Japan has produced many revered films, particularly throughout the post-war era and into the 1960s. Though the formation of Studio Ghibli was not until the mid-1980s, two of the studio’s earliest films, Grave of the Fireflies and My Neighbor Totoro hark back to this period. Though directors and studio co-founders Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki grew up in post-war Japan, their approaches to storytelling are different. Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies is straightforward, whereas Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro has prominent elements of fantasy. Though cinephiles admire both filmmakers’ works, it is perhaps Miyazaki’s family-friendly films that have a broader appeal.
Set in the late 1950s, My Neighbor Totoro follows Satsuki and Mei Kusakabe (voiced in English by Dakota and Elle Fanning). Their father and them move to the Japanese countryside so that they are closer to their mother, who is in the hospital recovering from a long-term illness. Despite this, the family are in high spirits. As Satsuki and Mei begin to settle into their new home and rural living, the girls become acquainted with some unique creatures that reside near them.
Many of Studio Ghibli’s films show the lovely Japanese architecture and culture that western audiences have become familiar with, and My Neighbor Totoro demonstrates this well. The rural landscapes of Satoyama are beautifully hand-drawn, as are all the animated backgrounds, and even the family’s Minka home is excellently detailed. The film’s setting and culture are reminiscent of Yasujirō Ozu‘s work, whose films capture Japanese culture in the post-war era perfectly.
Another part of Studio Ghibli’s and Miyazaki’s success is their refusal to allow any alterations to their work. When Ghibli’s films began to be distributed in America by Disney, the studio wanted to remove scenes from various films, including My Neighbor Totoro. Thankfully Miyazaki insisted upon no cuts. Had this happened, Studio Ghibli’s films would lose some of their culture and charm.
Totoro and other mythical characters promote innocence and imagination in children that adults should actively encourage as Satsuki and Mei’s father do. My Neighbor Totoro shows how this can help children through difficult times. Mei’s fascination and bond with Totoro resemble any child’s relationship with their favourite toy or imaginary friend.
Even though the film was not successful at the box office upon its initial theatrical release in Japan, My Neighbor Totoro in later years has become a hit. It was a year after its release when it aired on Japanese television that audiences fell in love with it. The character Totoro is not only part of Studio Ghibli’s logo but has also made multiple cameo appearances in other Ghibli films (and even appeared in Toy Story 3). Director of five Pixar films, John Lasseter credits Miyazaki as one of the animators who influenced him.
Sadly, the making of Studio Ghibli films has slowed in recent years, mainly due to rising production costs. However, audiences will love and enjoy the films Miyazaki and Takahata have made for years to come, just as they do films from earlier esteemed Japanese auteurs.