TIFF Cinematheque is calling it Family Fridays, but it’s a sneaky celebration of the works of renowned Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki. In November, both Kiki’s Delivery Service and the Academy Award-winning Spirited Away played at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. Now, this week they’ll be showing what is perhaps Miyazaki’s most beloved film, 1988’s My Neighbor Totoro.
One of the most acclaimed family films of all time, My Neighbor Totoro follows two young sisters – Satsuki and Mei – as they get acclimated with their new home in the country while waiting for their mother’s return from the hospital. Soon the girls discover that the near-by forest is inhabited by friendly creatures and spirits (such as the adorable title character and the wild Catbus). While the children’s anticipation of their mother’s discharge from the hospital drives much of the plot, it’s not necessarily the most important part of Totoro. The leisurely, episodic pace reveals the film to be more a rumination on childhood, innocence, wonder, and hope.
Totoro follows two ambitious, large-scale epics in Miyazaki’s filmography (1984’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and 1986’s Castle in the Sky), so its fitting the director scales the film down, though it doesn’t diminish its effectiveness. Few films more accurately convey the spirit of being a kid than Totoro. Early scenes of Satsuki and Mei exploring their new home and playing with each other perfectly capture the free-spirited innocence and joy of childhood. The stakes are appropriately small for a film centred on a two girls under 10, but Miyazaki is such a remarkable storyteller that the film still has such a strong emotional pull.
Like its two predecessors, Totoro explores themes Miyazaki maintained interest in throughout his career such as humanity’s relationship with nature and absent parents. The themes aren’t as prominent here as they are in say, Princess Mononoke or Castle in the Sky, but they add a unique angle that helps to elevate Totoro above the generic, crass – often numbing – family films that come from Hollywood studios. Yet, foremost Totoro revels in imagination and wonder. Miyazaki imbues the film with a natural warmth and grace, never condescending to the characters or the audience. Miyazaki’s career is full of great films, but Totoro may just be his beautiful, delicate masterpiece.
My Neighbor Totoro screens Friday, December 5 at 1:00 p.m. Make it a double feature and stay for Ponyo – Miyazaki’s delightful, visually sumptuous 2008 film – at 3:30 p.m. at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. Ticket information and details can be found here.