Friday, 31 August 2007

classic image: my neighbour totoro (hayao miyazaki, 1988)

Two young sisters, Satsuki and Mei, move with their father to a new home in the countryside, at the edge of a great forest. Their mother is ill and is being treated at a nearby hospital. As the family settle into their new home, the girls explore the fields and the ancient forests that surround their new home. They meet strange, benevolent creatures that could be forest spirits or figments of their imagination.

That, in a nutshell, is the entire plot of My Neighbour Totoro, a masterpiece from a filmmaker who, with only one or two exceptions, has made nothing but masterpieces. I have no hesitation in placing Hayao Miyazaki among the very highest pantheon of artists working in the cinematic medium, and, though Totoro is not my favourite of his films, it brilliantly demonstrates the unique magic that animates his images.

I cannot think of any film that captures the feeling of being a child quite as accurately as Totoro does. Not any real, recognizable childhood, but the feeling of it - the endless wonder at the smallest thing, the joy in exploring one's surroundings, the moments of very real fear or sadness, the all-absorbing laughter, the escape into wonderful imaginings. This is an apotheosized, idealised childhood - Roger Ebert remarks that it is "a children's film made for the world we should live in, rather than the one we occupy
". And it is true that the world in which Totoro takes place is an astonishingly benign one, even by children's movie standards - there are no villains of any sort, no conflict between children and adults, hardly any dangerous situations. Their mother's illness is the only cloud hanging over the girls' rural idyll.

And yet, in many other ways, Totoro feels entirely, resoundingly real. It's in the little details: there is never any moment when the behaviour of the girls is anything less than entirely convincing, in every expression, movement, action, reaction or word. Paradoxically, it is difficult to imagine a child (especially a child the age of Mei, the younger sister) ever being this convincingly real in a live-action film, played by an actor.

The other dominant element in the film, and in all of Miyazaki, is the surrounding natural landscape. At the core of just about every Miyazaki film, even the action-packed epics Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984) and Princess Mononoke (1997), is a calm, meditative, hypnotic stillness. Nature is treated reverently in his films, and it appears as something ancient, sacred and beautiful; perhaps one of the greatest praises that can be given to his work is that it sidesteps glib New Age-isms and succeeds in presenting an image of nature that is humbling, gorgeous, spiritual and profound.

Seen through the eyes of the young girls, the natural world around their new house is more than just beautiful - it is enchanting, something they can lose themselves in, feel a part of. As for the creatures themselves, from the gigantic but entirely adorable Totoro (possibly one of the most amusingly, irresistibly cute critters to ever inhabit a screen) to the astonishingly surreal Cat Bus - it is never made clear whether or not they exist outside the girls' imagination, or even if the adults they relate their stories to believe them to be. Either way, they make the world around the protagonists all the more weird and wonderful, all the more mysterious, fascinating and endearing, and create some of the film's most memorable moments.

My Neighbour Totoro, then, is a strange film, one without any form of danger, conflict, or traditional narrative drive, but that nonetheless manages to be completely entrancing and captivating. It is a gentle, unassuming and tranquil film that manages to make the world seem as limitless and full of possibilities, and the day as long and eventful, as it was when you were a child; that perfectly captures the childhood delight of exploration, and the feelings of wonder and awe (tinged with pangs of sadness) that colour childhood days. I cannot offer any praise higher than that.

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