Review by Boniface
My Neighbor Totoro (Rated G, 1988) is a Japanese animated fantasy film written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, who also created such acclaimed classics as Castle in the Sky, Spirited Away and Ponyo. The film tells the tale of the interactions between two young girls and a strange creature called Totoro that lives in the center of an old forest behind their rural home. The father of the girls describes Totoro as the "guardian of the forest" (the English dub of the Japanese calls Totoro a "spirit"). The girls' various experiences of Totoro are played out against the backdrop of the family getting settled in to a new home while the girls' mother recuperates from an undefined sickness in a nearby hospital.
This film is rated G, so ostensibly it is suitable for children, though I must offer a word of caution that the suitability of this film for young children depends in a large part on how you feel about the concept of ghosts as a thematic element. There are no actual ghosts in the film (Totoro is some sort of magical, furry creature and some other creatures known as "soot sprites" make a few cameo appearances), but because of the odd occurrences in and around the rural home, the house is frequently referred to as "haunted" and the family father encourages the girls in exploring this idea. As I said, there are no actual ghosts, but the fact that the father encourages belief in them was problematic to my wife when she watched the movie. I was annoyed by it, but it wasn't a deal breaker.
There are your standard Japanese cultural practices - references to "guardians" or "spirits" of the forest and a scene of a girl visiting a roadside Buddhist shrine, but then again, I don't know what else you would expect in a Japanese film. I wouldn't be shocked or offended by a movie depicting Muslims praying in Mecca, nor does it bother me when the cartoon depicts Japanese people visiting a Buddhist shrine. It is in context. But, if you are sharing this with children, it might bring up questions about what the statues are, what religion these people belong to (since they are clearly not Christian) and could lead into a discussion about other religious practices. Not that that is bad, but you should be forewarned.
Beyond that, the story itself is positively charming and the characters of the two girls, Satsuki and Mei, are so well done that they are probably the best cartoon depictions of children that I have ever seen. The film draws you in by its setting, presence and situation, not by an antagonistic plot; there is no bad guy, and even the climax of the film is nothing more dangerous than the younger sister getting lost on the road to the hospital. It is a very non-threatening movie that kids will love if you are not bothered by the issues mentioned above. Roger Ebert explained the film well when he said, "It is a little sad, a little scary, a little surprising and a little informative, just like life itself." Some of the scenes are other-worldly and magical in their appeal; the scene with Totoro and Satsuki standing at the bus stop together at night is one of the most memorable sequences in all anime.
The film did evoke an interesting discussion between my wife and I about how we tend to be overly sensitive to ideas in other cultures that we are already familiar with in our own. For example, my wife was a little put out by the idea of a "guardian of the forest" in the film because she thought it smacked of paganism. Yet she readily accepts the same idea as formulated by Tolkien in the person of the Ents. Since Tolkien is working within a western, Christian paradigm, the idea is more comfortable. An Ent named Treebeard was easier to digest than a fifteen foot tall roaring rabbit called Totoro, even though both fulfilled the same function. The same can be said about the concept of elves, which in Europe, were originally guardian spirits of the forest. We tend to be comfortable with these ideas in our own culture but are shocked when we encounter the same ideas under different forms. We can debate the merits of the different forms, but it is an interesting concept to think about and if nothing else I am thankful that My Neighbor Totoro brought this discussion out. It helped us to see our own traditions in a fresh light.
I recommend this movie highly, but I will do it with the caveat that you ought to watch it first before you let your kids see it, because people have different tolerance levels for how much foreign religious ideas are acceptable, though I have to stress that the "religious" scenes are few and are peripheral; the movie is primarily about exploration and adventure oriented towards young children and as such I found it charming, benign and thought provoking.