My Neighbor Totoro: Magic Perspective

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 concern 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. Some of Ghibli's films play the theme out to the point of a diatribe, warning not to burn down forests to build factories. Totoro takes a gentler approach. Rather than sending two worlds into combat, it draws a gentle connection between our respect for nature's body and the stability of our own spirit ("Trees and people used to be good friends"). You can see this in NausicaaSpirited AwayMononoke. But for good reason, Totoro has become the Ghibli company logo.

In Totoro, magic isn't real but also doesn’t have to be. Magic is what children believe is in the world already because they can't help thinking of it with their special brand of kindness and adventure. It's there when they step in a puddle, or peer into a dark basement, or get dirt in their toes, or see a forest sprite for an instant (one instant!) and chase it all day until they fall asleep in the grass. It's there in that hole in their 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 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 these 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 (he's both their god and pet) 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 is funny but always quietly, in eyeballs and little bristles. His aesthetic looks like a form of reality, but everything has personality. Lines of light can seem to be laughing. Waving grass can become desolately sad. As the dubbed American dialogue betrays nature’s solemn revelations, it can also betray Miyazaki's reserve. Reactionary dialogue full of “observations” permeates the dubbed version (at no fault of the cast), while in Miyazaki’s version there is much more time for being quiet. I don't know if this is a result of a cultural divide (do American producers leave no scenery unchewed?) or simply a testament to Miyazaki's sensibilities. But I know that there's a forest preserved in the Sayama Hills in Japan, dubbed the "Totoro Forest" for its effect on inspiring the film. I think the energy that named that forest and the restraint that kept the movie quiet came from the same place.

To Miyazaki, the magic in a situation is no more complicated than a child worried for her parent. 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, at least 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 gyrosphere. 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 that this film will still be teaching us after we've forgotten it. Miyazaki uses its power to show us the point-of-view of children. Those who believe in it may see Mei’s worry as real rather than naive, real because she believes it. 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 literal magic of Totoros. It's the magic of a child’s belief that works the miracle, the miracle not of curing the mother's illness (no magic can do that), but of something much, much rarer – that they all believe everything will be okay. When the children dance to make their plants grow, the audience knows that they are imagining it. Yet, when they wake up and see the tiny sprouts, much less dramatic than their imagination, they still believe in the magic because that feeling doesn't get better when it gets bigger. If it is, it's everything.

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 praise his work as much as I have here, since humility is one of its most apparent traits. Creating anything this great probably requires the regret that it wasn't more than it is. It’s possible that even writing a review of his work is too self-exalting to truly reflect it; every word of this might be completely beside the point. So get going! Totoro’s waiting (if you still remember how to see him).

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

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

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