I GOT IT.
I'll be the first to admit it: I didn't get "My Neighbor Totoro" the first time I saw it.
I thought I knew where the story was going to go. The set- up was logical enough: a father and his two daughters move into a house in the country while the wife/mother is in the hospital for whatever reason. The house appears to be occupied by something or other, a band of shadowy dust bunnies. But they disappear from the plot soon enough.
The main action revolves around the girls' being befriended by the Forest King, the title character. I've learned from my twin brother, Pat, who's more of an otaku than I can ever hope to be, that the name "Totoro" is the younger sister's stuttering attempt to say the word "troll."
The reason I didn't get the film the first time around was that I was waiting for some kind of plot to kick in. I was thinking, "OK, we're going to have to do something with the mother-in-the-hospital plot point." They didn't. It was there throughout the film and I kept waiting for it to be played up more.
Instead, the film struck me at first viewing as a series of vignettes, like episodes of a TV series edited together. You had the family moving in, 11-year-old Satsuki Kusakabe and her 5- year-old sister Mei, the introduction of the supporting players (a local boy named Kanta and "Granny," the obasan who had been looking after the old place), Mei's sighting of the trolls, the extended scene where Mei pretty much gets dumped in her sister's lap at school which segues into the business with Kanta and the umbrella which is then followed up by the scene at the bus stop with the Forest King and the nekobus, which has to be one of the greatest products of imagination of all time. Then there's the business with the seeds, then Mei tries to deliver an ear of corn to her mother and gets lost and everyone is afraid she's drowned and then Satsuki goes to the Forest King who summons the nekobus to take her to her sister. This is a movie that defies easy description of the plot. It was only later that I realized that this was a GOOD thing.
Looking at it again, I was able to see it as it was meant to be seen: not as a group of plot points strung together like pearls on a necklace, but as a series of feelings accompanied by some of the most gorgeous artwork I've ever seen in either animation of live action film. Even as such, there's not much of a logical connection at work, in part because logic would get in the way of experiencing this film. One of the scariest scenes in the film, far scarier than any confrontation the Forest King, was when the bundle of sticks was ripped from Satsuki's arms and carried away above the treetops. It was underlit and understated, but imagining being caught in such a violent wind is scary enough. Yet this mood is soon dispelled by the scene of Satsuki's father and sister hollering their heads off in the bath.
And even though there didn't seem to be any real suspense in wondering about Mei's fate and whether she'd really drowned, the search for her taking place in those large, empty fields under a Maxfield Parrish sky was unsettling enough. Kanta's almost defiant way of relating to Satsuki in the beginning was something else that I had to let sink in for a time.
Even the lighter moments had a force about them that carried them beyond the conventional. I'm especially thinking of the scene where the Forest King, standing at the bus stop, is so delighted with the apparent novelty of the sound of rain hitting an umbrella that his duplicating the effect probably registered on the Richter scale. And there was something primitive, almost primeval, about the dance around the seeds to make them grow, and their hallucinogenic growth.
If I had tried to find something linear in this film, something conventional, I'd probably still be looking and I'd still be missing the point of "My Neighbor Totoro." Because it really is storytelling tuned to a high pitch, so high that it doesn't need a conventional plot to guide it along. Hayao Miyazaki has given us a group of well-defined characters, particularly Satsuki, Mei and Kanta, though even the father and Granny are masterfully done, and then placed them in situations that are both realistic and compelling despite the heavy dose of fantasy. Mei's determination to take the ear of corn to her mother may not make sense to a grown-up, but it makes perfect sense to a preschooler. Everything else, the panic and the effort to locate her and the expectation of the worst, all flow naturally from it. It may not be the kind of storytelling that begins with "Once upon a time" and ends with the characters living happily ever after. It's better than that. Way better.