My Neighbor Totoro: Answer To The Disney Renaissance

When most young adults think back to their childhood and the films that defined those confusing, exciting years, many will cite the late 1980s as being dominated by the “Disney Renaissance,” which began its critical reign of animated feature films with 1988’s The Little Mermaid.  And while it took a little longer to make its way to the West, it was in that same year that Japan’s animation powerhouse, Studio Ghibli changed the animation game with their own epic masterpiece, My Neighbor Totoro.  The brainchild of renowned Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, the hand-drawn fairy tale of two young sisters discovering a world of magic and fantasy hidden among their family’s new summer home in the country has, at least according to many modern YouTuber’s, much to still delight imaginative viewers, children and adults alike.  YouTuber Chris Stuckmann, in his glowing reassessment of the 32-year-old film, stated:

It’s clear as an adult watching this movie that these kids are using their imagination so much because they’re trying to escape the fear they have about whether or not their mother could die … And eventually, the youngest girl, Mei, while her sister is at school, runs into a beast in the forest named Totoro … Is he in the girl’s imagination, or is he real? Can he actually break through the real world or is he just an imaginary friend?

Stuckmann was not alone in his appreciation for the dreamlike ambiguity of My Neighbor Totoro, citing the film’s non-conclusion origin of the titular forest creature as one of the story’s strongest—and most timeless—elements.  Claiming that Totoro himself—and each individual’s personal interpretation of his existence—is what has helped with the film’s universal appeal, YouTuber Big Joel broke down the creature’s symbolic appeal in his own review, stating:

… In a really elegant way, it primes us to have a strange relationship with the protagonists of the film—a relationship defined by one question: ‘What is our burden of proof in claiming something is true about this world?

YouTuber Harry’s Haunted House concurred, noting that the masterful blend of fantasy and detailed touches of realism and, of equal importance, small references to Japanese culture and folklore, helped in grounding the film in our very real world.  He observed:

Despite the realistic portrayal of the characters and setting, it collides with the fantastical world of the spirits. Around the location, we see shrines and temples … In the film’s case, the shrines create a presence of the forest spirits, meaning that we can feel Totoro’s presence without necessarily seeing him.

Unlike the groundbreaking animated works that helped to redefine the Disney Company during that same decade, My Neighbor Totoro led the way in introducing Japanese anime to the world in its own, unique style—fusing cutting-edge animation technique with overtly Japanese folklore and, in a sense, storytelling philosophy; eschewing a dependence on classic fairy tales in favor of original, dreamlike morality tales, even Western audiences were enraptured with the imagery of Miyazaki’s largely plotless, yet gorgeous, dreamscapes.  YouTuber Chris Stuckmann continued:

This movie has none of the modern distractions of almost every kids’ movie that’s released today. There [are no] breathtaking action sequences, there’s no explosions—it’s not in 3D, and it’s not computer animated … [My Neighbor Totoro] still works beautifully as an adult. The animation is just so damn good, and this movie is going to be timeless.

YouTuber Harry’s Haunted House agreed with that observation, citing the film’s lush palette more than compensated for My Neighbor Totoro’s wandering narrative—despite Western preoccupations with plot and character arc.  In his own reassessment of the film, he commented:

The film lacks [narrative] complexity, there is no villain that needs to be stopped, thus creating minimal dramatic peril. It obviously was not going to capture the attention of large film productions company who are generally on the lookout for action-packed blockbusters or romantic dramas.

YouTuber Dan Murrell concurred with the comment, noting that part of My Neighbor Totoro’s overall charm is that, with no concrete narrative with which to latch on to, viewers are playfully forced to join into the main characters’ own imaginative fantasies—almost like a real-life painting, or waking dream.  In his commentary, Murrell expanding on his theory, claiming:

…You’re expecting—because you’ve been conditioned to expect, largely from Hollywood films, from American films—these giant stakes, these giant life-or-death stakes … [But] I felt like this was a way to move the story along and really, this is about a wonder and excitement and confusion about growing up. So many different, strong thematic elements that you don’t need to get lost in all these layers of plot.

In his reassessment of the film, Murrell continued:

… The movie leaves it up to the audience to determine some things … I like that there’s never a concrete answer to every specific incident in this film because, again, it is much more tonal, it is much more about the experience of growing up and the feeling of growing up, instead of answering specific questions that are raised by the plot.

Chris Stuckmann added to that theory, citing the use of one’s imagination not only makes My Neighbor Totoro even more fun to watch, but skillfully mimics the joys of childhood itself.  The state-of-the-art animation, gorgeous artwork, and psychologically accurate depiction of real-life children only add to the already brilliant visual whimsy that director Miyazaki masterfully sets on-screen.  The YouTuber added:

Not only is the animation gorgeous and the characters a lot of fun, it’s a film that actively uses your brain. You feel like you’re engaged with the way it’s cut together with the direction, and you feel like you’re using your imagination just like these kids are … It captures, I think perfectly, the carefree, adventurous feel that so many kids have.

Chris Stuckmann also cited director Miyazaki as the driving force behind the animated feature that truly made such an experimental family film work as well as it did.  In his commentary, he added:

Hayao Miyazaki is just so frickin’ brilliant—I can’t give this guy enough praise—and, as I review the Studio Ghibli films … I can’t escape saying it: their animations are just the best there is. I think that they’re the best in the entire industry … We need films like this that inspire children’s imaginations, that can make adults think also about the film…

Other YouTubers noted that, although the film takes place during an undisclosed time period in Japan’s history—and the chief protagonists are two young girls—one should not overlook the autobiographical nature of Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece.  According to Harry’s Haunted House, My Neighbor Totoro skillful drew upon the director’s own childhood experiences, noting:

Miyazaki has often claimed that childhood is the happiest time in one’s life, and this is portrayed through Satsuki and Mei’s determination to stay happy when things take a turn for the worst. The story was heavily based on Miyazaki’s own childhood when his mother was stricken by disease. This resulted in his family moving closer to a hospital.

Of all the many charms of My Neighbor Totoro, many commentators agreed that, although the protagonists are meant to represent our own memories of childhood and, indeed, act as near stand-ins for our own place within the adventure, the accuracy of the two sisters’ characterizations are only emphasized by both their childlike behavior, and their detailed body language—artistic touches on Miyazaki’s parts that truly capture the psychology of the young and the young at heart.

YouTuber Dan Murrell commented:

One of the things that really struck me the most is the way that the film captures this childlike innocence and the childlike presence of its two main characters, Satsuki and Mei, and just animating the way that they move—these little touches … it so captures and really exhibits the fact that these animators are not only good observational artists, but can translate those observations into funny or affecting or touching animation.

Building on that theme, YouTuber Murrell continued:

One of the things that I liked the most about it, in addition to capturing the behavior of the characters, [was] the attention to detail. The way that a bike will pass under the shadow of a tree—that’s a difficult thing to animate—or, even dirt on Mei’s knees as she’s been crawling around and playing. These are the details that make the world feel lived-in, that make it feel real, that give it the grounding that it needs to sell the fantastical elements that [they’re] going to introduce later.