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My Neighbour Totoro (1988)

When Hayao Miyazaki's My Neighbour Totoro opened in Japanese cinema it did so, as was the Japanese custom, as part of a double bill. It's screening partner? Grave Of Fireflies, Isao Takahata's devastating tale of wartime orphans. Luckily, however, today you can enjoy what is perhaps Miyazaki's most beloved movie without having your heart broken first.

Set in rural 1955 Japan, the story follows two young children- Mei and Satsuki- as they move to a new home in the country. With their mother recovering in hospital, and a father working at the local university, the two sisters encounter the lovable forest spirits who inhabit the area. As far as story goes that's about it. This is one of the kind of films that is not about the plot. Maybe not a lot actually happens, but so what? This is a film about the characters, atmosphere.. and most of all about childhood.

Forest spirits may not sound like the ideal playmate for your children, especially if you've seen Miyazaki's later, much darker opus Princess Mononoke. But the creatures of Japanese folklore, (Yokai) can be very different to western ideas of ghosts and monsters. So it proves to be the case with the charming critters who appear in My Neighbour Totoro. And what wonderful creations they are. The titular King of the Forest is one of the greatest creations in animation, with his friendly Chesire Cat-style grin and a warm fuzzy belly you feel you could almost touch through the screen. It's little wonder he's become an icon, launching a million lines of merchandise and becoming Studio Ghibli's mascot. The Disney dub, unfortunately, saddles with him a growl that sounds just a little too fierce, but it's a pretty minor grumble.

In reality, Totoro and his friends actually get comparatively little screen-time. It's some time (around half an hour) before the big fella makes his first appearance, and he only appears in a handful of scenes. But perhaps, just like the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park and the shark in Jaws, this only makes his presence more special. The scenes he appear in are magical and full of a sense of childlike wonder. The scene at the Bus-stop is particularly special- arguably it's one of the most iconic scenes in animation, or even the world of cinema in general.

It helps that the scenes without any supernatural content are equally wonderful in their own right. Miyazaki always knows how to create a wonderful sense of time and place. The 50's Japan he presents maybe viewed through rose-tinted spectacles but it effectively gives viewers a window to a perfect childhood they never had. It's often said that few directors capture children as well as Miyazaki- and nowhere is this more evident than here. Mei and Satsuki are completely believable as real children- as anyone who has children of young relatives of similar ages will likely recognise. A lot of the laughs in the film come from Mei- the younger of the two- who's antics will strike a chord with many. The relationship between the sisters is also brilliantly observed and feels thoroughly authentic. Rarely have children been brought to life more believably on screen- in animation or otherwise.

The film is typically gorgeous for a Ghibli production. The sumptuously painted backgrounds and beautifully designed characters have not dated at all and look just as good today as they did more than 25 years ago. The Blu-Ray is a must own, but if you ever get the chance to see this on the big screen, don't let the chance pass you by.

The film also boasts a wonderful soundtrack, with frequent Miyazaki collaborator Joe Hishasi turning in perhaps the most memorable work in his storied career. The catchy theme and jaunty motifs capture the film's magical atmosphere perfectly. How you will feel about the Disney-fied versions of the opening and closing themes in the English version is a matter of personal taste, but we found it charming enough.

Although largely light in plot, the film does take a surprising turn towards the end. It seems briefly like reality is going to intrude on this pastoral ideal in the most devastating of ways. Fortunately, though, that's not the case and it all comes together for a heart-warming conclusion. Yet that diversion into more dramatic territory is handled effectively and only makes you love the characters all the more.

My Neighbour Totoro is a film thoroughly deserving of its towering reputation. It may not have the action of Princess Mononoke or Nausicaa: Of The Valley Of the Wind. It may lack the sophisticated adult themes of The Wind Rises or the flashier animation of Howl's Moving Castle. It may be Miyazaki's most simple film, but it's arguably also his most universal and accessible. Indisputably a stone-cold classic.

MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO is Available On Blu-Ray and DVD  in the UK from STUDIOCANAL, and on DVD in the US from Disney.