BY THOMAS WOOD
In an increasingly bleak society, many praise the value of a comfort movie. While the qualifications for a comfort movie seem loose (anywhere from cheesy comedies to classic dramas), one thing is for sure: they make the viewer feel happy. Whether through childhood memories or the occasional laugh, a comfort movie is a movie you can rely on to raise you out of a rut. I can think of no better movie to play this role than Studio Ghibli’s animated film My Neighbor Totoro.
The movie stars sisters Satsuki and Mei, who are initially moving to rural Japan. When the sisters and their father first reach the house, it’s in disrepair: the girls call it haunted. Haunted as it may be, the sisters explore the house. Even in the face of perceived adversity, both girls keep a brave face, which is something I admire about this movie. All the events are portrayed through the lens of some particularly imaginative little girls, which contributes to a childlike whimsy. Even when it’s revealed that the two’s mother is sick, the two sisters seem either oblivious or optimistic, while the viewer’s first thought may be asking if the sickness is terminal. However, the viewer doesn’t miss out on realistic viewpoints: older sister Satsuki helps give a sense of reality to toddler Mei every once and a while.
Eventually, when Satsuki is sent off to school, Mei stumbles upon two small creatures. These guys are only later dubbed “small Totoro” and “Tiny totoro,” via their decreasing size. They lead Mei through a tunnel in the forest, where she stumbles into a small cave underground. Within this cave sleeps huge Totoro, or just regular Totoro. It was at this point in the movie where I fell in love with the animation. Of course the visuals and art style are gorgeous; it’s one of the things you hear praised the most about this movie. However, I think the way in which the characters are animated helps usher a breath of life into the film. The way Totoro’s whiskers twitch when Mei tickles him immediately shows you that Totoro isn’t a threat, even when he roars. Even the way the characters move helps give a sense of their personality. The sisters are often portrayed moving around extremely fast, which shows the energy they have as kids. The father is usually seen with more gentle animations. All in all, the animation in this movie is the cherry on top.
Following some more brief exchanges with Totoro, it’s revealed that the girls’ mother has to extend her stay in the hospital due to her worsening condition. This information is given to the sisters in the form of a vague note. This worsening condition also postponed a planned visit between the girls and their mother, which Mei in particular takes quite hard. Mei argues that they should visit their mother regardless of worsened condition, while Satsuki argues that they should respect the hospital’s wishes and stay home for now. This later prompts Mei to run away with a husk of corn for her mother.
This situation is the most genuinely important scenario in the movie. Since the viewer has been given an hour to grow accustomed to the family’s cute life by the farms, the idea that said life may be ruptured shakes the viewer to their core. The entire village sets out a search for Mei. We learn that the trek to the hospital would take a grown man three hours to complete, let alone a four year old toddler. What follows is a horrifyingly dark turn for the movie: a little girl’s flip flop is found in a nearby lake. We’re led to believe that Mei either jumped or fell into the lake, and never resurfaced. However, all is resolved when Satsuki arrives and confirms that the flip flop does not belong to Mei. Still following the search, Satsuki has an idea. She crouches into the forest passage Mei once traveled and jumps into Totoro’s cave.
Totoro is able to help Satsuki locate Mei using his magic cat bus, and the two sisters reunite. Although we’ve only been introduced to this family for a bit, the dynamic they share makes this scene feel uplifting and complete. It’s clear these characters knew and cared for each other before the events of the story, which provides a nice bit of worldbuilding for the audience. This is a satisfying end to the movie.
A satisfying end made even more sweet by the audience learning that the girls’ mother is not terminally ill. The message sent to the girls about a “worsening condition” was simply an overreaction: she caught a cold. Although the mother’s return would be postponed, the family would be reunited and happy again soon enough.
Overall, this movie acts as the perfect comfort movie. It has cute creatures and environments that are given even more personality by the art style and animation technique. The movie comes to a satisfying ending, and although the resolution is mostly left to the audience’s imagination, it’s hard to imagine this family ends up being anything but happy. My Neighbor Totoro is a truly heartwarming movie. Despite the fact that the movie is pretty old, nothing really shows it. At the end of the day, My Neighbor Totoro is, simply put, an awesome film.