Set in the 1950’s, My Neighbour Totoro follows the day-to-day adventures of Tatsuo Kusakabe and his two young daughters, Mei and Satsuki, as they move into an old house in the country. Whilst waiting for their mother to return from an extended stay in hospital, the girls settle into their new home and begin exploring the surrounding countryside; there, they discover a somewhat unconventional neighbour in the form of a giant furry creature that Mei names Totoro.
If you’ve ever found yourself frustrated by the fact that most anime movies try to cram too much story into too little screen time, then My Neighbour Totoro may be just the antidote for you. This is a movie that doesn’t boast much in the way of plot, instead opting for a simple setup that allows for a distinctly laid-back meander through the daily lives of the Kusakabe family.
Told from the youthful perspectives of Satsuki and Mei, the film is imbued with a childlike sense of wonder that adds an extra dimension to this slice-of-life approach. Even the simplest of diversions can satisfy our protagonists, and it is hard not to get caught up in their enthusiasm as they explore the world around them. The film also adds a sprinkling of more fantastical elements, allowing us a glimpse into a world of weird and wonderful creatures that only children can see.
Despite being one of the earlier Ghibli releases, Totoro is among the last to come to our shores, and viewers will no doubt be able to spot a number of familiar Miyazaki touches- a boy who loves aeroplanes, the obligatory flight scene, and even the “dust bunnies’ that would later appear as enchanted soot in Spirited Away.
Character-wise, it is Satsuki and Mei who take centre stage, and given the limited runtime of the film, there is little time to focus on the rest of the cast in any significant way. Instead, the supporting characters, from the girls’ hardworking father to the wordless Totoro, are portrayed through their relationship with the leads rather than as developed personalities in their own right.
Despite the age of the film, it still makes a solid showing in the visual department. An impressive amount of effort has been put into the backdrops and settings, with little details such as Grandma’s vegetable garden and Totoro’s giant camphor tree sticking in the mind long after the film has finished. The human cast are designed along standard Ghibli lines, but the character designs still have some interesting sights to offer, from the furry bulk of Totoro to the catbus, a bizarre yet delightful fusion of cat and bus. The soundtrack is a solid effort, encompassing a range of themes from the light-hearted to the solemn.
To put it simply, My Neighbour Totoro is one of those movies where nothing really happens, and yet despite the lack of any overall plot, it still proves to be an enjoyable experience. A charming mix of slice-of-life and fantasy elements as seen through the eyes of a child, this is one film that should warm the heart of all but the most cynical of viewers.