My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

My Neighbor Totoro (1988) movie poster

directed by Hayao Miyazaki
viewed: 09/08/2012 at the Bridge Theater, SF, CA

The opportunity to see Hayao Miyazaki’s wonderful My Neighbor Totoro on the big screen, that was what this was all about.  The Bridge Theater in San Francisco was (and still is through this week) running a series of Studio Ghibli films, and schedules permitted only Saturday for us, and luckily Totoro was the film of the day.  It showed in both the English dub and alternately in original Japanese with subtitles.  Our timing had the dubbed version showing.

If you’ve never seen, My Neighbor Totoro, you should.  It’s a beautiful, low-key, wonder of a film, one of Miyazaki’s signature creations.  I would even posit that the image of Totoro, standing in the rain at the bus stop next to the young girl Satsuki, with the leaf on his head, accepting her umbrella, is as classic and iconic a moment as Gene Kelley, “Singin’ in the Rain” in Stanley Donen’s thus named film.  There is a magic to the film, plain and simple, a transcendent beauty as inspired and powerful as any in cinema.

It’s a film that I’ve seen many times, in whole and in parts, and Clara has seen it many times as well.  Though never on the big screen.  The crowd in the theater were largely families with young ones, obviously those “in the know” because as much as I read and follow up on what’s happening locally in the cinema, this event came a bit out of nowhere, with little promotion or notability.

Totoro is a simple story, about two young girls who move to the Japanese countryside with their father while their mother convalesces at a nearby hospital from an unnamed illness. What they find in the country is nature itself, the people who work the land, and the spirits of traditional Japanese belief still living within the world in all corners.  They first encounter dust mite spirits, and then eventually are led down (or up) a rabbit hole of sorts to the King Totoro, the spirit of a massive camphor tree at the top of a tall hill nearby.  These spirits befriend the girls, giving literal flight to their dreams, encouraging them to plant more trees, and helping Satsuki find Mei when she gets lost.  It’s a spiritual encounter with nature and tradition, a grounding to culture and the natural world that embodies ethics and kindness as well.

It’s such a quiet and simple film that when I first saw it, I certainly considered that it might be slow or quiet for some.  Watching it again this time, the themes of spiritual embodiment, along with ecology, magic and traditional Japanese culture, things all deeply embedded in his later film Spirited Away (2001) are all deeply imparted here as well.  There is a great beauty beyond the charm here.  It could be critiqued for its yearning to a simpler, more pastoral time (the story is set in an indeterminate past, sometime in the 20th century), which is perhaps more wistful.  But there is magic to it.  There is a transcendence within this little story, these brief moments of fantasy and the beyond.  Most lovely.

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