My Neighbour Totoro is one of my favorite movies. It's probably in my top five, if I cared to order the movies I love in that way.
I don't. There are just too many. Do I rank them by times watched? First by genre, then by quality? By what they make me feel? Nah. I like a lot of movies for a lot of different reasons and any sort of ranking system would pivot on some other criteria. What movies top the list would depend greatly upon that other criteria. I love My Neighbour Totoro because it is quiet.
Quiet, probably doesn’t fully cover it. It’s not really the decibel level of the movie. There is a pervading gentleness to My Neighbour Totoro. While there are scenes of danger and adventure, there is no conflict that needs resolution. The two main characters, young sisters, quarrel and bicker, but there is no implied breakdown of their relationship. Their mother’s, seemingly chronic, illness drapes the entire film in a melancholy, but the family’s love for eachother is never tested. They hold steady from the first scene until the last. There is very little in the way of plot. There are no twists. Dialogue is sparse, simple, and without subtext. It’s all very subtle, beautiful, gentle and quiet.
When it was released, My Neighbour Totoro ran on a double bill with Grave of the Fireflies. Grave of the Fireflies shares most of the qualities of Totoro. Very simple plot, simple characters, simple dialogue, simple quiet sounds. I would even say that it is very gentle, at least in the telling of it’s simple story. While Totoro is enchanting and wonderful, Fireflies is the saddest movie ever made. That isn’t hyperbole. I’ve checked. There certainly are more disturbing movies, and maybe more tragic, but there are none sadder. I think that it is an amazing movie, well worth your time, but I’ll offer fair warning. Once again,Grave of the Fireflies is the most heartbreakingly sad movie ever made.
As I think my way through the entire Studio Ghibli library, I can hear that theme repeated time and again. Arrietty’s first borrowing is played out slowly and deliberately. A scene that could be played for tension, is instead, very simple. Every sound is crisp and clear, but the scene is mostly quiet. There is a thoughtful quality to many Studio Ghibli films, but when they just turn down the music and highlight the simple clean sounds of footsteps, leaves rustling, water flowing, they do it like no one else.
I started writing this with a point in mind, about how films have figured out the use of sound in ways that games haven’t, but now I see that really isn’t fair. It’s not just games. Very few films, and filmmakers, have the level of mastery over soft quiet sound, soft easy pacing, and soft gentle storytelling, that Studio Ghibli does. With well over a century of films to reference, that subtle quality still eludes most filmmakers. Of course, not all films need that level of subtlety. The standard summer blockbuster, would probably not be strengthened by gentle, poetic sound design.
Games, it seems, is a medium of blockbusters. You can point to the beautiful audio work of Team ICO or thatgamecompany, but that’s about it. Everyone else is in the business of making blockbusters, with blockbuster sound. When anyone goes for a “Ghibli style” in a game, they always, always mean the art style. That’s nice and all, but I think, just once or twice, I’d like them to be talking about how their game will sound.