What I'm Watching: My Neighbor Totoro | Live Culture

What I'm Watching: My Neighbor Totoro


Many, many things about the Academy Awards annoy and repulse me, but I am most galled by the mere existence of the category Best Animated Film. All film is, in fact, animation, and the separation ghettoizes "animation." Which is ironic, because nearly every major studio release depends on animation to tell its story and impress its audiences.

Director Brad Bird has most famously and accurately remarked on this misunderstanding:

“People think of animation only doing things where people are dancing around and doing a lot of histrionics, but animation is not a genre. And people keep saying, ‘The animation genre.’ It’s not a genre! A Western is a genre! Animation is an art form, and it can do any genre. You know, it can do a detective film, a cowboy film, a horror film, an R-rated film or a kids’ fairy tale. But it doesn’t do one thing. And, next time I hear, ‘What’s it like working in the animation genre?’ I’m going to punch that person!”
I do not advocate punching anyone, but I certainly believe Bird is correct. Animation is not a genre. Films of any genre can be made in animation, just as they can be made in live-action film. Animation is bigger than any genre — we might call it a “mode” of filmmaking.

Yet, considered in another light, animation is film, period; or, rather, film is animation. Think about it. Whether you’re watching the flickering, hand-inked cels of an “old-fashioned” animated film or a zippy CGI extravaganza, you’re not actually seeing movement. You’re seeing the illusion of movement. Whether the frames of the film are analog or digital, they are still images that appear to move because of the way projectors, and human perception, function. The same is true of live-action films. That’s not Brad Pitt lighting a cigarette. That’s a series of still images, taken at very brief temporal intervals, of Brad Pitt lighting a cigarette. As he plays across our screens, Pitt is no less a work of animation than is Daffy Duck.

Twisted around a little (but not illogically), the dictum “all film is animation” can be taken in another direction: Animation could be considered the “purest” form of film, a cinematic essence. In that all film “works” by convincing us still images are moving, animation must necessarily accomplish this goal or it’s not animation. In other words, the ontology of the animated film is identical to (part of) the ontology of “film” in general. It's worth recalling that “to animate” means “to give life to.” Above all else, animation affords filmmakers the greatest possible degree of control over their images. Consider a simple shot — say, a close-up of a single flower in a field — created in both live-action and animated versions. The live-action shot of the flower necessarily captures the flower’s own intrinsic qualities: color, form, the way it reacts to an actual gust of wind.

The animated shot of the flower necessarily creates those qualities. Color, form, movement and countless other factors are created by the animator, not by “the world as it exists.” If you want to make films and are also someone who obsesses over tiny details, you should probably become an animator.

The tiny details are, for me, the main reason that Hayao Miyazaki’s beloved 1988 animated film My Neighbor Totoro is a masterpiece. Having learned recently that my wife had somehow never seen this remarkable movie, I promptly busted out my cherished Studio Ghibli DVD box set and we settled in for an evening of magical realism.

Even though I’ve seen My Neighbor Totoro at least a dozen times, I found that I remembered fairly little about its (sparse, simple) story. Rather, I remembered little moments and gestures — small, perfectly crafted points in time that are suffused with quiet import.
I savor these moments not because they are somehow “realistic” (whatever that loaded term means), but because they occupy an incredible, fantastical space between the real and the fantastic. If animation is the essence of film, then that may well be the essence of animation: finding a way to split the difference between reality and fantasy.

In Totoro, Miyazaki finds countless ways to remind us that his narrative world bears many resemblances to the real world of rural Japan in the late 1950s, the milieu in which the film is set. But he also frequently reminds us that we're watching an artwork that has been constructed for our wonderment and delight. That’s one of the great things about animation: It’s inherently fanciful, so it can’t help but remind us of its artificiality.

I prefer to watch films with a bit of critical distance (as opposed to “immersing myself” in them), and that's why animation has always been so appealing to me.

In seeing Totoro for the 12th time — but for the first time in at least five years — I found myself looking forward to many little moments that had been burned into my brain. As I watched the film, I anticipated the occurrence of little gestures and fillips that would, I knew, delight me all over again.

Since we now have the internet, and since many other admirers of My Neighbor Totoro have created animated GIFs from their favorite moments in the film, I can actually represent some of those little moments. I do love me some GIFs.
The GIF at the top of this page is the single most iconic moment from this great film. In it, two sisters (one piggybacking the other) stand at a bus stop next to a strange, giant, cute, harmless woodland creature whose acquaintance they recently made when they moved to a small village. Only the falling rain "moves" in this shot.

The relative stillness encourages our eyes to rove from one figure to the other. The shot highlights their differences (size, species, real versus quasi-imaginary) but also their similarities: They are both still and waiting for a bus, and they both have umbrellas (of a sort). It's a beautiful shot that conveys all sorts of nuanced meanings.

The second GIF encapsulates a moment from the film that I've always loved and remembered: when the littlest "mini Totoro" races ahead to bump into the slightly larger mini Totoro. This tiny gesture tells us so much about the character of the nameless, near-featureless character: It's young, it's eager, it occasionally lets its impulses get the better of it.

It is, in short, childlike, just like the girls who are the film's main characters. This is a good old-fashioned character foil, but we wouldn't know that without the tiny gestures.

I won't go through every GIF included here, but I encourage you to play and replay them so you can appreciate their subtlety. (It now occurs to me that GIFs are terrific tools for teaching about animation — how to make it, and its history.) And I urge you to watch this landmark film, even if you've seen it before. It contains multitudes.
This is the last “What I’m Watching” column. Thanks for reading!