Review: My Neighbour Totoro / Cert: PG / Director: Hayao Miyazaki / Screenplay: Hayao Miyazaki / Starring: Hitoshi Tagaki, Noriko Hidaka, Toshiyuki Amasaga / Release Date: November 12th
This film is something of a national treasure in Japan, and with good reason. One of the highlights of anime maestro Hayao Miyazaki's illustrious career, it's the simple, unassuming tale of two little girls, 9-year-old Satsuki and 4-year-old Mei, who, together with their father, move to a house in the country in order to be close to the hospital where their mother is recuperating from a long illness. To their unbridled delight, they soon discover that the countryside is a magical place.
For starters, the house is haunted by harmless sooty black blobs with blinking eyes called dust sprites (there's a great moment where Satsuki, having just arrived, flings open the back door and does a double-take as thousands of the critters scuttle out of sight). And even better, the surrounding woods are home to various forest spirits. Mightiest of these is Totoro, who lives in a verdant dell at the foot of a massive, ancient camphor tree.
It's surprising to note, watching the film again, just how little time Totoro spends on screen, but nonetheless he makes an unforgettable impression. A figure of unutterable strangeness such as only a child's imagination could conjure up, he's like a giant bowling pin with ears, claws and teeth. He sleeps a lot, but when he's awake, he has the upright vigilance of a meerkat. The scene where Satsuki unexpectedly finds him standing next to her at the bus-stop, in the rain, and then lends him a spare umbrella (with the whole episode being watched by a toad who happens to be wandering along) is one of the most thrillingly beautiful pieces of animation ever crafted. And their subsequent encounters capture a spirit of innocent joy that's all too rare in cinema.
But the movie isn't without its weighty themes. There's the constant shadow of mortality, as the girls fret about the health of their mother. The meticulously rendered 1950s setting, with its rickety cars and bikes and endless dappled glades, evokes a green, pastoral Japan in danger of being lost under the modern urban sprawl. And this story of forest spirits is also a celebration of Japan's pantheistic Shinto religion. Next to the camphor tree is a shrine (one of many dotted about the landscape), signifying that Totoro is something much more venerable than just a jolly cartoon character.
A liltingly nostalgic score by Joe Hisaishi adds to the charm, and the animation is sharply observed, especially the spindly, tomboyish, cartwheeling Satsuki, who makes for an adorable everygirl. Miyazaki has made louder, splashier films, but in this one he distilled his art down to its very essence, and the result is an all-time feel-good classic whose appearance on Blu-ray is cause for a big, toothy Totoro-esque grin.
Extras: Complete Feature Length Storyboards, Creditless Opening Animation, Creditless Closing Animation, Original Japanese Trailer, Studio Ghibli Trailer Reel