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 garage-kit bonfire that is Area ‘88, I decided to tackle My Neighbor Totoro instead, a film almost guaranteed to be enjoyed by any conscious human being with a soul. Well aware of the hype that even now surrounds Totoro, I was nonetheless pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this movie – not in the cynical capacity of how bad everything else is, but as a guy honestly impressed by how good this movie really is. This is not to say that I didn’t do my damnedest to find fault with Totoro, but between the film’s infectious charm and its airtight structure, there’s really no good angle of attack to be found. Still, I was glad to find my critical offense so thwarted, for it was a nice change of pace to review something so authentically lovable.
My Neighbor Totoro hit the scene in April ’88 as the considerable cuddlier half of a double offering from Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli – the other half being the heart-wrenching 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 nature spirits. In keeping with the animistic tradition of Japanese spirituality, the two girls are not terrified but fascinated by this spiritual abundance in their new house, and gleefully relate their experiences to their father.
Here Totoro first shows its delightful anti-rationalist streak, as their bemused father reacts with pride at his daughters’ spiritual imagination rather than speed-dialing the kiddie shrink. While he never actually witnesses any of these phenomena, and it’s never quite sure whether or not he totally believes his daughters’ stories, the girls’ father clearly approves of their experiences as real communions with nature, or at least as benign outbursts of a healthy imagination. To Satsuki and Mei, it matters little whether or not their experiences are strictly real, for they are both fascinating and invariably benevolent, a fact which brings their minds great comfort as they adjust to their new surroundings.
It is in the second half of the film where Totoro gently probes the darker side of life. As the novelty of their new home wears off, Satsuki and Mei grow increasingly worried by their father’s long absences and new scares arise surrounding their mother’s frail health. Big sister Satsuki’s mature bravado begins to give way to anxious uncertainty, and the stubborn Mei struggles to accept the reality of her new situation. The latter’s indignance leads her to strike out on her own on a journey to the hospital, prompting a frantic search among the villagers. By kids’-movie standards, the peril in Totoro is extremely mild but strangely profound. The film forgoes life-and-limb terror in favor of exploring the most fundamental fears of childhood – the fear of uncertainty, isolation, of losing one’s loved ones and being displaced from one’s existential niche. I can’t really vouch for how well these subtleties will resonate with actual children (although I believe that kids are a lot more perceptive than we tend to recognize), but older viewers may be surprised by how well the two girls’ fears recall their own earliest trepidations. It is through this gentle adventure into darkness that Totoro empowers its cheery scenes with a reassuring quality.
On the visual front, Totoro is still astoundingly gorgeous, even compared with later Ghibli productions like Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away. The backgrounds are all gorgeous, and the colors are all crisp, but as always, the real treat is the fluidity of the subtler bits of animation. From the way the wind blows through the father’s study to lift his hair and clothes and flip his papers, to the flow of water through a stream, to the explosive growth of a phantom oak tree, Ghibli’s talent for the minutiae really shines through. This fundamental strength plays extremely well with Totoro’s gorgeous scene composition. The much-parodied bus stop sequence midway through the film particularly sticks out in my mind, with the warm yellow light of the bus stop against the dark forest road, to say nothing of the bristling fur of the great Totoro as he gets a near-orgasmic glee from raindrops down his back.
Perhaps the only ill that can be said of films like Totoro is that they may well have set the bar for anime and 2-D animation in general at a height that will likely never again be matched within our lifetimes. In a perpetually commercialized medium that seems to sustain itself more than ever on pandering to predefined and insular tastes, films like Totoro dare us to try something new, to be charitable to new experiences and open our minds like the young girls in the film. Would that more modern anime, theatrical or otherwise, could share the same spirit of exploration – perhaps then we might truly rediscover the wonder of our otaku youth.
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!
Ah, Heidegger; that guy's a bastard. I still can't forgive him for dropping the Midgar plate on Sector 7.
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.
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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