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Super Furry Animal: Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro (1988) – Blu-ray review

November 7, 2012 by Simon Kinnear in At Home, Retro with 0 Comments

Probably the cutest film you’ll ever see, but deservedly so. Miyazaki’s hymn to innocence is all the more powerful because experience is knocking hard.

Hayao Miyazaki's My Neighbour Totoro

My Neighbour Totoro
(Hayao Miyazaki, Jap, 1988)

The first thing any aspiring writer learns is that drama is created through conflict. The second thing they learn is how easy that is to achieve: simply give your hero an insane, cackling villain hell-bent on domination, and you have a story. Kids’ cartoons are especially prone to that kind of lazy shorthand, simply because those writers assume that kids aren’t capable of comprehending anything more subtle than the yin and yang of good versus evil. It takes a rare sensibility to transcend such crass and condescending treatment and, in My Neighbour Totoro, Hayao Miyagazi has created that rarest of things, a kids’ fantasy that doesn’t need a witch or a Dark Lord of the Sith to achieve real warmth and resonance.

To anybody familiar with Miyazaki’s most famous movie, Spirited Away, this is an obvious dry run, not least because this features the debut of that film’s charming supporting characters, the dust bunnies, or soot sprites (or whatever they’re called in the version you’re watching!). But the more revealing comparison is with a darker fantasy, Pan’s Labyrinth, to which this plays like a U-certificate primer. In both films, young girls move to new homes where they escape into the surrounding woods to escape the worries of their real lives. But where Guillermo Del Toro’s grotesque creatures symbolised the pain and suffering of war, the gentle Totoro here serves as a surrogate for the sisters’ absent mother, recuperating from ilness in a hospital.

On the surface, this is a calm, languid movie, in which little happens: only at the end, when one of the sisters briefly goes missing, does the narrative come close to breaking a sweat, and Totoro doesn’t appear until the film is nearly halfway through. Yet conflict is relative. Miyazaki knows that to a child’s eyes the smallest of events is magnified enormously, and this is a story about childhood innocence in danger of turning into bitter experience. Thus moving house is a see-saw between exhilaration and terror, while the absence of a parent, even if often unspoken, is the most important thing in the world.

Miyazaki shows an expert grip in adjusting the typically epic concerns of fantasy to a more domestic mood. His sense of pace is surprisingly rich, tapping into laidback rural rhythms in which the girls’ tentative exploration of their new home takes on the appearance of an adventure quest. It helps that the director’s painterly eye captures some gorgeous imagery, from golden-red sunsets to a vividly realistic shower of rain.  On Blu-ray, the detail is staggering, all the more so because the sense of realism is so casual; when most animation flaunts its spectacle, this is radical stuff.

More importantly, the film has a genuinely childlike, unpredictable imagination, and Miyazaki has the knack for finding sequences that, no matter how bizarre, are accessible, warm and funny. There are few enough directors who could have devised the bus stop sequence, but it’s doubtful any other could have made it so humorous, ecstatic and emotionally touching, a pitch-perfect piece of physical comedy to rival Charlie Chaplin. And Miyazaki’s own clowns are brilliant creations: Totoro, apparently a clumsy, waddling idiot who thinks a leaf will keep him dry, is revealed to be a thoughtful, joyous and surprisingly graceful creature; while the Catbus is the kind of effortless, awestruck surrealism that confirms Miyazaki as the natural heir to Lewis Carroll.

This is an edited version of a review that originally appeared on Kinnemaniac in 2010. My Neighbour Totoro is released on Blu-ray by Studio Canal on Monday 12th November, as part of the Studio Ghibli Collection.

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