My Neighbor Totoro: Perspectives on Magic

Hayao Miyazaki excels at depicting children, never so much as in My Neighbor Totoro. They are sweet and playful, with hammy thighs and pudgy grins. They’re always tripping and smiling and cackling at icky things. Even the bullies let you borrow their umbrella if it’s raining (though don’t expect them to be happy about it). But this is all somewhat easy, especially for a parent, who can easily picture their dumplings having a good time in the backyard world made especially for them. What is not so easy – and why Miyazaki’s brood is special – is depicting the other parts of childhood, which parents hope do not exist as children hope of evil spirits that disappear so long as you don’t look.

This is the fear of a world over which you have no control, which four feet from the ground seems as likely influenced by science as by spirits, by medicine as by magic acorns. The climax of Totoro doesn’t involve the Volvo-sized hamster of the title, nor does it directly impact a sick mother who can only be cured by magic – it involves only a five-year-old girl who is lost and scared because she thinks that she can. Like childhood, the film involves a lot of running around and laughing and getting grass stains in exotic places. And it drifts into genuine fear. And magic saves the day.

In Miyazaki’s Japan, this magic seems part of the environment, which permeates all his work. I think it is best used here. As opposed to Princess Mononoke, in which the diatribe of not burning forests to build factories is a heavy thematic burden, Totoro takes a gentler approach. I’ll sum it up this way: according to Miyazaki, we should protect nature’s body so that it can protect our spirit. You can see this in NausicaaSpirited AwayMononoke. But for good reason, only Totoro has become the Ghibli company logo.

This is perhaps because of the way the film treats magic, not that it’s real, but that it doesn’t have to be. Magic is what children believe may come of the world from a little kindness or adventure: a hole in a tree where a great plush Totoro lives beneath a canopy, which disappears when you try to show your dad. Can’t you imagine the American movie parent saying, “Oh, you kids with your imaginations,” or worse and wearier, “Haven’t I told you not to lie?” Instead, Miyazaki’s dad character talks to his girls with reassuring ambiguity (magic requires this contradiction since you will never find proof that it exists but must believe that it does). He tells them that the king of the forest can’t be expected to show up all the time. Just wait until you need him (which of course will be right after you find him). For a direct comparison, watch the English-dubbed Totoro with the subtitles on. The voices, refined in terms of acting, fill every quiet space with “reactions.” The subtitles, which are transcriptions of the Japanese dialogue, will speak much less and say much more.

So the children Satsuki and Mei play with the Totoros at a distance, flying with them on a spinning top powered by breezes and playing the movie’s theme on pan-flutes. Yes, that did happen. Miyazaki has bizarre fun with images without ever compromising their self-assurance. He will never play Totoro for irony; even if he burped, it would be as an animal burps. The forest king is not above slapstick, but he will never let it tarnish his mystique. Notice that he can still be funny, sometimes very slowly. It’s both ethereal and charming when he lumbers in out of the rain and stands by them at the bus stop. They teach him how to use an umbrella and he gets amused by letting raindrops hit his tall ears. Miyazaki has this quietude of funniness, in eyeballs and little bristles. Waving grass can become desolate and sad. As the dubbed American dialogue betrays nature’s solemn revelations, it also deeply betrays Miyazaki. The train of “look at me” reactionary dialogue and “observations” permeates the film when in Miyazaki’s version there is so much more time for being quiet.

Are American children munchier, leaving no scenery unchewed? Are we too fast-moving and progress-obsessed to appreciate lonely roads, well-earned silences, weaves of untended grass? Japan has someone managed to be the most technologically advanced country in the world while retaining its status as one of the most meditative. American children want to be convinced to believe in magic; Satsuki and Mei just want to enjoy it. Or maybe it has little to do with a divide in nations at all, and everything to do with the mind of Miyazaki.

To him, the magic in a situation no more complicated than a child worried for her parent is in nothing but her feeling. The girls receive a telegram from their mother’s hospital doctor – “Call me.” They never find out why, because Mei knows it must be bad. It isn’t, but no child would think differently. Her little knees go clopping down the dirt road, miles to the hospital, clutching the corn she picked that a wise Nanny unwisely suggested would make mom feel so much better. There is very little dialogue for many minutes, in the Japanese version.

This is the climax of a film starring a giant, personable magic hamster. But Totoro has no power to save Mei’s mom. He doesn’t “possess” anything at all, other than a big smile and possibly an acorn-powered gyrocopter. He has no plot devices up his furry sleeves. The Totoro seems more like the children’s impression of the earth – he is a spirit of childhood, which Miyazaki seems to believe is also the spirit of nature. The father tells Mei the truth when he tells her that he can’t see the Totoro, and he is still telling the truth when he tells her he believes in it. He’s saying that he believes in her. He believes in what he used to be able to see too.

Traditional animation is magic as potent as Totoro's, magic we’ve forgotten that the film can still teach us. To Miyazaki, its power is to show us the point-of-view of children. Those who believe in it may see Mei’s worry as real and more than real. The real trick to understanding the film is not the realization that My Neighbor Totoro does not contain any magic corn but that it does. The mother really is cured by magic, just not the magic of Totoros. Miyazaki takes the Totoro at face value – it's the magic of a child’s belief that works miracles. Mei and Satsuki imagine that their dance makes the plants grow; the audience knows that it doesn't. But when they wake up in the morning, they still believe that it did, even though the real effect is not as dramatic as the fantasy. But magic is not more effective by degree – when you believe in it, it simply is. Children have the same belief in cartoons, which require an artisan’s hands (thank goodness Miyazaki’s are still working). Disney may claim the greater returns, even taking credit for distributing (and dubbing) Studio Ghibli’s films. But Miyazaki and his associates can claim to be the greater virtuosos of wonderment. When his films end, they don't climax to a tidy conclusion. They just stop, at the break of a stanza, like a moment of life.

I tend to doubt that he would ever praise his work as much as this, since humility is one of its founding pillars. Creating anything this great requires the desire for it to be better. It’s possible that even writing a review of his work is too self-exalting to truly reflect it. So get going! Totoro’s waiting.


This article is a re-upload from Film Objective, October 3, 2018

Image is a screenshot from the film: ©Toho/Studio Ghibli

Cast & Crew

Hayao Miyazaki

Hayao Miyazaki


Satsuki KusakabeNoriko Hidaka
Mei KusakabeChika Sakamoto
Tatsuo KusakabeShigesato Itoi
Yasuko KusakabeSumi Shimamoto
TotoroHitoshi Takagi
GrannyTanie Kitabayashi
MichikoChie Kōjiro

86 minutes

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