My Neighbor Totoro: What Makes a Classic Timeless?

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I loved Studio Ghibli before it was cool.

Some of my earliest memories are of My Neighbor Totoro, watching the dust bunnies (as they were called in the old dub) scatter, Totoro bellow, and the Catbus run. It was a captivating story, and I always knew there was something wonderfully different about it.

But sometimes, stories you loved as a child don’t hold up when you get older, as I’ve found with other beloved films. So when I saw Totoro on Blu-ray for cheap, I couldn’t resist the temptation to see what I thought about it as an adult. I hadn’t watched it in many years – at least 15 or more – and I was curious to know if it was as magical as I remembered.

My husband and I bought it. We popped it in a couple nights later, and almost instantly I turned into that child again, just as captivated as I had been all those years ago. The story of Totoro is short and simple, but that doesn’t make it any less meaningful.

So, without further ado, here’s my review of My Neighbor Totoro.

Why Critique Stories?

My purpose in critiquing stories is not to say that the story or its author is either awful or flawless. I’m not trying to say that I know everything there is to know about writing a story, or that I’m even right in my assessments/opinions. My motives are twofold: 

  1. To break apart stories so we can learn what makes them successful or unsuccessful and apply those elements to our own stories or know what to avoid
  2. To dispel the myths that popular stories are “perfect” and that creating a story as “good” as a well-known writer is an unattainable goal

It’s comforting to know that a good story is a good story. No one has any secret special knowledge that makes their story better. As long as you take the time to learn and practise the art of writing, you have the same potential as a famous writer to craft something that people will remember for years to come.

The Good Stuff

Normal life with a twist

A good first third of the movie is simply normal, everyday life, and yet, it’s not boring at all. The relationship between Satsuki and Mei is instantly familiar, as is the sensation of moving to a new place and exploring every inch of it.

But there’s a little more than just an ordinary life. To American viewers, the idyllic Japanese countryside is, in itself, a beautiful fantasy world. The setting of the 1950s provides the wonderful contrast of seeing technology like cars and electric lights alongside manual water pumps and wood stoves.

All of these things combined make you feel right at home from the start of the movie, and yet also give you little tidbits of fantasy and nuance to grab your attention.

“Show don’t tell” is off the charts

Miyazaki fully understands the art of showing rather than telling in his films. You might say: “Duh, that’s way easier to do in movies!” But it’s not. Actually, movies are steadily becoming worse at this because dialogue is so bad (another post waiting to happen).

But I digress. The point is that Miyazaki understands how dialogue and story work together to create a beautiful picture without telling the viewer everything that’s going on. There are long sequences in the movie with no dialogue that fit perfectly and still give you a perfect sense of what’s happening.

Silence is okay in stories, even movies. You’d be surprised at how much you really can show, not tell.

Deals with serious issues well

I’m amazed at how much children’s stories nowadays shy away from more serious topics when the stories I consumed when I was growing up were filled with death, darkness, and the realities of life. There’s a very thin line to walk here. You don’t want to expose kids to too much or tell them that life is horrible, but you also don’t want to shelter them from the whole world, either.

Totoro manages to deal with illness, the idea of death, and a missing child in a way that’s moving and impactful but not scary or depressing. I remember really feeling the emotions of the characters when I was little, but it never felt like things were hopeless. That’s the beauty of stories like these.

Stellar dialogue

I already mentioned it, but the dialogue is superbly written and translated. Nothing sounds out of place and every interaction is so authentic!

You often don’t recognise good dialogue because the whole point of great dialogue is that it fits naturally with the story and its characters. That’s certainly the case here; every snippet of dialogue has a purpose and sounds completely natural.

…and more!

I could go on for a very long time about the storytelling elements that this movie absolutely nails, like the wonderful characters, the way the characters are introduced, the pacing, and everything else, but we’d be here all day. I’ll spare you that this time.

Not So Good Stuff

Hasty ending

Surprisingly, I do have one negative thing to say about Totoro. The ending happens very quickly and left me wanting more – it would have been nice to just have one more conclusive scene to make it feel like things were wrapped up.

In the same vein, I would have liked to see Totoro actually help with finding Mei (beyond just calling the Catbus). Since he’s kinda the main point of the movie, I felt like he should have been more directly involved with the climax.

Can’t Beat Good, Clean Storytelling

For all these reasons and more, My Neighbor Totoro remains a beautiful classic suitable for all ages. It’s a perfect example of good, clean storytelling. I always appreciate stories that show the world that these kinds of stories can still shine, even in an age where dark, gritty, and explicit storytelling is becoming increasingly popular.

Plots don’t need to be complicated. Characters don’t need to be morally grey. Movies don’t need to be rated R to tell a good story. Sometimes, the best stories are the simplest ones that show us at the same time how the world is and how the world ought to be.

Happy watching!
-E.J.


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Photo by Nic Y-C on Unsplash

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When you write as much as I do, you have to take frequent breaks from sitting. A standing desk (not a whole desk, but a mini desk that will sit on top of my current desk with my laptop, keyboard, and mouse and extend upward) will allow me to continue working while maintaining that good blood flow to my brain. Thank you so much for your support that allows me to keep producing free content. God bless you! ♥️ E.J.

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5 thoughts on “My Neighbor Totoro: What Makes a Classic Timeless?

  1. Pingback: Anne of Avonlea: A Hidden Masterpiece | E.J. Robison

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