* * * * (out of four)
Seen 12 December 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Sunday Eye-Opener; projected video)
It's almost impossible to count the number of ways in which animation grand master Hayao Miyazaki excels, and probably even more foolish to try and discriminate as to which is most important. Still, one has to start somewhere, and for me it's his kids.
Even though their forms are exaggerated, they still seem more believable than the children in many live-action films. They're in nearly constant motion, they yell in delight, they break into tears when they don't get their way. Four-year-old Mei is still soft with baby fat and is prone to wander off, while her more responsible older sister Satsuki is drawn with skinny, angular limbs that poke out from under her clothes. Along with their University-professor father, they've moved out to the country to be near their mother while she recuperates from some illness, to a house that seems to be haunted.
It's not actually haunted, though; it's just filled with tiny spirits of dust and disuse that can be found in any house which has stood empty for so long. As soon as the family has let light into all the house's disused corners, the float out, retreating to the camphor tree that seems to be the source of the area's magic. It is under that tree that Mei finds a gigantic, furry beast with pointy ears and a deep voice that calls itself Totoro.
Only the children can see Totoro, the two smaller creatures of the same type, and the cat-bus that populate this film's world with magic. But to Miyazaki's credit, he doesn't harp on this, or have the adults act with disbelief or be patronizing when Mei first describes Totoro. That children are more open to the fantastic is assumed, and even if the girls' father or the old lady who watches them while he works in the city assume that Totoro is a product of the children's active imaginations, they don't rain on the girls' parade.
As with all of Miyazaki's films, Totoro is a joy to behold. Backgrounds are active and detailed; faces are simply drawn but highly expressive. The design work is striking, as usual - kids can probably sketch Totoro with a few quick strokes, but that doesn't make him limited at all. The cat-bus is acreations that would probably make the Disney company nervous - it's got a dozen legs, a smile so large as to be almost sinister, glowing eyes... And yet it's so full of wonder that it will more often be the stuff of dreams than nightmares.
A person obsessed with plot might find this movie unsaitsfying - though the last act of the movie deals with Satsuki looking for Mei, who has gone missing, this is not a movie where a conflict is introduced in the first act, with tension increased in the second and finally a resolution in the third; nor is there any particular meaning given to the fantasy elements. A family moves to a house, some odd things happen, and then life goes on. Along the way, the audience will see beauty and experience feelings and events vicariously. But, then again, isnt't that how we remember childhood, as something both scary and magical, almost divorced from our adult lives, as opposed to the rites of passage emphasized by the movies which need a story structure?
There aren't many Hayao Miyazakis in the world. In animation, he stands alongside Walt Disney and maybe Osamu Tezuka, although John Lasseter and Brad Bird may join them when their filmographies are as long and varied as they are distinguished. This film is from the middle of Miyazaki's career in features, which is part of what makes it truly astounding - that he was still able to improve afterward.