My neighbour isn’t a teacher, a banker, a doctor, or a professional body piercer. Nor is he a seven-foot tall marshmallow with wand whiskers and a futon for a tail. It’s too bad, really. Having a poufy neighbour whose rain dance will make even the most impossible seeds sprout overnight would be a real plus whether you live in the secluded countryside or in downtown Capital City. And his hot rod flying dreidel wouldn’t be such a bad accessory either.
My Neighbor Totoro starts with the painfully adorable Mei (English version voiced by Elle Fanning) and her older sister, Satsuki (voiced by Dakota Fanning), moving to an old country house with their father, Tatsuo (voiced by Tim Daly). These two girls, who learned to run before they could walk and never bothered with the latter, race around their new house discovering all its secrets and shoving rotten support beams until the roof threatens to crash down on top of them. Ha ha, it’s structurally unsound! Mei discovers the greatest secret of all a few days after move-in when she wanders into the woods in pursuit of an acorn-stealing, half-invisible plooff of a creature. She discovers Totoro (voiced by Frank Welker), a massive fur ball who yawns like a dinosaur and takes numerous naps a day. Older sister Satsuki doesn’t believe this creature exists until she meets him at a rainy bus stop and very kindly loans him an umbrella. From that moment on the friendship sticks, and Totoro is as kindly a neighbour as any little girl with a bad case of giggle-itis could ask for.
It strikes me as odd that there is a human name to credit for the voice of Totoro. Much like Chewbacca’s voice medley, Totoro’s language sounds more like a mixture of grandfather snores and hippopotamus screams than actual words. What surprises me even more than the fact that Totoro has a voice credit is that he has two. The 2005 Disney version hired a brand new growler to replace the obviously Japanese growls of voice actor Hitoshi Takagi. Well… huh.
What doesn’t strike me as odd is the way writer/director/wizard Hayao Miyazaki captures the spirit of the two girls. Mei does everything that her older sister does only with a slight hesitation. But the pause isn’t from fear. She’s just short. Mei can’t tell the difference between something that could eat her and a rabbit-bear-raccoon hybrid that just wants to cuddle. She is fearless because she has yet to learn what she should fear. Satsuki, meanwhile, sees absolutely nothing wrong with running into the garden in the middle of the night to help the flowers grow. Satsuki quickly makes friends around her new home, including her new human neighbour, Kanta (voiced by Paul Butcher), who tries his very best to interact with Satsuki and not throw up. Ah, flirting.
Kudos to Mei and Satsuki’s father for encouraging imagination and outdoor activity, but let’s just hope Child and Family Services never gets wind of it. Tatsuo is happy to let his girls wander into the woods, run through the neighbour’s fields, wait for him on a dark road all alone in a storm, and sit with grinning creatures while dangling their feet from the topmost branch of sky-high trees in the middle of the night. Kudos to Tatsuo for letting his girls discover the world, but one or two rules to prevent kidnapping or death never dented a kid’s spirit.
My Neighbor Totoro is one of those films that’s designed to make you happy. From the spirits of Mei and Satsuki to the harmlessly friendly nature of Totoro and his little family, My Neighbor Totoro is simply a pleasant watch from start to finish. Some things may not quite add up in our modern, Western philosophies (being thankful that one’s house is haunted, family bath time, and playing outside, to name a few) but the unabashed joy of every character makes it wonderful nevertheless. If you’re looking for something simple that will make you glow with happiness, then My Neighbor Totoro is the movie you’ve been missing. It accomplishes everything it set out to do and is a nostalgic look into a kid’s imagination – or Japanese spirituality. Take your pick. 10/10.