Miyazaki Hayao, the co-founder and driving visionary behind Japan’s Studio Ghibli, is renowned for his world-spinning, fecund and furious animated fantasies: across his 11 features he has conjured pre-modern and post-apocalyptic, undersea and above-theclouds milieux teeming with angry earth gods and lost robots, apprentice witches and wracked wizards, flying pigs, runaway fish-girls and endless vivid bit-creations besides. (His Oscar-winner Spirited Away, nearby in this poll, spills forth a phantasmic bathhouse of troubled ghouls.)
My Neighbour Totoro is his less-is-more work: a pastoral, pantheist chamber drama, where the ‘chamber’ lies under the canopy of a great camphor tree that lords over the woods behind a tumbledown farmhouse. Into this adventure realm move two sisters, pre-school Mei and preteen Satsuke, with their inattentive dad, to be nearer their hospitalised mum. Each in turn encounters the spirit of the woods: a giant, furry, ovoid mammal with mighty powers of flying, horticulture and slumber. (He comes with two smaller surrogates, who may or may not indicate a further world of totori.)
The storytelling is as simple as Totoro is inscrutable, unfolding in a series of delightful, exquisitely constructed sequences: Satsuke and Mei discovering the farmhouse and its soot-sprite occupants; Mei tracking Totoro’s minions to his lair; the tired children, waiting in the rain for their dad at a bus stop, finding Totoro waiting too – for a twinkle-eyed cat bus; a village-wide hunt for Mei after a misunderstood message from hospital leads her to run away. My favourite is the nocturne in which the girls and Totoros conjure shoots from acorns with an incantatory dance, then soar triumphant through the trees on a spinning top. There’s no plot, just rousing impressions of innocence and experience.
So many films ask us to see the adult world through children’s eyes; My Neighbour Totoro summons wilder, wide-eyed wonder at the forces that inform us: life, nature, connection, change. And, of course, it hymns the uplift of imagination, with Joe Hisaishi’s entrancing synth tunes essential to the magic.
The film got two votes in Sight and Sound’s 2002 poll, 11 in 2012. A swift hit in Japan, it has spread its spell steadily across the world ever since; a third of a century after its release, many younger critics have grown up with it. It’s clearly an antidote to urbanisation and technology, and a rebuke to a world of environmental breakdown. It’s also a comfort and a reassurance that shows we still have artists who can create something timeless.