Despite all the division that the year 2020 has brought us, one thing we all have in common is we all yearn for a form of escapism.
That feeling of “I need a break” has been in our fiber from the beginning (after all, God did rest on the 7th day), yet we can sometimes forget the feeling happens for children as well. They will turn to books, imaginary friends, toys, or movies (guilty as charged to this day). It is told so truthfully in My Neighbor Totoro, easily a film I love to retreat to in times of anxiety and unrest.
From the wonder minds of Studio Ghibli (who most would agree is second only to Disney when it comes to animated films), the film is a simple story of a father and his two daughters moving to a new home as the mother is slowly recovering from a sickness in the hospital. The eldest daughter Satsuki (about the age of 10) spends time interacting with her very energetic 4-year-old sister Mei (in the 2005 English version distributed by Disney, they are played by real life sisters Dakota and Elle Fanning). Their mini adventures eventually lead to the discovery of the spirits in the nearby forest, most notably the gigantic Totoro (who would go on to be in the label of Studio Ghibli).
If you have heard of the studio or of this film’s director (the truly legendary Hayao Miyazaki), you know this film will be one of the most stunning visual films you will see. This is mainly because Miyazaki (who also wrote the script) and those behind the scenes went through countless hours of animation by hand with painstakingly great detail. Like the other film’s in Ghibli’s repertoire (most notably the Magnum Opus that is Spirited Away), you can pause any frame in the film and spend time just absorbing it in.
From a storytelling perspective, it is also crucial that the movie is seen, for the most part, through the eyes of the two girls. This lets us dive even deeper into the psyche of what it means to be children again. For Satsuki, we see a girl who is desperately trying to act like a grown up while still enjoying the freedoms of childhood. For Mei, we see a sister trying to copy everything her older sister does (as any younger sibling would do) while trying to act tough to the point of (almost) never showing tears.
It should also be mentioned we get some moments with the character Kanta, the neighborhood boy who is clearly shy and insecure around Satsuki, most notably when rain comes and he is unsure if he should share his umbrella or not.
Parents, though the movie is indeed rated G, there is one scene worth mentioning that could come as a minor shock. Toward the beginning, the father is taking a bath with both girls, and there is minor nudity (nothing too graphic or anything). Though I am no expert of Japanese customs, I have heard this is fairly normal for families in Japan. The film in general is still fine for anyone of all ages.
The titular character is indeed one that I feel we all would love to have as a neighbor. I am not just talking about the magic (which includes a set of lungs that supply roars loud enough to frighten a yeti), but the sense of security found in him. I am reminded of how the bible tells us to be like little children, and one of the most moving scenes in the film is when Satsuki begs for permission to see Totoro to help her with a family crisis. She is clearly fearful, shedding tear after tear. Then the massive spirit gives an enormous smile. I imagine that is how God feels when we run to him for help.
Years ago, while I was helping teach the 3rd-4th graders in my church, I mentioned to them how great it will be when we get to be with God in heaven, forever. At that moment, a girl named Hannah (one of the more sprightly and bouncy kids I have ever met) chimed in:
“Yay! I can climb on him!”