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‘My Neighbour Totoro’ at 35: The Antidote to an Overstimulating World

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Being happy is getting harder. Last year, a Harvard-led study found that younger adults scored the lowest on life satisfaction surveys, the inverse of a similar study conducted 20 years prior. In the UK, happiness amongst 16 to 25-year-olds hit a 13 year low. These results are corroborated by the Twitter timelines of anyone under the age of 25. Rather than being a glamorised version of existence as one might expect from social media, the online sphere is spiced with an unending sense of impending doom. 

Collapse feels inevitable when you know the world around you is not built on healthy foundations. With the means and knowledge on how to access the most information that has ever been available to anyone in the history of the human race, younger people are cursed with knowledge of atrocities major and minor across time and space. 

Overwhelming events like a global pandemic, reality-star presidents and increasingly apocalyptic environmental disasters are shoved in our faces as we just start to blossom into adulthood. Snapping back to the reality in front of us sees us greeted by a cold, uncaring capitalist system robbing us of the luxuries of past generations. 

Owning homes, financial stability, freedom of movement (if you’re in the UK) are all fossilising before our eyes. Being young in the modern day is to take on the pain of the entire world’s present, past and future while just trying to get through it yourself. The only means of coping is escape. 

Enter: the happiest movie to ever exist. My Neighbour Totoro, by its very design, combats the squashing and cluttering of our brains. The film is an animated breathing exercise, an ore of joy. Miyazaki’s masterpiece digs its toenails beneath the soil and roots itself in nature. As you get sucked into this simplified life coated in greenery, the hyper-consumerist, technology-ridden world we live in feels like it exists three planets over. 

A story set in the 50s about two girls who discover a friendly spirit in the forest next to their new house is simple enough to be peaceful and has enough layers to remind us of the magic present in the everyday (without stating it so plainly). My Neighbour Totoro was not born from a desire to live in the past, but from a desire to take people out of their money-hungry present. A reminder of what was taken from us. 

At a remove from the digital age, My Neighbour Totoro exhibits an emphasis on the manual. Tasks like cooking, cleaning, growing plants and pumping water are dressed in brilliantly coloured animation and charming music. This elicits the peacefulness which comes with focusing on a menial task. A link between completing chores and improved mental health was formed by a 2015 study by Florida State University, where washing dishes was used to promote mindfulness. Part of the satisfying, calming feeling of Totoro is seeing characters joyfully complete tasks we can often neglect in times of overbearing work assignments and poor mental health. 

We see the world of Totoro through Mei and Satsuki, children to whom their chores are their only responsibilities. They live with a healthy dose of ignorance, as children do, they accept reality as whatever lies in front of them. Through digital connection we lose the ability to detach ourselves from situations beyond our eye’s reach. 

Empty space is emphasised all through My Neighbour Totoro. The huge forest at the doorstep of Mei and Satsuki’s new home, the open fields they wander through, the vast distance between them and their school and even their neighbours. Almost every scene takes place in open air, rarely do we see a character encased in four walls. The film even limits the variety of faces and voices as we’re spending time with a small community removed from urban life.

The overdeveloped world of 2023 does not feel like it allows much room for open space, physical or mental. Breaking free from the claustrophobia of being squeezed between a series of grey buildings is rewarded with parks which feel overly controlled themselves. Perfectly trimmed grass with the odd bush and swing set just doesn’t feel natural. Can you think of a location in your local area that doesn’t reek of manmade intervention? A clear headspace is something that has to be manufactured too, scheduled around your job, watchlist and mindless scrolling. My Neighbour Totoro presents a world with a completely different cultural approach to how to spend time. 

Taking lessons from the past is a key element to Hayao Miyazaki’s philosophy. It extends into his beliefs on war and technology, and is core to what he wanted to achieve on My Neighbour Totoro. Posters for the film wore the tagline “We are returning you to something you have forgotten,” even 35 years ago the auteur was concerned about where commercial expansion was leading us. 

