My Neighbor Totoro

My Neighbor Totoro ★★★★½

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Miyazaki's films often position children as innocents contrasted against a fallen world. Whether it's the literal environmental apocalypses of Nausicaä or the spiritual and cultural decline of Spirited Away, the children at the centers of so many of his films resist the allures of and actively fight back against modernity. Totoro strips out explicit indicators of modern decline and instead sets the entire film in a nostalgia tinted past that's autobiographical (sick mom, older sibling forced to mature, engineer father). The setting is idealized in the sense that it's not tinged by modernity - it's telling that this post-war set film has no references to the war when it was such a fixture of his childhood and repeatedly appears in his work. But the central portrait of childhood here oscillates between pure joyful imagination and a more darkly mature grappling with the problems of adulthood. More than any of Miyazaki's films to this point, this really succeeds in balancing its more fantastical elements with the more human drama of this coming of age story. Even if Totoro weren't Miyazaki's most lovable fantasy creation, this would still be unforgettable due to moments like Satsuki finally breaking her responsible big sister persona and crying with worry that her mother might die. Or the fact that this crushing moment is unknowingly seen by Mei, which is what drives her to want to deliver the corn to her mom in the hospital to both heal her mom and comfort her sister. At its best, this is Miyazaki's most touching work on a human level.

Part of why the central drama works so well with the fantasy elements is the way that Miyazaki frames imagination as a part of living more fully and more in harmony with the natural world. Many of Miyazaki's protagonists to this point in his career feel like larger than life archetypes that are moving through a larger than life fantasy world. Here, the film lets fantasy and mundane reality bleed together. At first, encounters with Totoro are left ambiguous as to whether or not they are real - was Mei dreaming in the forest? But as the film progresses, the evidence for the reality of the spirits rises - Totoro really took the dad's umbrella, the kids really did go to the hospital and leave the corn on the windowsill. The fantastical elements here are not an escape from the realities of life. The spirits are explicitly connected to nature throughout the film. Children are able to interact with the spirits in ways that the adults are unable to. The message here isn't a naive take on childhood as pure innocence especially considering the ways that each kid is undercut as a symbol of purity in ways that isn't true for Miyazaki's more idealized protagonists. Instead, the nostalgia of the film's setting combined with the kids slowly learning to see the magic within it points towards a larger worldview built around an imaginative reverence for the natural world and a distinctly un-modern way of living. Like a lot of his work, this is paradoxically an old-man movie for a children's director. But it's telling that Totoro's first act of magic is making a tree grow unrealistically tall and the evidence left behind the next day is the much more mundane magic of a sprouted seed in need of loving attention.