Two children stand waiting at a bus stop out on a quiet country road. It’s getting late and beginning to rain. The younger girl begins to sag under the weight of all the waiting and the lateness, the way small children do. Her sister hoists her up on to her back to let her rest, her own posture soon beginning to sink sleepily as well. And then he appears. And the next few minutes are pure cinematic magic.
It is the kind of unique, wondrous scene that remains nestled in the hearts of viewers for weeks, months and years after they first see it. It’s the kind of scene that makes you fall in love with a movie, or with cinema on the whole. It saw the film inaugurated into Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies” collection and inspired Pixar’s John Lasseter so much he gave the film’s furry hero a plushy 3D cameo in Toy Story 3.
And, on the seventh of May, it will be 30 years old.
First released in 1988, My Neighbour Totoro catapulted Studio Ghibli and director Hayao Miyazaki towards the legendary status they now enjoy. Totoro himself would become the studio’s logo and ascend to the highest echelon of Japan’s pop cultural pantheon, as ubiquitous there as Mickey Mouse in America and as beloved as Winnie the Pooh in the UK. It would also showcase perfectly the patient, compassionate style of filmmaking which has become synonymous with both Ghibli and Miyazaki.
My Neighbour Totoro is a film almost entirely devoid of plot. A family moves into a house in the country. The children encounter a magical spirit with a booming laugh, a bulging belly and a love of raindrops and acorns. He doesn’t seek them out to solve their problems, they don’t save the world or battle evil. Mostly, we just watch a family going about its daily business in beautiful hand-drawn detail. The fantastical moments are delightful for the intricacy of their design and the sheer force of their imagination, we don’t need any great dramatic stakes to appreciate them.
In an interview with Roger Ebert, Miyazaki described his approach through the Japanese word “ma”, translating roughly as “emptiness”. Clapping his hands three times, he explained that “The time in between my clapping is ma. If you just have non-stop action with no breathing space at all, it’s just busyness, But if you take a moment, then the tension building in the film can grow into a wider dimension. If you just have constant tension at 80 degrees all the time you just get numb.” This appreciation of the moments in between things and the desire to capture them in the fullest detail is characteristic of Miyazaki’s astonishing filmography.
A few years ago, I sat down for a screening of My Neighbour Totoro in a small independent theatre. The audience was mostly drawn from my demographic (read: hipsters and assorted arts nerds) but there was also a handful of parents dutifully toting small children. On top of being a slow and quiet film, this screening would be in Japanese so the pre-reading age kids would be asked to sit for a movie comprised in large parts of polite conversations that they couldn’t understand. As the lights went down, I was fascinated to see how this played out.
For 86 minutes, they sat totally enthralled. Not a peep or a fidget, just silent sets of wide eyes fixed firmly on the screen, lost in its gentle, generous world.
In the West, animation is still regarded by many as largely a children’s medium, hence the wave of candy-colored feature films which arrive each year marketed as “family films” but designed with young children most firmly in mind. Most of them represent the exact antithesis of Miyazaki’s filmmaking philosophy: flooding the screen with color and motion, assaulting the audience with a non-stop barrage of slapstick gags and action sequences. They are designed based on an understanding of children as tiny people with the attention span of a goldfish on a sugar high, unable to sit still for longer than three seconds unless you appease them bright lights and loud noises.
Even Pixar, the bastion of Western animated cinema, is able to follow Miyazaki’s lead only in part. Up! can begin with a tender montage depicting a relationship’s bloom and slow demise, but only if it works in a squeaky-voice evil pup and a prat-falling tropical bird later on. Wall-E can open as lonely silent film and center around a wordless romance, but only if there are a sea of obese humans in brightly colored space suits in the latter half. Coco contains heart-breaking ruminations on the power of music and memory, and also a moronic, googly-eyed dog, Pixar’s quieter, compassionate moments might take their cues from Miyazaki, but they are carefully packaged alongside the standard cartoon antics expected by the parents who pay the ticket price.
When small children play, they don’t need a game with rules and goals. They don’t need conflict or competition to invest in what they are doing. Their play is based on exploration and experimentation, the simple pleasure of seeing, feeling and moving things in different ways. My Neighbour Totoro doesn’t need a villain, a MacGuffin or a plot because it understands this. It’s most famous scene is just three characters waiting for a bus, enjoying the sound of rain dropping onto an umbrella. One of the three is a giant, fluffy forest spirit and one of the buses is a cat, not for any reason other than such things are fun to imagine.
Those who saw it as children in 1988 can watch it again today with the same enjoyment because it appeals to a part of us that is present from childhood and never really disappears. We don’t grow out of wonder, even if we become more wearied by the idea of it.
My Neighbour Totoro hasn’t really aged in thirty years. It’s the kind of movie that probably won’t really have aged in another thirty either.