Area ’88: My Neighbor Totoro

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,…

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
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  1. The thing I think Totoro really does well is the way the balance between the two sisters works itself out. The way Mei is always trying to mimic Satsuki’s actions and movements but never quite able to carry it off with the same dexterity and assurance, played against the way Satsuki is always lingering a little behind Mei in all their dealings with Totoro. That Miyazaki portrays all this visually gives such a subtle yet powerful sense of Satsuki’s growing maturity and also the slightly melancholy sense that because of this she’ll soon lose touch with Totoro and all that he signifies about childhood/innocence/etc.

  2. dotdash: Excellent insight on the Satsuki-Mei contrast. This is another aspect of the film that really contributes to its hidden maturity that keeps it from being written off as a hyperactive kids’ cartoon.

    The suggestion of Satsuki’s maturing rationality also reinforces the importance of the girls’ father to the picture. Mr. Kusakabe may no longer literally believe in physical encounters with gigantic hairy beasts, but he’s retained the ultimate meaning behind these encounters — an affirmation that no matter how hectic or confusing our rational adult lives may seem, we can always find hidden beauty or insight in even the simplest of our phenomenological encounters with existence.

    (You’ll have to excuse that last part, it’s the Heidegger talking; I have a paper on him and Sartre due next week. Impenetrable Nazi bastard…)

    He doesn’t recoil with fear and anger that his daughters are seeing things that he doesn’t, because he has complete faith that they, too, see what really is important — taking an adventurous, curious reading of our human existence, and thereby fully comprehending that the world doesn’t have to be a sterile, amoral, uncaring substrate for our human failures. You really CAN find beauty, wisdom, and adventure anywhere you look — whether it be in a new house, a new backyard, or hell, even in anime!

  3. And the fact that Professor Kusakabe is an entomologist is important for the reasons you outline, I think. It’s a branch of the sciences, but one that retains at its root a young boy’s fascination with and curiosity for little creatures and the natural world. Coupled with the old lady’s more direct, folkloric belief in the local spirits, it hints that even when Satsuki can no longer see Totoro, being an adult doesn’t have to mean being a fuddy duddy.

    Ah, Heidegger; that guy’s a bastard. I still can’t forgive him for dropping the Midgar plate on Sector 7.

  4. Wow…watching a movie only with the intent of tearing a strip of it…

    All right, enough of the wiseass comments. I agree that TOTORO is an excellent film, and that it still holds up even today. But one cannot find any glaring faults with it (or any film by Miyazaki, to tell the truth).

    Ironically, it’s interesting to hear that many people who abhor anime intensely (but have limited exposure to the medium) actually like Miyazaki’s films, and TOTORO is very high on that list.

  5. Marc: The “critical attack” comments are mostly facetious. I fully expected to find Totoro enjoyable as a good film, but I wanted to make it clear in true Colony Drop fashion (cynically and sarcastically) that I wasn’t going to give it a free ride just because it was a Miyazaki film.

    As for faults with Miyazaki…of all his films that I have seen, the only one I would call weak would be Howl’s Moving Castle. The film was certainly gorgeous, but the direction went to hell in the final quarter and the ending was the worst kind of deus-ex-machina tripe. Other than that, I think he’s by and large earned his hype.

    As to why he commands such powerful hype to begin with, I think it’s the fact that he tells simple stories with strong fundamentals and gorgeous visuals rather than trying to wow people with thematic and cinematic trick-shots. There’s also the fact that his (usually) fantastic settings and semi-European aesthetics tend to lower the cultural barrier for Western critics by a fair degree — this is important because if the cultural barrier won’t confound your average, otherwise mostly-open-minded movie critic, the medium barrier will. (“Wait, this is a cartoon and it’s not commercialized kiddie tripe? I don’t get it.”)

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