Are your children sick of Spongebob, tired of the Teletubbies, bored with Bodger and Badger?
Or can you not face having to sit through yet another seemingly interminable episode of the sacrilegious What’s New Scooby Doo with your fascinated spawn?
If so, then perhaps now is the time to introduce your little monsters to the wonders of Japanese cinema. Obviously I don’t mean sitting your innocent young progeny down in front of Takashi Miike’s Ichi The Killer and waiting for the therapy bills to start rolling in. I’m talking about cartoons for kids that won’t make you feel like chewing off your own head in bored desperation.
My Neighbour Totoro (1988) is the most perfect place to start. It is the work of Hayao Miyazaki, generally considered to be the finest animator working today. Mayazaki has become slightly better known to western audiences after major releases of his last three films - Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle - as well as Spirited Away beating off Ice Age for the best Animated Feature Oscar in 2003.
Totoro tells a simple story. It follows the lives of two sisters, 10-year-old Satsuki and Mei, 6, who move to the country with their father to be closer to their mother, who is ill in hospital. Initial anxiety of the unknown (a craggy old local woman, ghostly dust mites in the attic) gives way to wonderment and joy as the two girls find that the ‘other’ locals are neither dangerous nor human. However, they are very, very furry.
With sumptuous landscapes, mysterious burrows, gargantuan trees and stunning creature characterisations, My Neighbour Totoro is almost guaranteed to send your children into a primeval state of near-comatose excitement. While the kids will love the flying sequences, the dust mites and the little Totoros, adults can marvel at Catbus (a cat who is also a bus, naturally) and laugh crazily at the sensational umbrella sequence (when you see it, you’ll know it).
It is the complete antithesis to Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies, which was released in the same year. Here the pain and terror of the real world never stray into the children’s fantastical imaginations, meaning no nightmares or plastic sheets on the bed for little ones.
So while Tokyo Story, Ran, even Spirited Away may be more intellectually rewarding experiences than My Neighbour Totoro, for sheer unadulterated joy there is not a single film out there to beat it.