After the second world war, Japan’s economic growth was almost unnaturally accelerated, referred to as the Japanese Economic Miracle. The country’s dedication to its industrialised future was jarring for Miyazaki, a man with reverence for nature. My Neighbour Totoro feels like a justification for nature, a film looking to prove its value to a country polluting it with factories.

Totoro himself gets relatively little screen time, but his presence is felt in most scenes since his introduction. The film builds the expectation that something magical could be around each corner our characters turn. Even the most ordinary events can exist with a layer of surrealism. The most famous images from My Neighbour Totoro come from a scene where Mei and Satusuki are simply waiting for a bus with nothing to contemplate but what’s in front of them, this is where Totoro appears. Similarly, Mei first discovers Totoro when wandering the fields outside of their house, an idle existence manifesting a supernatural occurrence. Their father is always depicted as being wrapped up in work and thus Totoro is never revealed to him. Miyazaki laments the capitalist structure that is always pulling us away from nature, forcing us to neglect its beauty.

Proving the value of nature is wrapped into proving the value of a naturalistic story. My Neighbour Totoro’s ‘plot’ is allowed to meander as we simply follow the characters for a few days. The lack of pressure on the story is essential to the message Miyazaki is looking to communicate, that nothing is enough. 

Miyazaki sees minimalism as a virtue, evidenced by the small scale of Totoro, the small luxuries the characters experience and the little explanation of what’s actually going on in the story. The idea of exposition or lore is completely counterintuitive to what My Neighbour Totoro is asking of its audience. Those who theorise about what Totoro really is, whether he is a representation of all nature, a figment of childish animation, or a grim reaper keeping the girls company during their afterlife reverie, are missing the point. Totoro doesn’t need to make sense, just go with it. 

A consequence of economic expansion and mass industrialisation is a need for everything to have a cold, hard answer. Leaving things up for interpretation feels like much needed rebellion, proof that a film doesn’t require an intricate plot for it to be a masterpiece, it just needs to sweep you away to the point where you don’t care about any of that. 

Back in 1988 Miyazaki wanted to return us to something we had forgotten. We were losing our connection to the world in front of us, we were losing interpretive stories, we were losing our mental health due to automation. 35 years later, all these problems are worse and My Neighbour Totoro is more essential. 

Could Totoro exist in the modern day? Or is his domain too sculpted by man for him to thrive anymore? Expansion and advancement has a cost, and we’re yet to truly see the effects of a generation raised through constant stimulation. Still, we have observed significant positives about younger generations. An excess of information has made for a far more inclusive and sensitive society that looks to give a voice to historically marginalised people. Additionally, expanded technology creates an opportunity for broader creativity and accessibility. 

There also is not a single fix that fits all for mental health issues, a single movie is unlikely to single-handedly transform a life. However, a movie can be used to reflect on the actions and policies that led us down this overstimulating path.

Miyazaki’s goal with Totoro was not to showcase the 1950s as a superior moment in time and stand in the way of progress, but to ensure that progress doesn’t trod on things we should hold sacred. The progression of the human race did not depend on industrialisation, deforestation and pollution; that’s simply for the advancement of some rich people’s bank accounts. Our backsides are being munched on by the consequences of this mentality. The planet is suffering a crisis solvable by returning to a reverence for nature. 

Similarly, technological progress in automation and AI should not exclude actual human beings from being able to work. Miyazaki is quoted as referring to AI as “an insult to life itself,” because it’s born from a complete misunderstanding of why we make and love art. 

My Neighbour Totoro feels alien compared to this society which worships monetisation and new inventions despite their existential threat to the planet, mental wellbeing, the entire working class, whatever is not in their immediate view. Pulling yourself away from being perpetually online is hard, sometimes impossible. Livelihoods depend on it, whether it’s for money, finding a sense of companionship that isn’t present in your physical reality, or searching for a source of dopamine in a deprived world. However, through that constant attachment we can find pieces of art like My Neighbour Totoro which for 90 minutes frees your brain from a prison of constant stimulation. 

My Neighbor Totoro is presently available to watch on Netflix

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