If childhood is a time of magic, we only know that from the outside. As kids, we didn't really know that time was magic; it was simply the time we had. We had to grow up to understand the magic, and to see what it truly could be compared to. To that end, the paradox of most every "children's story" is how it's created by an adult, with an adult's memory and an adult's understanding of childhood. Done wrong, and it becomes a paean to an Arcadia that never really existed except in retrospect.
The genius of My Neighbor Totoro — and the best of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli's movies generally — isn't just in how great the film is as a "children's story", but in how most anyone at any age can look into it and see some of themselves reflected in it. Childhood is a magical time in this film, but so are all the other ages. I imagine the reason this is so is because Miyazaki simply wanted to do nothing more than create a story that appealed to both adults and children, and for as many of the same reasons as possible. That alone is difficult enough, and the fact Miyazaki was able to achieve that much more on top of it is remarkable.
It strikes me that most "children's stories" may involve children as part of the plot (and there are a fair number that have no children in them at all), but few of them are about childhood. Totoro is an exception, and a doubly remarkable one in that it manages to be about childhood — something adults will pick up on as they watch — without being any less a story for kids as well.
The story is simple enough on the surface. A college professor has moved with his two daughters to be that much closer to their mother, currently convalescing in a country hospital. The house they move into is a bit of a wreck, but the girls don't complain about the fact that the porch is crumbling or the place is miles from everything. They're thrilled to have a playground, and they can barely stop running through the lawn and turning cartwheels long enough to start tearing through every room in the house itself. Their wholehearted appetite for life puts them as dead opposites to the sullen Chihiro from Spirited Away: where that girl needed an adventure dropped on her head to snap her out of her sulking, these two are ready for most anything that might happen. And like Chihiro, they're drawn from life, as Mei was modeled after Miyazaki's niece at the time.
It's not hard to see how the girls turned out this upbeat and endearing, the more we see of their father and mother. Dad may be sandbagged at his desk by papers and books, but he never turns down the chance to play with them, to guide them through the world around them, or to just plain be there for them. In an early scene, the girls are unnerved when a night wind picks up and sets the already-rickety house to rattling fiercely; they jump into the tub with Dad and cower. He helps them face it all down by lauging good and hard — laughter that's at first a bit forced, but not so much after a full-blown water war erupts in the bathroom.
The first hints of how much is about to happen come when the girls sneak up into the attic and have an encounter with what the old lady caretaker calls "soot sprites" — clouds of little black critters that creep around in empty houses and (in one of the film's funniest moments) come fountaining out of cracks in the walls when prodded. They're not seen as monsters or blights, just things that might happen to be found in such an old house, the way a cricket might turn up in one's basement. (Japan's mythology fairly brims with instances of spirits that assume a sort of neighborly air and bring good fortune in their wake.)
The magic neighbor
By degrees, the mysteries around them begin to deepen. One day Mei spies some curious, pot-bellied creatures with cat-like ears wandering through the grass outside, darting underneath the house and returning with satchels full of collected acorns. (I was reminded distantly of Tove Jansson's Moomins.) Mei can't help but chase them through the forest, where she finds the biggest one of the bunch lying sprawled out in a secluded grove. This is the Totoro of the title, and Mei's first instinct is to sprawl out on his fuzzy belly and curl up for a nap.
In any other movie this would be a proverbial sticking of one's head into the lion's mouth, but Totoro is ... well, the title tells it. He's a neighbor, not a monster. With his mile-wide grin and puckish antics, he becomes a playmate to first Mei and then Satsuki. He (he?) is either an overgrown kid himself — or maybe the cool, if slightly crazy uncle who comes over every so often and shares his card tricks. Depicting him as a kind of kooky buddy is a sentiment that seems to spring directly from the Japanese notion of the spirit world being more a parallel or a companion to this one rather than a dominant.
The way Totoro's playfulness is shown in the film is a big part of the movie's charm. At one point, Satsuki and Mei are stuck in the rain waiting for a bus that brings their father home, Totoro stands there with them. (What's he waiting for?) He has nothing but a leaf for an umbrella, and so the girls offer him an umbrella of their own. When raindrops from a tree branch patter on its surface, he finds he likes the sound — likes it so much, in fact, that he leaps in the air and lands hard enough to rattle the tree and dislodge a whole fusillade of drops. Then we find out what he's waiting for: a cat-like creature that serves as a sort of busline of its own. It's almost spirit-world guerilla theater. Most importantly, Satsuki is flabbergasted — not just by what she's seen, but by the sheer fact that Mei was right all along.
It's important, because the fact that the others don't believe Mei when she gushes about Totoro is evidence to them of how Mei is still too young to be taken seriously. That chafes at Mei to no end; it's clear she doesn't want to be thought of as a "kid". Like many girls (and boys) her age, she has the kind of headstrong, touchy pride that reminded educator John Holt, when surveying the grade-school kids in his classes, of the ancient Greeks. At one point, with her father at work and her mother still in the hospital, she shows up at Satsuki's classroom for the sake of being that much closer to her, and it pains her to admit she still needs to be near her big sister for comfort.
It's through things like this that, I think, the film does a better job of looking at what it is we lose — and gain — when we grow up. It is not the sense of wonder or play that either Mei or Satsuki have to shuck off — in fact, those are the very things that put them in good company with Totoro. Without them, I don't think Satsuki would have ever gone to Totoro for help at the film's climax when (spoiler!) Mei goes missing. It's not that they need to stop being kids; it's that they need to not let those things stop them from also being grownups — from facing life's adversities, from rising to the occasion no matter what it is, from either offering an umbrella to a stranger or accepting one from someone you might not think much of. At the climax of the film, it's both Mei and Satsuki that have some growing up to do, but not because they have outgrown childish things.
For and about all ages
Watching Totoro made me realize all the more how little in common it has with animated films produced mainly for younger audiences in the West today. It has none of the smarmy, self-referential humor, the compulsive crudeness (let's face it — by the time you're ten, fart jokes just aren't funny anymore), but most of all it doesn't have the obligatory frenetic pacing. That last seems a by-product of assuming kids will get bored if they have to sit still and watch anything that doesn't have something going blamm every ten seconds — and that any parents watching with them will be equally dozy otherwise.
One of Miyazaki's constant themes is man and nature, in harmony and in conflict, and Totoro plays like an embodiment of his comments that kids need to grow up surrounded by nature and not merely technology. The forest for Mei and Satsuki is a playground, complete with playmates of all kinds, and it would border on being naïve if it weren't for how Miyazaki also gives a nod here and there towards how the natural world is often indifferent to us. But if we befriend it, the film seems to be saying, and we keep open the eyes we all had as children, we'll have no end of playmates for life.
For me this theme comes through most in a wonderful scene — wonderful in the best sense of the word: full of wonder — where the girls creep out of the house at night and join Totoro in a kind of ritual to make the garden outside sprout. It not only sprouts but turns into a veritable volcano of green that turns into a tree. When the girls wake up the next morning, the tree is gone — but the sprouts remain. We may not be able to take the whole of the dream back with us into the waking world, but we can bring enough of it back to make all the difference that matters.
We do lose something when we grow up, but that doesn't mean we lose it forever. We also gain other things that we could never have seen as children. And while we can't stay children forever, we shouldn't want to. Likewise, we can't can't live in Arcadia, but we can certainly visit — which means when we come back we'll have all the more to share about what we've seen.