Friday, 15 January 2010

Trees and people used to be good friends. I saw that tree and decided to buy the house.

No 275 - Tonari No Totoro (My Neighbour Totoro)
Director - Hayao Miyazaki

How can you fail to like a film that has such infectiously happy title music. (I love the awful awful literal film description in the translated lyrics....). In that clip you will also see the wide grinning face of another genius aspect of the film, but I will touch on THAT later.

This is a film about a family who move next door to a forest spirit. The two little girls in the family then go and have a series of adventures. It sounds like a really childish plot, and it is, but Studio Ghibli can take a simple premise and make it into such a rich experience. This is quite possibly my favourite cartoon ever. Watching it makes me feel so full of joy and full of excitement, it instills childish emotions into adults - which makes it a powerful cartoon.

The film also benefits from the amazing characters. I find Ghibli fascinating because it embraces the ancient mysticism and spirituality of Japan. They create rich stories that are woven in with the myths of their culture. I kind of like a story where ghosts, gremlins, spirits and Gods are just taken to be the norm. However, where Spirited Away expanded it to a phenomenal scope, creating a brief visit to an overwhelming world, here Ghibli lead you through it gently. We only get one spirit and 2 or 3 additional mystical creatures. It means we can still relate to the world a lot more easily. Which is important considering the all out bonkersness of the characters in this film.
Totoro is a giant forest spirit. He looks a bit like a big blue rabbit(ish) and he has a mouth that is roughly the size of his entire head. He could be terrifying as a concept. But he isn't, he is kind and funny and docile. I love that he just seems completely unbothered by what is going on through out the entire film. He is just there.
He is constantly joined by two smaller creatures (Smaller Totoros I presume) who may be children or servants. The middle one certainly looks like a scaled down version of Totoro whilst the smallest is just a white blob with eyes. There is a wonderful subtle silent comedy in the performances of the two small Totoro. Lacking the confidence and size of their larger brethren they seem to sneak around a lot trying desperately to remain unseen and failing, leaving them in a panicky bumbling rush. Bumbling spirits are funny, and a bit weird.

HOWEVER... All of this fades into a tiny speck of normality when compared to the ultimate madness that is Catbus. Catbus is (as you may have guessed) both a cat and a bus. Where oh where and how and why did that combination come together?! It is so utterly, deliciously ridiculous. But so awesome. So awesome. I'm aware I just sound like a spouting fanboy, unable to make coherent sentences byt Catbus is just a fabulously cool concept. Invisible to humans, unless Totoro makes it otherwise, the giant Cat can leap over lakes, balance on telephone cables and bound up trees. All you would feel is a strong wind as it passes.
It is so delightfully bonkers, that it makes the film. Catbus is (in my opinion) the definite highlight of Miyazaki's amazing career. Possibly my favourite animated creation full stop. Stick Gaston in a Catbus and THAT is the pinnacle of animation.

Amongst the madness of the otherworldly characters, it is important for you to have a human anchor. Luckily the Kusakabe family are written with the same care and invention used for their fantastical characters. The family have a fascinating dynamic, and the viewer warms to them, what I like is that so much of their life is left unexplained.
A key element to the story is that the mum is in hospital. It is never explained why, but it does mean that the central trio of dad and the two daughters are closer, tighter, and work together, to better things for their mother.
This is what is most impressive, the relationship and characterisation of the humans. Namely the youngest daughter, Mei. She is fabulous and behaves like a proper genuine child. From her adoration and near hero worship of her older sister Satsuki to her most delightful trait - the fact that she can't seem to handle more than one emotion at a time. So Mei will quickly go from elated joy to a temper tantrum (here... in CGI for some reason). Which I think is what most toddlers are like.

The characters are rich and feel real so when Mei goes missing, running off to see her mother, you really feel for the characters. Especially as Studio Ghibli aren't afraid of killing off children (in their FILMS, not in a weird sacrificial manner), you generally feel that anything could happen to Mei.

However, there is a happy ending and the family are reunited thanks to Totoro's magic (which includes at one point... being able to fly on a magic Dreidel... whats that all about?!).

What I like about this truly heartwatrming story is the pace. It is such a slow film, plodding along allowing us to live life with the characters and settle into their ways. There is no real big drama (except for Mei running away), just a lot of set pieces in which not much happens. Yet despite all that it still tells its story in under 90 minutes.

It it not only a great cartoon and a great work of imagination. It is a brilliant piece of story telling


Soirore said...

I love My Neighbour Totoro, my favourite bit is when Totoro is waiting for the bus in the rain.

It is important to note that the elder sister's name is Satsuki not Saski as Satsuki and Mei both mean the fifth month; May. One is the old/ traditional Japanese way of saying it and one is the new. This adds to the cultural context of the film.

EK Biddle Esq said...

One of the most special things about this film to me, other than what you've mentioned, is the Catbus song.
I can't watch it without walking away with "Catbus, Catbus, Catbus, Catbus..." stuck in my head. And it isn't even in the film!
That's powerful stuff.

Captain James Amazing said...

Thanks Soirore - I have no abilityto write or read or hear it seems, don't know how I managed that mistake but I have corrected it :)

I love the bus stop scene because it really shows off the subtle comedy of the film. I like the gormless blank look on Totoro's when he is standing in the rain and the weird awkward nervousness you can sense from Satsuki as she just stands there.

I also love the ecstatic glee on his face when he leaps and brings down all the rain stuck in the trees. Genius!

Biddle... sometimes I forget that the Catbus song isn't in the film, and I look forward to it... then... gone

PhilH said...

The only time I've watched this is still on your bunk bed in Brighton.

I loved it.

Anonymous said...

I've heard that a lot of the things that appear to be unusual to you are cultural differences (in time, and region).

The catbus is less surreal when you find out that Japanese folklore say that old cats gain the ability to become shape shifters.


The sadder one is that probably would have been quite apparent that the mother had "consumption", if TB hadn't been so nearly wiped out in England.

This is one of my favoutite films too.