Ready, set... let's... GO!
Hopefully you've been fortunate enough to have come across this gem of a movie already, but if that is not the case please heed my desperate plea and go watch the movie before you read this VERY spoiler filled review. Last warning. Alright, let's move on.
Everyone who has seen this beloved little film by Hayao Miyazaki is probably asking the question right now, "What is there to spoil in this film?" Or maybe you caught the very subtle line in the film that really unravels the true beauty hidden within. Either way I am going to talk about the different layers of this movie beginning with the most surface level approach. I am writing this review because I keep finding myself having to recommend this movie to people. I am surprised how unfamiliar people are with this movie. In a short, I would say this movie is "Japan's Winnie the Pooh." But I even think that is selling the story very short. There are numerous layers that make this story a timeless classic for all ages, and I am going to try to tackle them.
So the basic premise is as follows: Two girls and their father move into a new house. The house has some tiny preexisting residents that cannot be explained. The father says maybe they are spirits, or more specifically "soot gremlins." As time passes the younger sister discovers some larger critters which eventually lead her to Totoro. Possibly the most likeable animated character I have ever seen, Totoro is the spirit king of the forest and provides some comfort and guidance to Mei the younger sister. As time goes on we find out that the girl's mother is quite ill and bedridden in a hospital. Throughout the film Totoro and a few of his companions continue to help the sisters with their endeavors. The only puzzling recurrence is that no one other that the two girls can see Totoro, his companions, and anything they have done.
So here is the big one... Are you ready? Totoro is not real. Let me explain. In the scene in the bathroom where the soot gremlins (later referred to as soot sprites) are first addressed the older sister Satsuki says, "Gremlins? Like the ones in my book?" That is the first major clue. The second is the old lady who is a neighbor. Minutes after they have found the soot sprites she tells the girls that she used to see them when she was younger. What does this mean? I believe this is pointing to a central theme of this story: imagination. Throughout this story Mei is encouraged to believe in these spirits all around her even though they are not real. The point is that through these other-worldly characters she and Satsuki are able to deal with issues that children their age should not have too. Their mother is terribly ill, and the girls find courage through the might of Totoro. But the people around them should take a great deal of credit too. This is a timeless message, and it is molded seamlessly into the fabric of this sweet story. The adorable girls, memorable critters, and the giant fuzzy king of the forest send one message: Have courage! That is a message you can't readily explain to a young girl. I know. I have two of them.
This is a story about adventure, love, family, joy, sorrow, and above all bravery. I really hope you enjoy this film as much as I do. And don't be sad because he isn't real. He IS real in your imagination. (and in my daughter's room... I got her a big plush Totoro from Japan... because I'm awesome.)