Monday, December 9, 2019

My Neighbor Totoro Is Irresitbly Pleasant Hayao Miyazaki Fare

You know how some movies tend to stuff their movies too full of extraneous conflict when their central premise has enough tension? My Neighbor Totoro is the exact opposite type of film, this is a feature film that runs entirely away from the traditional concepts of creating tension or danger in a movie. No villains are found here, there's no apocalyptic plot to foil. You don't need tension to make a good movie and My Neighbor Totoro is proof positive of that. It's just about two sisters enjoying the company of some fantasy creatures. It's a gentle hug of a motion picture, Hayao Miyazaki's love for the natural world at its most serene.

The plot within the actual film concerns sisters Satsuki Kusakabe (Noriko Hidaka) and Mei Kusukabe (Chika Sakamoto) moving into a new home with their Father while their Mother is in an extended hospital visit. While getting used to their surroundings, Mei stumbles onto a gigantic furry mystical creature she believes to be Totoro. Eventually, Satsuki encounters Totoro and his chums as well, though no other adults around them are capable of seeing these entities. The sisters have some grand old times with Totoro and company, these creatures can make even something as mundane as standing in the rain waiting for the bus a memorable experience.

Because I live on planet Earth, I'd had plenty of exposure to elements of My Neighbor Totoro prior to watching it for the first time. However, actually getting to watch the entire motion picture proved there were plenty of unknown charms to be found in this Miyazaki directorial effort. For instance, the careful way the animation creates a sense of visual dissonance between the normal world and fantasy elements like Totoro and friends. Satsuki and Mei's conventional life adheres to basic color palettes and believable sets, you could step outside your own house and run into similar environments without any issue. The hand-drawn animation of My Neighbor Totoro nicely executes visual realism in these sections of the story.

This aspect of its animation allows the introduction of the fantastical Totoro and company to really leave an impact as they're rendered with visuals that are extremely pronounced in terms of their stylized movements. Totoro and pals don't just open their mouths, their mouths practically become endless caverns. They intentionally stand out against the mundane surrounding and characters My Neighbor Totoro has established as the default and this lovely touch in the animation reinforces how wondrous these creatures are to the Kusukabe sisters. Heck, wondrous might be understating things a touch, Catbus, for instance, is borderline surreal whenever they show up.

There's a world of difference between seeing a Catbus keychain at Hot Topic and seeing how Catbus is animated in the actual My Neighbor Totoro movie. Catbus serves as the apex of the sort of unbridled imagination bursting through so much of the animation in My Neighbor Totoro. When combined with the more restrained visual elements, it helps to make clear why this fairy tale story is just what the Kusukabe sisters needed. These two children are dealing with so many harsh real-world scenarios, the presence of such extremely out-of-this-world entities helps to provide some much-needed escapism for them.

Miyazaki's screenwriting restraint to avoid shoehorning in any traditional elements of conflict into the proceedings ensure that My Neighbor Totoro can just focus on chilling with the titular lead character rather than going through the motions of a more routine piece of storytelling. The focus in this motion picture is on the visuals and creating a soothing atmosphere through hanging out with a mystical being and its a focus that My Neighbor Totoro handles wonderfully. It's not the most substantive of Hayao Miyazaki's works, but My Neighbor Totoro isn't aiming to be substantive per se. It aspire to be a gentle hug of a movie and when those aspirations are executed this well, that's plenty.

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