Studio Ghibli’s iconic My Neighbour Totoro (1988) is a perfect family movie. It’s fantastic for all ages, but more laid back then the coming of age romp Spirited Away (2001).
The fantasy film made a star out of Totoro, the large furry creature who’s a bit like a cat. The character is now used as Studio Ghibli’s official mascot.
My Neighbour Totoro
My Neighbour Totoro (となりのトトロ—Tonari no Totoro) was written and directed by Studio Ghibli legend Hayao Miyazaki.
At a short but sweet 96 minutes, it tells the tale of 1950s Japan.
Professor Tatsuo Kusakabe and his daughters, Satsuki and Mei, move to a new home in the countryside.
This is so they’re near to their mother, Yasuko, who’s in hospital with a long-term illness.
The kids find the house are occupied by susuwatari (small dust-like creatures), hinting at mysterious things afoot in the neighbourhood.
Otherwise, the family settles into daily life and routine.
That is until Mei, the youngest, one day stumbles across a mammoth furry being snoozing in the depths of the tree.
It’s Totoro, whom she befriends immediately. She names him that from his communication technique, which is a series of roars.
Initially, Mei keeps the existence of Totoro a secret. A decision that leads to the legendary bus stop scene.
With the sisters standing waiting in the heaving rain, Satsuki realises some gargantuan being is standing right next to them.
With the arrival of the mysterious being, they find Totoro has special powers. For example, he helps the children to grow a tree in their garden.
Over the course of the film, increasingly magical adventures take place. Famously, there’s a psychedelic scene with a Catbus (a bus that’s a cat). Far out, man.
We mean, look at this thing! We sure wish this had been our school bus.
Another day they find Totoro and his mates engaging in a ceremonial dance.
Meanwhile, family life circles in the background. The girls’ mother has to cancel a visit to their home due to ongoing medical treatment.
But after another trip on the Catbus, they visit the local hospital and learn from their parents that mother Yasuko is on the mend.
The film concludes with her returning home and the sisters playing with other kids in the garden, whilst Totoro and his mates watch from a distance. The end!
It’s a deceptively simple film. My Neighbour Totoro moves at a gentle pace, but it has some weighty themes behind it.
Animism is one of them. That’s the belief all things possess a spiritual essence. Totoro is a kami (神), a spirit with holy powers.
That Japanese mysticism mingles with a coming of age story for Satsuki and Mei, who realise growing older brings with it change. And not always for the better.
Whether Totoro is real or just a figment of the kids’ imagination… is open to debate.
But what matters most is Miyazaki handled all the themes, and pacing of the film, magnificently. Few people would argue this isn’t one of Studio Ghibli’s leading masterpieces.
What’s magnificent about it is how it’s so accessible for everyone.
Whereas we’d argue the likes of Princess Mononoke (1997) is for teenagers and older, My Neighbour Totoro is for all ages. Especially kids.
And if you have children, this is one to force them to watch. Order them to! As it’s a magical experience and certainly one that’d create many a happy memory.
My Neighbour Totoro’s Production
The film was a big hit in Japan, taking over $10 million.
However, it launched at a time when western cinemas weren’t quite as welcoming to such fantastical Japanese cinema as this.
Despite that, its popularity did warrant one English dub in the early 1990s.
After Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away finally won Studio Ghibli proper international recognition, interest in the studio’s older projects grew.
As a result, My Neighbour Totoro was released in global cinemas in 2002. Since then it’s earned approximately $41 million.
Disney handled a new English dub in 2004 for the film, which starred Dakota and Elle Fanning as the two young girls.
Although many people like watching the original Japanese version, Disney’s update is the main version for anyone wanting to let their kids view it.
A Bit About Totoro
The iconic image film poster of Totoro standing at the bus stop has become… iconic!
And as we mentioned earlier, the furry beast is now on Studio Ghibli’s official logo. Wherever the film studio is, he goes with them!
Totoro is the ultimate Mondo mascot.
His presence has become so legendary he’s often cropped up in various bits of pop culture, ranging from Minecraft to Toy Story 3.
Asteroid 10160 Totoro is also named after him. And a velvet worm discovered in 2013 also bears his name—eoperipatus totoro.
There are also various art books and anime shorts dedicated to the character. That’s called Mei and the Kittenbus and is, essentially, a short sequel.
But there’s never been a proper full blown sequel, which seems a shame.
Although you could argue by keeping the film as a standalone title, it ensures its long-lasting legacy of the original. Or some such.