Written by Sasha HuzsvaiÂ

Japan, 1988. 86 min. Tokuma Japan Communications Co., Studio Ghibli. Voices: Dakota Fanning, Timothy Daly, Elle Fanning, Pat Carroll; Music: Joe Hisaishi; Produced by: Toru Hara, Yasoyoshi Tokuma, Rick Dempsey; Written by: Hayao Miyazaki, Cindy Davis Hewitt, Donald H. Hewitt; Directed by: Hayao Miyazaki

During my childhood, I must have watched My Neighbor Totoro a hundred times, and it has never lost its magic for me, even until this day. It’s strange sitting down and trying to put the essence of this film into words, because even now, when I’m grown up and expected to be able to analyze, to break down into pieces and build up again, to self-examine, My Neighbor Totoro remains intact, impenetrable, like a vision half-glimpsed but never quite within reach. For me, at least, it’s synonymous with my own childhood, and it can’t be separated from myself and broken down into categories of good or bad, exciting or dull. Now, when I think of the details burned into my memory when I was seven – the Cat Bus, Mei running through the rice fields, the impish dust bunnies floating through the air – it’s hard to separate those memories from myself, because they shaped who I have become.

The beautiful thing about My Neighbor Totoro is that there is no antagonist or overwhelming conflict; nary hair nor hide is glimpsed of the sinister mustachioed bad guy we’ve all come to expect. No matter how jaded we’ve become now, after our hopes have been dashed, our idealism has turned sour, watching this film will take us back to a point in time we didn’t even know existed – before we could form opinions and memories, perhaps when we were still in the womb – when we took unconditional love for granted, and when, if we were to stumble across a gigantic rabbit-like creature in the woods, the logical course of action would be to snuggle up to it and take a nap. We feel no need for the sensationalism we’ve gotten used to, no need for conflict slash resolution. Most of all, there is the pervasive inner calm caused by the peaceful coexistence of human and Totoro, the father’s acceptance of his daughters’ beliefs. How we all once wished for that – simply peace – believing it would make us happy.

We have within ourselves – to employ trite psychological lingo – an “inner child” that responds with yearning to this movie, but that child has withdrawn deeper inside to make room for the other person that must come in, sooner or later. The funny thing is, Miyazaki’s film is just as much intended for the adult as for the child that believes itself to be motherless (for haven’t we all thought that, at one point or another?). Now, as little girl that was enchanted by it years ago is fading away, I watch Totoro and ask myself, Why the hell is she sleeping with the bunny? Doesn’t she notice something is wrong? Is the mother supposed to be dying? Why are they by themselves so much?—things I never would have thought of a lifetime ago.

The adult in me recognizes Totoro as deeply frightening, the stuff of nightmares. Two vulnerable little girls move into a haunted house; haunted not by tangible ghosts but in the very frame of its being, in the dust particles that swirl around in the phantom sunlight. Huge, menacing creatures lurk in the woods outside, for no discernable purpose. If they scream, there is nobody around to hear them. Meanwhile, from time to time, we catch glimpses of a waiflike invalid mother who seems to be fading away. Perhaps the horror lies in the fact that nobody ever mentions that something seems to be terribly wrong – the characters go about their business as if all is as it should be. My Neighbor Totoro hearkens back to the tales of Grimm, collected from the heart of the Black Forest, and it’s no accident that there is nothing so vulnerable, so heartbreaking and unsettling as prepubescent girls alone in a forest. Miyazaki puts an interesting spin on this ancient theme, incorporating the breakdown both of civilization, in their almost total isolation, and of the family, as per their emasculated father and slowly dying mother. Meanwhile, Miyazaki coats it all in cute animation, with bright colors and appealing images which only make what lies beneath more sinister.

A strange comparison, but nonetheless a valid one to Totoro, is Martin Scorcese’s 1983 film The King of Comedy, in which a social outcast, a Travis Bickleesque comedian, goes to extreme lengths to be able to perform his routine on a comedy stage – a routine that consists of retelling his life’s history – bruised, maltreated, neglected – but with a broad grin on his face that signals he is aiming for a laugh. In some ways, these films that mask tragedy with a death’s-head smile are more grimly devastating than the darkest plunge the Underground Man ever took into his own psyche. Perhaps it’s best not to try to imagine what Scorcese’s motives were in making that largely unsuccessful film. But who could ever know what deliriums inspired Miyazaki?

Unlike Spirited Away, another of his many great works, Totoro was not created with any discernible goal in mind. It’s like nothing so much as a sequence of dream images. My own theory is that Miyazaki drew on his own childhood. It would help to explain why it resonated so deeply not only with me, but with many other children as well. In the end, Mei and Satsuki find each other again after a seemingly endless trek through labyrinthine roads and rice fields. With the aid of the Cat Bus, a mysterious entity that swallows them whole, they travel to the hospital where their mother is, and leave Mei’s gift of corn where she will find it. At the end, we hear the mother’s delighted exclamations as she finds the gift, but we cannot see her. All we see is the light through the window from Mei and Satsuki’s viewpoint as they sit in the tree outside, in the dark night, and listen. Perhaps this is when they finally say farewell to their mother. Or perhaps, their own lives have become so deeply intertwined with the ghostly Totoro that they themselves have become little ghosts, and the corn is symbolic of the life force they are passing on to their mother, sacrificing their own lives so that she can live.

All in all, My Neighbor Totoro is a work of incredible sadness and beauty. Something about it makes the innocent child want to swallow it, to internalize it, but we can only do that to some degree before the adult in us realizes so much of it is skewed and wrong, and it sticks in our throats. Thinking about this film and my different, conflicting reactions to it, I realize, for the second time, how much I’ve changed, and how much I have lost.

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