Last weekend I went to see My Neighbor Totoro with my children. The animated film, which released in 1988, was part of a festival honoring the work of legendary Japanese animator, Hayao Miyazaki, whose films also include cult animated classics Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. The film centers around Totoro, a giant furry creature who speaks his name in a massive roar, and the two girls who discover him — Satsuki, an 11-year old with short bobbed hair, and her precocious, pig-tailed 4-year old sister, Mei. While many families came to see the Studio Ghibli film, half of the people in the audience were bros, 20-something men sporting various styles of facial hair and untucked shirts. This included the four dudes next to me who downed popcorn and laughed gleefully as the eponymous giant furry creature and the girls romped through the forest.
Were they high? Maybe. But they were there enjoying this film their particular way. And that very fact illustrates that Totoro has an impact on viewers, no matter how old they become. The movie captures something all of us have lost and keep wanting back: Childhood before we forgot about it, when we slept with stuffed animals without feeling self-conscious. It’s a tender, beautifully rendered film. And your kids should see it before it’s too late.
My Neighbor Totoro is about Mei and Satsuki meeting and befriending Totoro after they move out to a house in the Japanese countryside. The film never talks down to children, never treats them as if they are not emotionally intelligent. Instead, it frames the hopes and fears of childhood in a way that is authentic. The girl’s’ mother is sick in the hospital, which provides the central tension of the movie, and the way Satsuki and Mei deal with that family crisis plays true to the complex emotions children feel. Mei, for instance, picks an ear of corn for her mother to eat to get strong and well again and holds onto it as if it truly did have that power.
Totoro is what Barney is supposed to be. A huggable monster, a protector with a sweet innocent heart. But there are no sappy songs and sickly sweet down talking. Totoro is certainly capable of kicking some serious ass. He’s a creature of the wild forest, not exactly dangerous but not tame either. The viewer isn’t sure what he is, exactly. But he is what every small kid wants when faced with the world of adult problems: a protector.
The movie also speaks to those social issues kids know deep down. It is an environmental movie (Totoro is the protector of the forest and his power stems from a massive old tree at the heart of it) and also a feminist one: The main characters are brave females and the movie never once makes that feel anything other than ordinary.
None of this happens in a way that is didactic or feels force-fed. And despite the fact that the plot is fairly tame and the animation is minimalist compared to the latest Pixar flick, it never feels unappealing to children. It’s Miyazaki’s details that count: a drop of rain falls from a leaf that Totoro is using to cover his head in a storm, and makes his nose scrunch and eye blink. The wind caresses the fields and big, puffy clouds hang in the sky while the characters bike down dirt roads. The moon sheds soft light on trees. It doesn’t bludgeon the senses; rather it appeals to them. It’s slow, languid. And that is something we all need in a world where we can’t stay on top of social media updates and constantly managing our kids’ schedules. Time in this movie is slow and such pacing is necessary in our world today.
My kids, a 13-year-old girl and 10-year-old boy, watch the movie over and over again. It has become a touchstone. And even though I am 48, I can do the same. Totoro touches me in a deeper way, too: Some of my earliest memories were of my own mother sick in the hospital and me playing outside with the comfort of trees and growing wild things.
But the biggest reason why My Neighbor Totoro is so important to kids, the reason they need to see it before they grow too old and jaded by the demands of young adulthood that tell them to reject everything childish, is that it’s about feeling safe. It’s as simple and as complicated as that. And once your kids see the movie, Totoro will always be there, sitting on the top of a tree branch in the back of their minds. Even the bros know that. Even the bros need that.