List of Shame File #9: My Neighbor Totoro

While we have seen many films, there are many films that are held in high regard that we haven’t seen yet. As we cross them off our List of Shame, we’ll write about them here!

While a lot of my friends went through a heavy anime phase in high school (or for all I know, they are still as obsessed as ever), I never got much beyond Dragonball Z, Akira, and a few other things. One of those was Spirited Away, the 2001 film by Hayao Miyazaki. It left quite an impression on me, though the film is rather strange and dense feeling for someone not already versed in that style of filmmaking. As a consequence, I didn’t see many more of Miyazaki’s work until I was in college.

It was actually Pixar that brought me circling back to the films of “the Japanese Walt Disney.” As I read more about the studio, I found that John Lasseter (director of Toy Story, etc., and now Disney guru) was not only a huge fan of Miyazaki, but had actually supervised the English dubbing and release of Spirited Away. The titular character actually appears in last summer’s Toy Story 3:

My most recent foray into Miyazaki’s animation is the 1988 classic  My Neighbor Totoro. For those who are not aware, the film takes place in Japan in 1958, centering on the Kusakabe family. The father, a university professor, and his two daughters, Satsuki and Mei (about 10 and 3 years old), move into an old house in rural Japan to be closer to a hospital where their wife/mother is recovering from an unnamed illness. The house appears to be inhabited by soot sprites, who live in unoccupied spaces, and serve as an introduction to the world beyond the one we normally see.

Eventually, Satsuki and Mei meet some of the “keepers of the forrest,” including the large, cat-like Totoro, who shows them the forrest, as well as a bus shaped like a giant cat (or a giant cat shaped like a bus?). There are adventures involving a giant tree, and a tense sequence involving the girls wanting to visit their mother.

While largely rooted in nature, Totoro plays on the nostalgia of peaceful postwar Japan, showing a period that is obviously not contemporary. This contrast is augmented by the rural context as well, and arriving in a place that is as unfamiliar to the characters as it is to the audience only helps us identify more quickly with Satsuki and Mei (this is only enhanced for Western viewers).

They are central to the story, of course, and the true beauty of the film is in these two girls, their relationship, their curiosity, and their feelings for their mother and father. Satsuki and Mei are as fully realized as any characters in animation and live action, and they behave exactly like little girls in their situation would.

Thematically, the film borrows a lot from classic works like Alice in Wonderland, what with the two girls discovering a hidden world just beyond their front door. However, the film also draws heavily from Miyazaki’s own life. Miyazaki’s father was an academic and his mother, who suffered from tuberculosis, was successfully treated in a rural sanitarium. In an interview published in Starting Point: 1979-1996 Miyazaki mentioned he made the main characters girls so it wouldn’t be too close to his own life.

This actually brings us to the contrast between Miyazaki and his American admirer Lasseter. The latter was named Father of the Year 2011 by Esquire magazine for creating children’s entertainment ostensibly for boys. While you may disagree with the premise, Lasster’s films are much more “male friendly” than Disney’s largely princess-driven output. Miyazaki, by contrast, almost always puts female protagonists in his stories. These girls are strong and independent, and are shown in a diverse variety of careers over the course of Miyazaki’s films.

For a movie geared toward children, it treats them like adults, at least in portraying real life. As Ebert said, “It is a little sad, a little scary, a little surprising and a little informative, just like life itself. It depends on a situation instead of a plot, and suggests that the wonder of life and the resources of imagination supply all the adventure you need.”  There are no villains in this film, instead it is a movie about growing up, discovering new things, and gaining maturity.

This is a fantastic film for people of all ages, and if you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it.