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The Words Don’t Really Matter

Thirty-five years later, there’s still nothing quite like Hayao Miyazaki’s ‘My Neighbor Totoro’

Toho/Ringer illustration

Before 1988, Hayao Miyazaki had typically imagined fantastic worlds, but My Neighbor Totoro—which celebrates its 35th anniversary this year, having recently been canonized as the highest-ranking animated title on Sight and Sound’s 2022 poll of the best films of all time—was conceived in a semi-autobiographical vein. The film is set in a lovingly realized recreation of the rural city of Tokorozawa, where Miyazaki lived with his wife in the 1960s—but the mind’s-eye image that inspired the filmmaker is something more mysterious: a young girl waiting for a bus in the rain, looking out of the corner of her eye and realizing she is not alone.

Miyazaki had planned to call the film The Ghost Beside Me—a phrase that perfectly captures the fleeting, uncanny nature of its namesake, a gray, rotund forest spirit that slowly sidles up to the school-aged Kusakabe sisters, Satsuki and Mei. As the film opens, the girls have relocated to Tokorozawa with their father, Tatsuo, to attend school while their mother recuperates from a severe illness; the facility where she’s staying was based directly on Shin Yamanote Hospital, where Miyazaki’s own mother was a patient. To the extent that the movie has a plot, it concerns the siblings’ gradual adaptation to their anxious family situation—which their dad is trying to balance against the demands of work—and their wild and unfamiliar new surroundings, with Totoro, who lives deep in the woods and interacts with the human world on his own terms, as a guide and protector.

“On his own terms” is important: The beguiling and enduring contradiction of Totoro is that he could just as easily be described as a phantom as a neighbor, and never really accurately as a “friend.” The plump, plush exterior is irresistible, but behaviorally speaking, Totoro is stoic, elusive, and inscrutable; it’s crucial that he’s never cute or ingratiating. Despite being tapped by Pixar for a (silent) cameo in Toy Story 3, he’s a considerably less anthropomorphic figure than Woody and Buzz or even Winnie the Pooh, whose honey-glazed shadow surely looms over Miyazaki’s storytelling. But where A.A. Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood ensemble are all ultimately shades of their human playmate, Christopher Robin—outlets for his preadolescent creativity and neurosis—Totoro possesses autonomy and independence. He’s not a plaything, and he’s not imaginary: Whatever the rules may be as far as his being perceived by adults, they remain unexplained. Even at his most endearing—as in the aforementioned bus stop encounter, when he cuts a sweetly Chaplinesque figure while fidgeting with a borrowed umbrella—Totoro never attempts to communicate with his human peers or ask them anything about themselves. The few words he says, including his own name, come out in a low, guttural rumble. His trademark refrain is a yawn.

In this sense, he’s a perfect avatar for Miyazaki, an artist whose own prickliness belies his deep, abiding connection to primal sources of magic and enchantment. (It’s telling that Totoro has pride of place in Studio Ghibli’s logo.) In 2019, the filmmaker kidded a potential new employee by telling them that Totoro was in fact a vicious carnivore and that the only reason he didn’t eat the Kusakabes is because he wasn’t hungry at the moment. (There’s even darker Totoro lore out there, including the theory that the film is a thinly veiled allegory for a 1960s murder case.) The early sequence in which Mei discovers Totoro’s hideout in a thicket of trees sums up the film’s unsentimental sublimity perfectly, focusing equally on the girl’s intrepidness and the creature’s drowsy indifference, which meet in the middle as she curls up to rest on his hillock-sized chest. It’s a tableau with the emotional potency of a fairy tale (evoking the work of Swedish painter John Bauer, who also inspired Ari Aster in Midsommar), and it rhymes so subtly with an earlier scene of the girl jumping on her father that we’re cued to the paternal subtext without a single line of dialogue.

