My Neighbor Totoro is a deceptively simple tale. It is the story of a father and his two young daughters moving to the country and adventures the two girls, Mei and Satsuki, have with the forest spirits they find there.
This simplicity makes My Neighbor Totoro one of the purest examples of Myazaki and Studio Ghibli’s themes and preoccupations. There is the pleasure in discovery of the delights of rural life (Only Yesterday), the multifaceted life of children (Kiki’s Delivery Service) and the interaction between humans and spirits (Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away).
As with all Ghibli creations, the characters of Mei and Satsuki are beautifully realised. Both have distinct character traits that reflect both their age and personalities. Their conflict is not on a widescreen Lord of the Rings scale but deals with coping with their mother’s illness. One of the most powerful moments is not a clash of massive CG armies but the arrival of a telegram informing them that their mother is too ill to return home.
Mei and Satsuki’s encounters with the forest spirits is also reflection of their perceptions. Unlike the enraged wolf spirits of Mononoke, Totoro and co are warm, friendly and welcoming. Their behaviour is benevolent, coming to aid the sisters in their times of need.
All the elements in My Neighbor Totoro are presented with a fine sense of craftsmanship creating a simple tale with great emotional depth. Myazaki’s visualisations of the forest spirits are superb and because of the strength of his characters he can effortlessly blend elements that are both familiar and fantastic. So unforgettable are these scenes that they become embedded in your memory: Mei’s encounter with the sleeping Totoro, Mei and Satsuki waiting for their father’s bus on a dark and rainy night.
My Neighbor Totoro is yet another outstanding Studio Ghibli creation and for a film made in 1988, it is still fresh and vibrant as the day a human hand applied paint to each individual animation cel.