My contribution to Area ’88 was originally going to be a post on Mobile Suit Gundam: Char’s Counterattack, a movie which I only vaguely remembered from its Cartoon Network airing some years ago. I went into the film as charitably as I could, but I just couldn’t find much to enjoy in CCA, not even in the ironic realm from which I approach almost every anime that I watch. Not wanting to be the wet blanket to the celebratory Grave of the Fireflies, which was released a week later. Between the much-acclaimed thematic integrity and gorgeous animation of these two opposing films, the Totoro-Grave double-whammy remains one of the most formidable pairings in anime history.
Of all the formidable anime offerings of 1988, none, not even the similarly prominent Akira, have achieved the kind of universal cinematic respectability that Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies command among critics who, by and large, couldn’t otherwise give two shits about anime. As one might expect, despite the heartfelt critical praise for both films, Japanese audiences largely avoided the depressing Fireflies, but flocked en masse to the lighthearted Totoro. This preference, however, should not be mistaken for prizing insipid escapism over Fireflies’ unpleasant realism. Despite its cheeriness, Totoro is neither insipid nor escapist – and there, like with its titular mascot, lies its subtle, colossal strength.
Following the sickeningly sweet vocal theme that opens the film, we are introduced to the family at the center of the film: two young girls, the grade-schooler Satsuki and the preschooler Mei, and their father, an archaeologist at an undetermined Tokyo university. Despite their father’s occupation in the city, the family has moved out to the sticks in 1950s-era Japan to be closer to the girls’ mother, who is recuperating from an unnamed illness at a rural hospital. The two young girls begin rambunctiously exploring their weather-beaten new home and quickly discover that their house and backyard play host to a wide array of