(Hayao Miyazaki, Japan, 1988)
A delightful, mind-boggling adventure. Miyazaki's genius for childlike fabulism - his gorgeously free imagination - is married to an acute, even anguished psychological sensitivity. He reminds us that childhood and adulthood are coextensive, that children know much more than they appear to (and intuit even more) and that adults are mostly play-acting at maturity. That's the wellspring of his movies: a preternatural wisdom and a preserved capacity for childlike awe.
From the reverence of nature and the imagination to the movingly tender portrait of a family under strain, Miyazaki has crafted a movie that encompasses an entire world. It's about childhood and sisterhood, about growing up and parenthood, about dreams and fears. Unlike recent Western culture's rather rigid and formal approach to fantasy - see the grandiose and Gothic Harry Potter franchise - Miyazaki's dream-weaving is playful, intricate, and epistemologically unbound. Questions of fantasy v. reality emerge only teasingly, with an unforced ambiguity. The everyday rhythms of life, the beauty of rural dusks and springtime blooms, peacefully coexist with the wild inventiveness of the Catbus and Totoro. Not only nature, but the vibrancy of reality itself, is treated with a reverence that feels invigorating, partly due to its strangeness to us as Westerners.
The easy joys and overall gentleness of the story don't distract us from the sense of genuine crisis that emerges later in the film: the possibility, present from the beginning, that Mei and Satsuki's mother might not recover from her protracted illness. Rather, this anguish - a child's panic at the possibility of the unthinkable occurring - is made vivid by its occurring in such a placid world. Miyazaki's Totoro - quite possibly his masterwork - exemplifies the sophistication of Japanese art, and is thus an introspective and passionate contribution to world culture.