freakin love Miyazaki. His movies are my childhood. <3 I recently drew a Totoro piece too:…
puzzledpixel's avatar
awesome! Totoro is in my top 3 also, Howl's Moving Castle is my #1.
studio Ghibli films are so special, esp the Hayao Miyazake's ones. 
IcykirlyA's avatar
I agree, Totoro and Howl's moving castle are the best !!!
Josepadillaxo's avatar
Favorite movie ever.
Josepadillaxo's avatar
Shadres's avatar
Sitio pillo.
PeaceOhmuian0025's avatar
CynderTenkaiCourage's avatar
I love ghibli movies, my favorites are Totoro, Princess mononoke, Nausicaä, Pinto and Kiki's delivery service. Oh heckler I love all of them, like Up on poppy hill
AllaD8's avatar
My favourite Totorooo!!! I have one more Totoro))… ^^
SolarKitty-chan's avatar
This is one of my 3 year old's favourite movies (She also loves Ponyo, Spirited Away, and Kiki's Delivery Service). I love that I was able to share this and the other Ghibli movies with her.
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