This is a Showcase I’ve wanted to do for a long, long time, and in a moment you’ll see why. Because I hold an…shall we say unusual opinion when it comes to Totoro. Controversial, even. And I’ve really wrestled with how I can word it best, how I can convey my thoughts on this movie faithfully. Well, I can’t say for sure if I’m going to do myself or Totoro justice but it’s time to finally get this one off my chest.
Life is in the small moments. We all like to think that the big moments in life matter: going to see your favourite band live, scaling a mountain, going to a wedding. And while these kind of milestones are incredible, amazing capsules in our timeline, they don’t really represent our life. If anything, they represent the anomalies of our life, which by and large is mundane, repetitive and riddled with stress and worry.
But at the same time, I’m not saying that life when it is ‘normal’ is bad, no more than it is good. It is simply is. So when we find those precious little moments in everyday life where everything just seems to align and all is right and good in our world, it means just as much, if not more. I’m talking about watching raindrops race down a window pane. Reading a book by candlelight because of a rolling blackout. Reading a book with your pet cat curled up and purring in your lap. Cracking open a cold beer after a long and productive day. We treasure those moments just as much as our milestones, not because they’re as special – of course they’re not – but because they’re real, they happen within the fabric of everyday life, and it reminds us that yes, life can be good.
And this is why I ADORE My Neighbour Totoro. Because watching it feels like a reel show of these little moments. I don’t watch My Neighbour Totoro for the story because, in my opinion, the story is weak.
Hey, don’t look at me like that. Other critics out there have pointed out the lack of threat, conflict or plot twists in Totoro. I’d go even further and say that it also sidesteps other story staples such as a protagonist, clearly outlined character motivations, and end-goal, or heck, even a proper plot. Okay, that last one may seem like a bit of a push, but for the duration of Totoro, were are introduced to the family when they move in to their new house and we end it on a hospital visit – to see a mother who has been in hospital for the whole duration of the movie anyway. From beginning to end life just seems to…happen, rather than a prescribed plot. Now, I’m not being harsh here, I’m simply pointing things out. Put it this way: it is possible to encapsulate nearly any other story out there in two sentences. Only the most complex of tomes out there would require three. Seriously, pluck a couple of movies or books out of the air right now and try it out. Now, summarize Totoro in two sentences. It’s impossible, because you cannot reconcile the three points of the sick mother, the girls settling into their new home, and the big guy Totoro himself because they run so separate from one another. Only in the last act of the movie, when Mei goes missing, does something resembling a traditional, conflict-driven plot come into play.
But none of that matters. Seriously, if anything a story would ruin what makes Totoro so great. Because My Neighbour Totoro’s strength is not in seizing the viewer’s attention with a high-stakes plot device, gripping characters and tension you could cut with a breadknife. No, it’s strength is in presenting those small moments in life. That lack of threat and conflict is what allows Totoro to present a slice of life, free of the kind of narrative devices you’d see in…well, a fantastical movie. In that way, my neighbour Totoro may be one of the most realistic portrayals of life every committed to t silver screen. And yes, I know that’s a strange thing to say of a movie about woodland spirits and a cat that doubles up as a bus. But it is more real in that there are so many more of those precious, quiet moments that make life valuable in this movie. It’s packed with them. Off the top of my head there’s the moment where Mei is simply sitting and staring at the bush where the mini-Totoro disappeared into, and for a good few seconds or so all is still save for a passing butterfly. Or how about when the father appears to hear Totoro at night, and for a little moment he just closes his eyes, smiles and listens? Or the satisfying sense of progress they make on cleaning the house? Or, most famously perhaps, those long, silent pauses while Satsuki and Totoro stand in the rain? This movie is packed with them, and it takes a brave movie studio to even allow one of these kind of moments at the risk of losing their audience who they believe have the attention spans of a fingernail. And yet every one of these moments are sweet, delightful moments of the movie that I can savour just as much as my own precious moments in life.
And that is where the true value of Totoro lies. It doesn’t tell a story: it doesn’t have to. It is an ambient movie, one that you can simply let wash over you like a warm bath. It is all about the feeling, the atmosphere, the mood it creates. Moreover, Totoro is one of a kind. Sure there are relaxing movies out there, but can you think of any other movie out there that substitutes so much traditional storytelling for simply building a feel? Only other Ghibli movies come close.
My Neighbour Totoro is one of my favourite movies, and although it wouldn’t qualify for any list of great storytelling, that is exactly why it is so wonderful. It is a masterclass of what the medium can do, of how an atmosphere and tone can be honed to perfection, and how a movie, like life, doesn’t need to be packed with milestones and high points to be validated. It can simply…be.