There’s a funny old creature who lives in the woods, a little bit scary at first sight (it’s huge) but fundamentally a kind-hearted, furry lump. I say creature, but spirit may a better description, because everywhere a green shoot pokes its head through the topsoil, or the wind eddies a cluster of dry leaves, there’s a Totoro or one of its ilk to be found. And unless you’re, say, 12 or under, you’ll never see one. Yes, that kind of a fabulous beast.
The sisters in My Neighbour Totoro are around 4 and 9, and through a series of spooky, delightful encounters they come to know Totoro and his/her/their co-denizens of the trees soon after arriving from town to live in a rickety wooden house amid paddy fields in a traditional rural community.
The backdrop is Japan some time before the age of mobile phones, the Intranet and ultra-materialism, but post-WW2 and well into a time of peace, commuter trains, and electric fans. The girls’ ma is in hospital convalescing after (probably) TB, and their dad is something at the university. He’s bookish, playful and a bit scatter brained, and has shaped a space for the children to flourish as generous, brave, independent little souls. Something of a model of good dadness for me when I first saw the film and had just entered on a phase of single stewardship of my own two kids. It was one of those DVDs we all seemed to take equal pleasure in, and we must have watched it together a dozen or more times during the next few years.
When little sister breathlessly tells dad about meeting Totoro for the first time, he listens earnestly then takes the girls to pay a greeting to the spirits in the form of a giant camphor tree in the woods. “It’s been around since long ago, back in the time when trees and people used to be friends and protect one another,” he says. They link hands and bow their respect.
The story meanders on. In the rickety old house and its surroundings, the girls are immersed in the adventure of living and growing, drawn simultaneously into the concerns of their human community and the appeals of the natural world – a world as benignly curious about them as they are about it. When jeopardy approaches, there comes magical intercession from Totoro and the ‘Catbus’. The keynote throughout is a sort of easygoing accord among fellow beings, and whatever it is it seems to permeate nature. It makes living things grow and flourish, makes life fun, makes everything ultimately worthwhile, even amid the possibilities for doubt and sadness. Interdependence might be a technical way of putting it, but another word that comes to mind is simple friendliness, with all the mutuality that implies.
We’ll be bingeing on films at home during the next few days, courtesy of Netflix, terrestrial TV and the DVD shelves, as part of our ‘traditional’ Christmas experience. For a couple of years now our main shared fare has been franchise Marvel movies, Star Wars, Pitch Perfect, Hunger Games, you name it.
This year I’m going to ask the guys: “Can we watch Totoro again?”
Image from Tonari no Totoro (My Neighbour Totoro), 1988 Studio Ghibli