In this column, Amos Lamb will take you through the wonderful world of animation. Exploring what makes it such an appealing genre/medium for all ages, with the focus spanning from the mainstream animation studios like Disney & Studio Ghibli, to more obscure animation such as Japanese OVA’s, British claymation, Czechoslovakian stop-motion and everything in-between.
Arguably the most iconic film in Studio Ghibli’s filmography, with its titular spirit becoming not only the face of the company, as its logo, but also saving the company financially, due to incredible merchandise sales after this film’s release. Originally shown as a double bill with Grave of the Fireflies (which you can read my review of here). Neither film managed to succeed financially, but both were garnered with critical acclaim, and both films have managed to reach cult status in the 32 years since their original release. This film was, in fact, the first ever Studio Ghibli film I ever watched, and it’s always been a favourite of mine over the years, and one that I often use to show people new to Japanese Animation/Studio Ghibli, due to its accessibility and beautiful animation.
For me, the main selling point of the film is its tremendous heart. The whole film is brimming with charm and tenderness; I’d go as far to argue that it’s near impossible to watch this film without cracking a smile. The plot is interesting, as there’s no overarching conflict, or struggle, aside from the nebulous concept of the children growing up and adapting to their new home/lifestyle, the film is compromised of a series of experiences and smaller moments of conflict for the two central characters, sisters; Satsuki and Mei, to grow through, both good and bad. The overarching premise concerns Satsuki and Mei’s move to their new house, with their father, in order to be closer to the hospital where their mother is recovering from a long-term illness. What makes the film so wonderful, aesthetics aside, is just watching these two heroines traverse their life and the issues they face. Whether that comes through Mei napping with the Totoro’s in the forest, or Satsuki & Mei picking vegetables with Granny, the humanity and wonder of these two characters is always present, and translates across to the viewer so well. Both characters are so realistic and distinct, they feel truly human. With their sibling arguments and competition, Satsuki’s attempt and emulating her mother, and Mei’s attempts to imitate Satsuki all make these characters come to life. You become so invested in these characters, even in the smallest of issues, such as when Mei arrives at Satsuki’s school, tears in her eyes, struggling with her first day away from her whole family, it’s hard not to connect with the sisters. We can feel the frustration, confusion and anger, that both the girls feel when they’re told their mother is too unwell to visit for the weekend, and most importantly we can feel the wonder at the presence of the King Totoro.
The animation greatly helps these characters come to life too, as both of the sisters have their own personal quirks and movements that correspond with their different ages. Mei doesn’t move as fluidly as Satsuki does, while Satsuki is less methodical in her movements as her younger sister is, due to the confidence that came with age. It’s these little details that show a tremendous level of care from the whole animation staff while working on this film. Both the artwork & design of the locations and various backgrounds of the film is beautiful, with some gorgeous looking shots that you could frame, that mesh so well with the smooth animation. One of the best examples of this is when Mei is running off to the hospital near the end of the film, the design of the landscape, with the various rice paddies and embankments, juxtaposes well against the colouring of the sky, and Mei’s animation breathes life into the scenery so fluidly. One of the best examples of this dynamic, as well as a general example of how amazing the animation is in this film, comes in the iconic bus stop scene, where Satsuki meets Totoro for the first time. In this scene alone there are so many moments of brilliant animation I could point out, like Satsuki poking out of her umbrella timidly to glance at the King spirit, or Mei continuously slipping off of Satsuki’s back forcing her to readjust. But for me one of the best sequences in the film is when Totoro discovers the simple pleasure of the hard rain falling on his umbrella. Between the animation of the rain falling, and the shivers of excitement that we see run across Totoro’s body, and gorgeous artwork of the background and use of lighting with the lamppost, the whole scene is just fantastically composed.
One of the most emotive elements in the whole film is Joe Hisaishi’s soundtrack. Practically a staple of the Studio, Hisaishi’s scores rarely, if ever, miss the mark, but the playful tones and powerful composition really invoke the childish wonder that the film is capturing. There’s two iconic songs that you’ll be humming long after the film ends, one is a more traditional Ghibli song, with its awe-inspiring orchestral feeling, while the other is a noticeably bouncy and playful song that plays in over the opening credits, and during the moments of pure joy in the film. The range and scope of emotions that Hisaishi is able to draw out from his music, and how perfectly it meshes with visuals of the film.
Overall this is a film that holds a rare position in my mind, in that I would be shocked if someone completely did not like this film, but I also completely understand why people wouldn’t rate it as highly as I do. The pacing and lack of a consistent conflict could turn a lot of people away, but on the flip side, the pure joy and emotion that you feel watching these two children is enough to melt even the coldest of hearts. The film moves from joy and happiness, to scary and sadness almost seamlessly, emulating the real-life trials and tribulations these girls experience in such a short time, while merging it with the beautiful fantastical elements and iconography that Ghibli are known for.