Take a Drink: whenever the kids’ mother is mentioned, but not seen.
Take a Drink: for each landscape shot of natural beauty which in no way advances the plot.
Take a Drink: when something that normally does not have eyeballs has them.
Do a Shot: for unusual umbrellas!
Finish Your Drink: when the bus finally arrives.
By: Sarah Shachat (A Toast) –
Whatever crazy story you have about moving to a new place, it isn’t as good as My Neighbor Totoro. One of Hayao Miyazaki’s most iconic films is also one of his sweetest and most open-hearted. The magic of a forest reveals itself to a family who recognizes its power, and who deserve a little magic in their lives. There’s the same subtle ecological undertones woven in here as are found in other Miyazaki films. But they aren’t confrontational – and there isn’t much confrontation. If you want Man vs. Nature, or Kids work with Nature to stop Stupid Men, well, there are plenty of animated and live-action films along those lines. But Totoro is sort of in a category all its own.
A lot happens and not much at all, because Miyazaki imbues the action with a slower, natural rhythm of time passing and life moving, no matter what giant fuzzball lets you fly with him through the clouds. Two sisters, along with their dad, move to an unfamiliar rural farmhouse. They meet the little Totoros, basically sentient dust bunnies, who cause a merry kind of chaos. But not much else. Their mom is sick, but that’s never directly related to the backyard shenanigans. No mad Norwegian lumberjack or comically short business tycoon is threatening the integrity of the forest, although everyone is aware it needs to be preserved. Totoro behaves the way a real lazy summer would play out for a couple kids new to the neighborhood – just with, you know, wood spirits.
Probably the most challenging thing about My Neighbor Totoro is its best feature. The film has an incidental structure, and comparatively low stakes. The story requires neither pluck nor the magic power of belief. Our heroines Satsuki and Mei aren’t special enhanced vampire chosen ones; they’re playful, reasonably happy kids. Their Granny alludes to little sprites, and then they actually find the Totoros inside their new house – and then slightly bigger Totoros, and then Big Totoro, who may or may not be in charge of the forest but is certainly in charge of fun. Shenanigans ensue. The Studio Ghibli style of big, earnest anime eyes and expressively beautiful backgrounds are never better suited to a setting than they are here. The action can swing wildly between contemplative sweetness, nervous anxiety, and Catbus. No adjective needed. There is a Catbus. That’s a part of what happens.
Totoro‘s the sort of movie you have that weird dual sensation of watching and appreciating what you’re watching while you’re watching it. Everything is just so nice, from the fact that in the English dub our heroines are voiced by the two Fanning sisters to that the motion of a character falling, looking glass style, into a hidden forest lair only enhances the beauty of the setting. Early on, there’s a particularly arresting shot of a bottle lying discarded in a blue stream. There’s no significance to it, just an image as aesthetically refreshing as mountain water. It’s ready to be appreciated if you choose, if you’re the kind of person who can unplug yourself from the demands of causality in a film, and experience it very much in the moment.
That is what sustains My Neighbor Totoro: a moment to moment sense of possibility – whether it’s invested in wonderful sight gags, a mischievous sense of adventure and unbounded play, or gorgeous, painterly light. It can be anything, arising out of thin air and yet never quite unexpected. Which isn’t to say it lacks a throughline or doesn’t progress the characters or end in a satisfying way. But it runs on Totoro logic, the strength of the animation and the score working in concert to continually delight the viewer. Watch it with kids, if you can. A drinking game is fine for this flick, but what really makes it better is laughter.
My Neighbor Totoro is proudly what it is – a little lyrical, very sweet, and wonderfully inventive yarn. You wish you had thought of a Catbus for your childhood. Fortunately, Miyazaki has shared his.