by Marty Demarest
My Neighbor Totoro is one of the most joyous, intelligent and amusing films ever made, and it's about time that it made it to DVD, with perfect English voice acting. This breakthrough film (a legend in Japan -- roughly the equivalent of E.T.) by Hayao Miyazaki, who made this year's stunning Spirited Away, begins with a father and his two daughters, Mei and Satsuki, moving into an old country home. The girls' mother is in a nearby hospital, and the family is anxious for her to join them.
No one has ever captured the indestructible wonder of childhood on film the way that Miyazaki does here. There is no violence at all, but there are moments of excitement and hilarity as the girls explore their new home, tugging on rotting beams and exploring dark rooms, where to their surprise they encounter hundreds of small black spirits which flee as soon as light hits them. Caught at the age where they are unsure of what they've seen, they're reassured or humored (one of the film's great ambiguities) by their father and an elderly neighbor that spirits do exist in the world, but that there is nothing to be afraid of. The youngest girl, Mei, takes this to heart, and a few days later she encounters several Totoro -- tree spirits -- including an enormous grey one with an earth-shaking roar. Mei proves to him, however, that little girls can roar just as loud, and a remarkable friendship is established.
Miyazaki's inventions in My Neighbor Totoro are unsurpassed. From the girls, to the Totoro, to the breathtaking Catbus with its light-up eyes, every creation is suffused with a level of imagination that no other director has achieved. But such is the power of Miyazaki's art that even scenes of wind blowing across grass and water flowing in a stream are filled with beauty. And here -- while adults marvel at the imagination and skill of the filmmaker -- Miyazaki reminds us that these things are wondrous. Whether we believe a racing Catbus causes the wind or not, we can still be enchanted. Regardless of whether spirits inhabit the world around us or not, the greatest joy in living comes from accepting that something extraordinary we can never fully comprehend, including the soul of a loved one, shares this world with us.