Words are at a minimum in Totoro, which features numerous passages defined by silence and stasis. Many of the shots resemble still-life paintings, except they’re never really still, like the butterfly that circles lazily around Mei and Totoro during their nap—a 10-second cameo that feels like a benediction. The film’s world exists in a state of lush, perpetual discovery; the color palette runs from deep, primal greens to translucent watercolors. Everywhere we look, the man-made structures are either modest or creaky and dilapidated. When My Neighbor Totoro was released in 1988, it showed on double bills with Isao Takahata’s astonishing and nightmarish animated drama Grave of the Fireflies, which visualizes the bombing of Kobe in grim detail; where Takahata’s film depicts a broken postwar hell, Miyazaki’s vision keeps modernity at bay, somehow existing simultaneously within a country’s history and traditions and strangely out of time.

Totoro’s margins are crammed with verdant details: bobbing rice paddies, crystal-clear drinking water, crunchy vegetables. The idea that a film’s landscape can be a character in its own right is by now a bit of a well-worn shtick, but Miyazaki and his art director Kazuo Oga (making his Studio Ghibli debut) make it work on a granular level. Animism is a major theme in Japanese folklore, and Totoro’s quietly benign persona feels like an extension of the forest itself. In another wonderfully executed sequence, Totoro leads the girls in a midnight ceremony to plant camphor seeds beside their house; as the tree sprouts to enormous dimensions, we’re caught between parsing the episode as a kind of dreamlike fantasy (the tree is gone the next morning) and understanding that the point of the exercise—again, never stated by any of the characters—was to grow something large and protective above and around Mr. Kusakabe, whose obliviousness to the action is not a flaw but a by-product of more grown-up preoccupations.

Like any great coming-of-age fable, My Neighbor Totoro understands that while adults have their minds on other things, children are trying to see beyond their own purview as well. The tension between innocence and experience is palpable, especially in the character of Satsuki, who’s starting to notice (and be noticed by) local boys (whose fear and desire are hilariously rendered) and who knows more about her mother’s potentially grave condition than Mei. It’s this disparity—and Mei’s stubborn refusal to be mollified by her older sister—that leads to the narrative’s only cliff-hanger, which is modest by the standards of most family movies but, in the context of the film’s overall placidity, becomes unbearably suspenseful; the deus ex machina arrives in the form of the film’s second-most iconic creation, the furry, incomprehensible Catbus, summoned (wordlessly) by Totoro to first reunite the sisters after a missed connection and then deliver them back to their family. The animation is spectacularly vivid, the massive Catbus loping swiftly across satoyamas with serene velocity. The scene is simultaneously so bizarre and matter-of-fact that it overcomes any cavalry-coming-in clichés. Besides cinching a link to the Cheshire-grinning ironies of Alice in Wonderland, the Catbus—which, like Totoro, is striking and even beautiful without ever being cute—literalizes Miyazaki’s storytelling principles. It is the most unexpected way of getting from here to there.

Although My Neighbor Totoro was a considerable box-office hit in Japan (grossing the equivalent of $11 million in its first run), the film’s commercial legacy was confirmed on home video, where it’s earned more than $200 million in sales in addition to licensing fees, which garnered more than $1 billion in total revenue. In an era when Studio Ghibli was routinely disappointed by edits made to English-language translations of its work, Totoro was released dubbed but uncut in the United States, and it stayed that way in 2004, when Disney prepared its own dubbed version, featuring Dakota and Elle Fanning as Satsuki and Mei and Timothy Daly as their father.

It’s this latter version of the film that I watched at least two dozen times during the pandemic, as Totoro unexpectedly became the go-to movie of my elder daughter, Lea—a choice for which I was grateful, and not only because replaying a mostly quiet movie without much dialogue (or Lin-Manuel Miranda) made it easier to write while sitting on the couch, laptop in hand. One of the joys of being a movie-loving parent is rewatching beloved titles through your children’s eyes, seeing them pick out certain things you already loved and discovering others on their own.

I’ll never forget taking Lea to a screening of Totoro in Toronto last year when—to my embarrassment and horror—I realized too late that the film was being presented in a subtitled version. Nobody else in the theater was under 10, but Lea, who was 5 at the time, sat happily ignoring the subtitles. She knew the sentences by heart, and, as she told me quietly under her breath as the lights went down, “the words don’t really matter.” As the film went on, frame after gorgeous frame, forest paths extending in all directions beneath swaying trees and cloudless skies, I realized not only that I couldn’t have said it better myself, but also that I didn’t need to. Some movies demand our eloquence; the greatest ones transcend it.