1988 | Hayao Miyazaki | 83 mins | TV | U / G
Once, a few years ago, SFX published an anime special (it was their first, I think) with a rundown of the Best Ever Anime Films. You’d expect it to be topped by something regularly cited and, considering the source magazine, science-fiction/fantasy-y — Akira, probably; or perhaps Ghost in the Shell; or maybe Oscar-winner Spirited Away. But it was actually My Neighbour Totoro that rose victorious on that occasion, an unexpected choice you could tell the magazine felt the need to justify even in the article accompanying the list. But they weren’t wrong — this is a deserving champion.
Totoro tells a charming story, where very little of significance seems to happen, yet is never dull or overly stately. It works to build a lot of character and affection for them, so that by the climax, when something definitely does happen, all the work that’s gone into the characters really pays off. It doesn’t whack you round the head with its impressiveness, in the way those other films I mentioned might, but instead sneaks up on you with the realisation that it’s a beautiful work.
The fantasy element is quite light, perhaps surprisingly considering the titular character is a giant teddy-bear-like creature. There are sequences of pure fancy, but it doesn’t saturate the film; it’s as much a gentle drama about two young girls in a new home waiting for their mother. It’s a little like Pan’s Labyrinth in this respect (or, rather, Pan’s Labyrinth is a little like this). It’s not scary in the slightest (well, maybe in the slightest, for some kids, but note the U and G ratings), but in terms of how it balances real-life dramas with the fantasy element. Only in both the real and fantasy worlds it’s a lot nicer, friendlier and cheerier than del Toro’s acclaimed fantasy-horror. To put it more succinctly, they share a similar structure and balance, but a completely different tone.
The story and characters are supported by the huge talents at Ghibli. It’s exquisitely animated, from the detailed painted backgrounds, to the well-observed character animation, down to little touches like flies around a nighttime light — things that have no need to be there but bring the frame alive. Jô Hisaishi’s music is equally beautiful. The music regularly plays more than its usual role in storytelling too, accompanying otherwise silent (bar sound effects) scenes perfectly. “Accompanying” is the wrong word — it’s not just accompaniment; it’s integral to the mood and the action. Normally such use of music is heavy-handed — “feel sad NOW”, “feel scared NOW” — but Hisaishi’s work is never that crass. It’s not omnipresent either, just appropriate; and it’s always adding something, without it necessarily being obvious what that something is.
The English-friendly version has advantages too: I love any subtitles which use semicolons. It’s not inundated with them, but there was at least one. Semicolons are so underused. I love a good semicolon.
My Neighbour Totoro is a very nice film — and not in a mediocre way. That’s not to say there’s no drama — see the climax — but there’s no enforced peril, no nasty characters. They’re not needed. It’s quite refreshing. Is it the best anime film ever? I’m not qualified to say. But it must be a contender.
My Neighbour Totoro placed 7th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2011, which can be read in full here.