It’s impossible to be unbiased about your favourite things. Anything you love has a way of completely blunting objectivity, smoothing over even the most obvious of flaws and rendering you incapable of accurately describing what it is you find so fascinating and enchanting in a way that everyone else gets it. My Neighbor Totoro is my favourite film. Every time I have ever seen it, I have had a dumb smile on my face the entire way through. I avoid using empty descriptions like “captivating” and “magical” to describe films, but those are the words I want to use here, because this film is just as captivating and magical with each viewing. I don’t know if I’ll be able to convey why I feel this way, but I hope I that I can get across the way I feel, and that you know it’s not from a completely logical place.
Satsuki (Noriko Hidaka) and her little sister Mei (Chika Sakamoto) move out to rural Japan to live closer to the hospital their mother is staying in while recovering from an unspecified illness. There they encounter a range of spirit beings, chief among them the titular Totoro, the soul/guardian of a giant tree. There’s no antagonist of any kind, conflict is kept to a bare minimum, and anything mildly frightening or suspenseful is quickly dispelled, yet no scene ever feels wasted or biding for time. Hayao Miyazaki is a learned observer of children’s behaviour, not just the way they act but they way they think, and here is where he’s most accurate in portraying his child characters, replicating with flawless precision completely mundane everyday actions like playing in the garden or rushing to school and making them entertaining to watch. It’s just as fun to watch as what must be mundane activities for the local spirits (like waiting to catch a bus) – and they are mundane activities, really, since the rest of the adult universe just sort of accepts children can see these fantastical things, and even Mei and Satsuki take it as a matter of course that things like totoros exist. That’s a big part of being a child, the possibility that anything is possible, and this film taps into it in a very honest, unselfconcious way. If things we remember from our childhood remind us of experiencing these things as children, then My Neighbor Totoro is a reminder of a time where life was nothing but these experiences.