My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

In my teenage years, I practically grew up with Joe Hisaishi’s music including the soundtrack of <My Neighbor Totoro>. I’ve always loved the soundtrack but I was never really interested in watching the movie. I just thought the synopsis sounded too simple and plain; a story of two young girls and their interaction with a supernatural being, Totoro.

I finally watched the movie a few weeks ago with my husband. After the movie, we confessed that both of us got teary quite often during the movie. Come to think of it, it’s such a weird response because the movie doesn’t have any tragic accidents or anything like that. After we came home from the theater, we talked about the movie for a long time. Even now, it still reverberates in my mind.

The beauty of this movie lies in its simplicity which resonates with what it represents, a childhood. The first thing I noticed when the movie started was all the joyful laughter from the two main characters, Satsuki and Mei. They laughed and giggled about almost everything. They even found their new decrepit house funny. It could be very boring to settle in a small rural town but they came up with all sorts of activities which they genuinely enjoyed. As an adult audience, first I was slightly taken aback by the incessant giggles but what can I say, their laughter was highly infectious.

As the story evolves, we understand that there are actually many elements that can threaten this joy and peace. Satsuki and Mei’s mom’s illness, their father coming home late at night and leaving the girls alone, Mei going missing, and so on. As a person who grew up with parents who had full-time jobs, the scene where the girls were waiting for the dad on a rainy night struck a chord in me.

Whenever the girls felt sad and worried in these difficult situations, Totoro appeared before them. He was neither much of a speaking type nor an omnipotent godlike figure. His presence felt more like a friend because he only helped instead of acting like a savior. This is very clear when Totoro appeared before exhausted and extremely worried Satsuki who’s been running all over the place when Mei went missing.

When faced with difficulties, the girls showed that they were more than just pure-joy characters. There were also short scenes that showed their thoughtfulness. Satsuki wrote to her mom at night as if the letters were her journal. It was not only a way to communicate with her mom but also perhaps a means to wish for her recovery and to tell herself to stay hopeful. In one scene, Mei stared at Satsuki bursting into tears after Satsuki heard that mom couldn’t come home because she had a cold. Mei didn’t say anything but I assumed that then Mei might have realized that the grown-up-like Satsuki could also break (especially considering that Satsuki often told Mei to stop crying). And then there’s, of course, Mei getting lost; she wanted to give a corn she harvested to her mom to make her get better. At this point, one cay even say Satsuki and Mei’s laughter in the beginning of the movie is almost beguiling.

But this contrast is why we find this movie extremely moving. Besides, this contrast is a good representation of what childhood is like. How the girls respond to a course of incidents shows that they have sensitive sentimentality which makes them experience things deeply and wholeheartedly. The movie helps us reminisce and taste the memories from our own childhood.

After the movie, I thought about what it means to grow up. We grow up to become less sensitive, a little bit numb, and perhaps more resilient so that whatever our lives throw at us can’t destroy us. It is necessary but I think it probably comes with the loss of genuine laughs that we once owned a bountiful amount of. The fact that we are deeply moved by <My Neighbor Totoro> means that in a way it provides us with a ride, like the wondrous cat bus that Totoro summons, to the time when we were young like Satsuki and Mei where things were simple but we appreciated them much more deeply.

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