Friday Family Movie Night: My Neighbor Totoro
The second step of my love affair with Hayao Miyazaki is what many describe as his best work, the 1993 My Neighbor Totoro. As with Ponyo, the movie explores -- no, celebrates -- what it is to believe in magic. And yet this is not Disney magic, with wands and tiaras and beautiful flowing-haired-but-nubile teen stars. This is a delightful, screaming, four-year-old magic, the incantation only gratitude and respect, the fairy dust soot and dirt and acorns.
My Neighbor Totoro is the story of a family. Father, the eight- or nine-year-old Satsuke, and the three-year-old Mei move to the country, and slowly we discover that they have done so because their mother is very ill, and her hospital is nearby. From the opening scenes we discover that none of these people are made-for-TV; the moving truck is so overloaded that the girls must stay in the back, and their delight about everything is tempered, of course, by the idea that a policeman might see them and give their father a ticket. In an American movie, this would be a judgment; in Miyazaki, it is a celebration. The girls and their father exuberantly tumble and caper into their new home, which would in another context be a dump; here, it is a source of unending joy.
Everything about the father's relationship with the girls is so tender and reverent. When they say they have seen "little black things! Like bugs, but bigger!" he does not assume they were actually bugs. "Soot gremlins?" he asks. The next door neighbor, "Granny," tells the girls that she, too, saw soot sprites when she was a little girl -- enjoying the little Mei, whose hands and feet are somehow covered in soot and who runs right into her, screams and runs away. Everything that the adults suggest comes true, and only the girls can see it; the soot sprites move away when they see that the family is taking good care of the house.
In another scene, the father is bathing with the children, and this becomes natural and masculine; in still another, Father puts Mei on his towel-wrapped bike bar, with Satsuke standing behind him, as they ride to the hospital to visit mother.
The totoros are not encountered until later, and it is Mei who discovers them -- first a baby, then a small one, and chasing these two leads to the enormous totoro -- the titular neighbor. Totoro helps fearless Mei express her powerlessness over her mother's illness, and helps Satsuke believe that her contributions do make a difference -- and gives her someone to care for her when she is putting the weight of her little family on her own shoulders.
It is a beautiful movie, luminous and filled with heart and beauty. Everything is examined with a quiet, soft light; nothing is found wanting. Even when Satsuke lashes out in anger, it is not the sudden flame-and-apology that most children's movies do so pat, it is the complex simultaneous helpless rage and compassion that more true characters feel.
We got this movie on a Monday, and watched it that night, as we had missed Friday movie night the weekend prior. By Thursday, we had watched it five times; each time, it only got better. I love this movie; and so do we all.