Satsuki (Noriko Hidaka) runs through her family’s new home like it’s a race track, leaning into corners and taking it all in as fast as possible. Her younger sister, Mei (Chika Sakamoto), tries to keep pace, stretching her chubby legs as far as they will go with each step. As they run the two giggle with glee, laughing, whooping and hollering with each new discovery.
The two then make their way into the bathroom on the end of the house, a room submerged in darkness. When the two open the door they are greeted by hundreds of little eyes attached to fuzzy little black balls. They find more of these creatures in the attic Confused, scared and perplexed, the run back to their father, Tatsuo (Shigesato Itoi) frantically explaining their discovery.
Another father would tell them not to be so silly, but instead Tatsuo asks them about their mysterious experience. A neighbor explains that once she too was able to see the creatures as a child. While it might be more dramatic or intense to have the adults look down on the children and what they saw, this film is interested in enriching and growing that sense of wonder and mystery, capturing the spirit of childlike awe.
As the children explore their home with enthusiasm, they take everything in unrestrained joy and glee. When the two discover the broken awning that rains down bits of wood when shaken, they squeal with delight, as if they’ve been given a present. And, for them, so many of the simplest moments bring the most joy. Mei takes the greatest delight in receiving a simple, prepared lunch and proceeds to spend the rest of her day running around the countryside.
Yet while all initially appears joyous and happy, this family is not idea. The mother, Yasuko (Sumi Shimamoto), is sick and unable to come home to the girls. The absence of their mother eventually does wear down upon these girls, breaking their spirit as they wrestle with the idea of mortality, fearing what might come to pass, the only damper on their optimism the idea of the family being fragmented.
It’s in these moments of absence and need that Totoro (Hitoshi Takagi) appear, a big, cuddly creature with a dry personality. Mei immediately latches onto him and takes comfort in his presence. But where did Totoro come from and what about the other mystical creatures? The film isn’t interested in addressing the origins, only in shaping this world for the children to grow and flourish in.
To that end, there’s a scene where the two girls help grow a forest with Totoro. They received a bag of acorns and planted them in the garden the day before. That evening, Totoro visits and does a dance with his friends. The girls join in and the trees begin to grow. The next morning they wake up not to discover the massive trees that sprouted forth magically the night before but the emergent saplings of the trees, to which they whoop and holler at with glee.
There are plenty of great films about the bridge between fantasy and reality, but few are as encouraging, enriching and optimistic as this one. It’s a film that is more from a child’s perspective than an adult. It’s not meticulously crafting a world, but capturing a feeling, a mood a tone and running rampant with the imagination. More films could use such unrestrained creativity and a childlike spirited, once again rekindling the flame of imagination and letting it run where it will.
© 2010 James Blake Ewing