Some children believe in Santa Claus or swear the tooth fairy exists. Others actually dance with forest spirits that make enormous trees grow out of nowhere and have a strange fascination with umbrellas.
My Neighbor Totoro (Tonari no Totoro) has been conjuring magic since it was born from the brain of animation legend Hayao Miyzaki. The titular creature — Miyazaki insists it is a creature and not the forest spirit that it was later made out to be — emerged from his imagination as he was writing a story for a children's book. It would eventually become the mascot for Studio Ghibli and materialize in other Ghibli films including Pom Poko, Kiki's Delivery Service and Spirited Away, where it nonchalantly walks through Yubaba's bathhouse.
There are no superheroes, magical girls or epic battles in Totoro. And while that's part of its charm, it was initially a grave concern. Miyazaki feared that the everyday magic of childhood would go unnoticed because it unfolded in rural Japan instead of the fantastical backdrops that were so crucial to his previous animated films, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and Castle in the Sky. And so Totoro was released as part of a double feature with his haunting postwar film Grave of the Fireflies mostly out of fear that it would not hold its own at the box office.
His concerns were for naught, his worries unfounded; Totoro was a massive hit. Miyazaki didn't need magic, as he dreamed up something that brought back breathtaking views of Japan as he remembered it during his own childhood in the mid-1950s, an era long before video games and smartphones, when children still played outside and hadn't yet forgotten how to pretend. He and art director Kazuo Oga were inspired by the tranquil beauty of satoyama, or farmland on the edge of a forest, and colors found in nature, using them to illustrate the film as if they were watercolors. Every leaf, blade of grass, tadpole, and snail is so beautifully rendered that their vision of nature is nothing less than otherworldly even though the story never leaves Earth.
Because he wanted to reflect the wonder he saw through his own eyes as boy, Miyazaki avoided any references to Japanese folktales, seeing the country through the lens of a recently displaced city kid. The movie also lives and breathes with the Shinto belief that everything has a spirit, giving everything in the fields and forests a life of its own.
Totoro was well-received when it first leaped and bounded into theaters in 1988, with critics praising its dreamy backdrops and childhood nostalgia. It captures those moments of innocence as fleeting as summer days spent running barefoot through the grass, which only last until sundown but linger forever in memory. There have been several novelizations of the film and an anime short that explores the character of Mei as she interacts with curious many-legged feline vehicles in Mei and the Kittenbus.
When Satsuki and Mei Kusakabe move to the country with their father to be closer to the hospital where their mother is recovering from an extended illness, they begin to discover supernatural things that only appear when they wish to be seen. The house they move into has been abandoned so long that it is now infested with soot sprites, those fuzzy black dust-creatures with two eyes and no mouth that are also seen passing around rainbow stars in Spirited Away.
While playing in the sun-drenched fields and following an odd rabbit-like creature into the deep, lush forest, Mei discovers an ancient camphor tree and peers through a hollow in its trunk. She falls in headfirst and lands under a canopy where she encounters a giant furry creature that she calls Totoro (a young girl's mispronunciation of the Japanese tororu, or troll). Satsuki seems to believe her sister about the Totoro, but is anxious to actually see it, and she does one night as she and Mei wait for their father's bus in the pouring rain. Totoro boards a peculiar bus of his own.
The Totoro gives Satsuki and Mei a gift of acorns wrapped in a leaf, which they later plant in their garden patch. As they are about to fall asleep one evening, Totoro and his friends perform a ceremonial dance, and a massive tree shoots from the ground. The tree vanishes by morning, but leaves behind sprouts. Mei later runs away to the hospital when she hears her mother's return home has been delayed. Satsuki stumbles on Totoro and, not knowing what to do, pleads for his help. He summons the Catbus (which is exactly what it sounds like) to take her to her sister and back home before dawn.
Some moments from the film that still enchant us thirty years later:
When you know your house is haunted, but not by ghosts
Satsuki and Mei first assume disembodied spirits are rattling around in the dust, but quickly glimpse the soot sprites that get away too fast to capture, only leaving their hands and feet streaked with soot. Even their father believes in them (as he believes everything they later tell him about Totoro and the Catbus). With so many parent characters in movies being stereotypically cynical and brushing off what they think are childish fantasies, it is refreshing to see sparks of wonder in an adult, and he is actually the one to explain what soot gremlins are to the girls. Don't we all wish our parents were like that when they pretended to be the tooth fairy?
That moment you realize something you could have only imagined really exists
Just imagine landing in some unknown place on the other side of a tree hollow only to run into a huge furry mass that turns out to be an enormous sleeping creature. Anyone older than Mei probably would have backed off, especially after seeing those claws, and the fact that she isn't scared away by the bellowing voice that sends a gust of wind through her hair as it says something she hears as To-to-ro says something about a certain bravery that vanishes with childhood. Even the creature's power doesn't scare an innocent spirit who sees the world as place where magic hides behind every rock and flower.
The dream that isn't really a dream even if it appears to be a dream
When Satsuki and Mei spy Totoro and his friends in a half-asleep daze, it is tempting to think they might have slipped into a dreamscape where improbable and even impossible things happen, but the furry creatures that prance around the garden to cast a spell on the acorns the girls had planted are just as real and tangible as the cool grass between their toes. Totoro is full of whimsy even if it isn't one of Miyazaki's wilder adventures. The creature makes a spinning top materialize in front of him, which carries them all to the top of the tree that brushes the night sky.
You've just found yourself on the most absurd and wonderful ride ever
The Catbus, which Totoro uses to get around when he's not floating to the highest branches of a tree, is a grinning feline vehicle that merges the Cheshire cat with a centipede. Its headlights are rats with glowing red eyes, and it apparently has DNA that gives it the interior of a bus, except much furrier. Like Totoro and the other weird creatures in the film, it only makes itself visible to those it wishes. It even changes the destination on its display lands where Mei is in one flying leap and heads to the hospital in another. Don't tell me you wouldn't have gladly traded that battery-powered plastic car you had as a kid for one of these.
Are you still bewitched by Studio Ghibli? Did you ever believe there were more than just birds and squirrels in the woods? Do you secretly have a stuffed Totoro somewhere? Let us know in the comments (we won't tell)!