Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Totoro and I

with 6 comments

My Neighbor Totoro

A few months ago, in a post about the movies I’ve watched the most often, I made the following prediction about my daughter:

Once Beatrix is old enough, she’ll start watching movies, too, and if she’s anything like most kids I know, she’ll want to watch the same videos over and over. I fully expect to see My Neighbor Totoro or the Toy Story films several hundred times over the next few years—at least if all goes according to plan.

As it turns out, I was half right. Extrapolating from recent trends, I’ll definitely end up watching Totoro a hundred times or more—but it will only take a few months. I broke it out for the first time this week, as Beatrix and I were both getting over a cold, which, combined with a chilly week in Oak Park, kept both of us mostly inside. When I hit the play button, I wasn’t sure how she’d respond. But she sat transfixed for eighty minutes. Since then, she’s watched it at least ten times all the way through, to the point where I’ve had to negotiate a limit of one viewing per day. And although I couldn’t be happier, and I can’t imagine another movie I’d be more willing to watch over and over again, I occasionally stop to wonder what I’ve awakened.

Screen time for children can be a touchy subject, but after holding out for more than two years, we’re finally allowing Beatrix to watch videos on a regular basis. Along with her daily Totoro fix, she’ll spend half an hour on her mommy’s phone in the morning, usually taking in Sesame Street or Frozen clips on YouTube. (As a parenting tip, I’d also recommend investing in an inexpensive portable DVD player, like the sturdy one I recently picked up by Sylvania. It’s better than a phone, since it allows for a degree of parental control and resists restless skipping from one video to the next, and unlike a television, it can be tucked out of sight when you’re done, which cuts down on the number of demands.) Whenever possible, I like to sit with her while we’re watching, asking her to comment on the action or to tell me what she sees. And Totoro, in particular, has awakened her imagination: she’s already pretending to gather acorns around the house, and she identifies strongly with the two little girls. For my part, I feel the same way about the father, who may be the best parent in any animated film, and whenever I find myself at a loss, I’ve started to ask myself: “What would the dad in Totoro do?”

Totoro in Toy Story 3

And while it’s possible that Beatrix would have latched onto whatever I decided to show her, I’d like to think that there’s something about Totoro that makes it the right movie at the right time. As I’ve noted before, its appeal can be hard to explain. Pixar’s brand of storytelling can be distilled into a set of rules—I’ve said elsewhere that its movies, as wonderful as they can be, feel like the work of a corporation willing itself into the mind of a child—and we’ve seen fine facsimiles in recent years from DreamWorks and Disney Animation. But Miyazaki remains indefinable. The wonder of Totoro is that Totoro himself only appears for maybe five minutes: the rest is a gentle, fundamentally realistic look at the lives of two small children, and up until the last act, whatever magic we see could easily be a daydream or fantasy. Yet it’s riveting all the way through, and its attention to detail rewards multiple viewings. Every aspect of life in the satoyama, or the Japanese countryside, is lovingly rendered, and there are tiny touches in every frame to tickle a child’s curiosity, or an adult’s. It’s a vision of the world that I want to believe, and it feels like a gift to my daughter, who I can only hope will grow up to be as brave as Mei and as kind as Satsuki.

Best of all, at a time when most children’s movies are insistently busy, it provides plenty of room for the imagination to breathe. In fact, its plot is so minimal—there are maybe six story beats, generously spaced—that I’m tempted to define the totoro as the basic unit of meaningful narrative for children. A movie like Ponyo is about 1.5 totoros; Spirited Away is 2; and Frozen or most of the recent Pixar films push it all the way up to 3. There’s nothing wrong with telling a complicated plot for kids, and one of the pleasures of the Toy Story films is how expertly they handle their dense storylines and enormous cast. But movement and color can also be used to cover up something hollow at the heart, until a film like Brave leaves you feeling as if you’ve been the victim of an elaborate confidence game. Totoro’s simplicity leaves no room for error, and even Miyazaki, who is as great a filmmaker as ever lived, was only able to do it once. (I still think that his masterpiece is Spirited Away, but its logic is more visible, a riot of invention and incident that provides a counterpoint to Totoro‘s sublime serenity.) If other films entice you with their surfaces, Totoro is an invitation to come out and play. And its spell lingers long after you’ve put away the movie itself.

Written by nevalalee

April 24, 2015 at 9:06 am

6 Responses

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  1. One of my favorite details in TOTORO is kind of a strange one — it’s the ground, the grass and the dirt. It’s not perfect. It’s patchy, alternately scraggly and dense, and looks like it’s actually been tread upon by humans and animals. I can practically smell it and feel the heat emanating from it when I see it, if that makes sense.

    Kent M. Beeson

    April 24, 2015 at 2:03 pm

  2. The world is wonderfully lived-in, isn’t it? My favorite detail is that when you see Kanta’s house, you can tell that the panels on some of the paper screens have been repaired with tape.


    April 25, 2015 at 6:10 am

  3. Miyazaki is timeless. I missed out watching the movies as a child, but I’ve been catching up. I’ve seen most of them at least twice now. I remember watching Totoro with my brother for the first time. Every time I come home from school now we have to watch Totoro and The Cat Returns together. Every time. Something about the beauty of the animation and the varying layers of themes in the stories keeps you coming back. I get something new out of Spirited Away every time I watch it. Howl’s Moving Castle will always have a special place in my heart though because I relate to Sophie one many different levels. This Thursday, I’m making a trip to the Ghibli Museum in Tokyo while my school is on break for Golden Week. Perhaps I’m living out a missed part of my childhood, but Miyazaki made these films with many different audiences in mind.


    April 26, 2015 at 8:00 pm

  4. @Kat: I envy your trip to the Ghibli Museum! The more I think about Spirited Away, the more I think it might be the greatest animated film of all time. And I haven’t seen The Cat Returns, although it’s on my list. (I have a lot of catching up to do: I haven’t seen Arietty or The Wind Rises, either.)


    April 29, 2015 at 9:49 pm

  5. It was a magical trip. The ward of Tokyo it’s in (Mitaka) is pretty magical itself, as if Miyazaki himself created it. I highly recommend the trip for anyone who is presented with the opportunity.


    May 4, 2015 at 8:35 pm

  6. Glad to hear you enjoyed it! I hope to take my daughter there one day.


    May 12, 2015 at 3:39 pm

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