Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, September 4, 2014

Director Report Card: Hayao Miyazaki (1988)

4. My Neighbor Totoro
Tonari no Totoro

I remember seeing advertisements for the first English-dub of “My Neighbor Totoro” when it premiered on video sometime in the mid-nineties. I was a dork, even as a kid, so I was aware that anime was a thing. But I wasn’t in deep enough to know who Hayao Miyazaki was. I certainly didn’t know that he was probably the most respected filmmaker working in the medium. In addition to being a dork, I was also an asshole. The advertisements did not encouragement to seek the movie out. I didn’t think about the film for years. One of the first things I did after getting hooked up to the internet was find Roger Ebert’s website. Listed among his Great Movies was “My Neighbor Totoro.” I remember thinking, “That’s a great movie?” I was also a moron as a kid for dismissing “My Neighbor Totoro.” Not only is it, easily, the most beloved of Miyazaki’s film, or any of Ghibli’s output for that matter, it has also gone on to become my favorite of the director’s work.

After the epic action and fantasy of his last three films, perhaps Miyazaki wanted his fourth feature to be more personal and whimsical. The fate of the world is not at stake. There are no chase scenes, shootings, or villains. Instead, “My Neighbor Totoro” is a simple story about two little girls living in the country with their father. While waiting for their ill mother to be released from the hospital, Satsuki, around seven, and Mei, four, explore the near-by forest. Both discover the fantastic creatures living around them, like the soot gremlins, the Catbus, and Totoro, the fluffy, friendly king of the forest and guardian of children.

“My Neighbor Totoro” is, perhaps, the best film ever made about childhood. The film captures the limitless energy of childhood better than any other I’ve seen. Upon arriving at their new home, Satsuki and Mei run through the hallways, flinging open doors, yelling and screaming. Their circle around in the yard, doing somersaults, Satsuki even impersonating an Indian yodel at one point. In less skilled creators' hands, the girls’ constant enthusiasm could be irritating. By portraying the kids so honestly, Miyazaki and his team immediately charm the viewer. Though Satsuki has started school, this only factors into one scene. The focus is, instead, on her life at home. The pacing and tone are laid-back and conversational, perfectly capturing the spirit of a lazy summer day, when exploring the world of your backyard was the biggest adventure any kid could ask for.

The relationship between Satsuki and Mei is the backbone of the movie. The girls’ father isn’t emotionally distant. One touching moment has the three taking a bath together and attempting to laugh away any scary ghosts. However, their father is frequently busy with his work. Notably, their mother’s condition doesn’t seem to weigh on him very much. So the two sisters must, for the most part, rely on each other. Mei is well-spoken for a child her age but is still prone to emotional outburst. Satsuki, despite not being much older, has been thrust into the role of supervisor. She watches out for Mei, follows along on her fantastic adventures. But the two still have their conflicts. The last act is set off when, after an upsetting phone call from the hospital, Satsuki isn’t able to handle Mei’s most recent temper tantrum. Moments like this are likely to tug at your heartstrings for the honest pathos and genuine emotion they generate. It’s an accurate depiction of growing up close to a young sibling.

Unlike the fantasy settings of “Nausicaa” or “Laputa,” “Totoro” is set in a world close to our own. There’s no crazy architecture or unique geography to detail and create. Instead, “Totoro” is set in the Japanese countryside. The craftsmanship is as detailed as ever. Great attention is paid to the homes, clothing, and vehicles of the period. The outfits worn in the rice fields, the bikes and strange three-wheeled mopeds, and the bath-filled onsen are accurate recreations. Without a sprawling fantasy world to put on screen, Miyazaki’s attention seems to have turned to the behavior of the characters. As always, the director captures tiny, real life moments. Early on, the father steps over Mei as she crawls around on the floor. Satsuki wobbles around on her knees on the newly waxed floors. She spins around a pillar on the porch, startled and amused by how it shakes loose. A young boy in the village named Kanta offers Satsuki his umbrella by silently thrusting it forward, repeatedly. Mei’s behavioral quirks are probably the most endearing. The way she latches onto her sister in a hug, stern-faced and stiff-armed, is both funny and touching.

Which brings us to the titular neighbor. Totoro was quickly adopted as Studio Ghibli’s mascot. It’s not hard to see why. Like Mickey Mouse before him, Totoro was seemingly designed to be easy to draw. He’s essentially a big circle, two pointy ears, stubby arms, and a poofy tail. His design was clearly inspired by several real world animals. The quickest way to describe him is to say he’s the cross between a fluffy bunny rabbit and a great big teddy bear. The ears are clearly Lagomorphian. His build and the spindly claws on his paws bring the sloth bear to mind. The nose and whiskers are cat-like while the tail is from a raccoon. His great big mouth, which we get several close-ups of, is the most human like feature. The eyes are simple but oddly expressive. The tan chest and markings, meanwhile, are pure Ghibli. The other Totoros are distinct designs as well. The smallest one is a white ball of fluff on chicken feet. The medium-sized one is a pretty blue color and always carries a pack. The Totoros’ designs cast a wide shadow over Japanese pop culture. Compare them to any Pokemon, or just Snorlax, and notice the resemblance.

The name Totoro comes from Mei’s heavily Japanese pronunciation of “troll.” This creates a fairly direct connection between Totoro and European mythology. As has been frequently said about fairies and ghosts, only children can see Totoro and his friends. By co-existing, secretly, along side humanity and hiding in the woods, Totoro vaguely recalls the fey of Scottish legend. Unlike fairies and changelings, Totoro’s interest in children are purely benign. Totoro is connected with the giant camphor trees of the forest and, upon this viewing, I have to wonder if the two aren’t somehow one and the same. This not only speaks to Miyazaki’s ecological themes but adds yet another mythic layer. There are repeated references to Shintoism throughout the film, a religion based around spirits guiding us and living among us. The soot gremlins, cute little black fluff-balls that inhabit empty homes, remind me of brownies, especially how they swarm away when discovered. As in another great movie about where childhood fantasies and real-life legends intersect, “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “My Neighbor Totoro” is refreshingly non-ambiguous about its magical creatures. You could make the case that the Totoros only exist in the imaginations of Satsuki and Mei. Yet the critters have a direct impact on the plot and, more than once, directly hand the girls’ gift. People can theorize all they want but, in the universe of the film, Totoro is undeniably real.

Two sequences in “My Neighbor Totoro”have, rightfully, risen to iconic levels. Their father is late returning home from work, which upsets little Mei and concerns Satsuki. The two wander out in the middle of a rain storm to wait for him at the bus stop. Exhausted from crying, Mei falls asleep while propped on her big sister’s shoulders. During a sad moment for both girls, Totoro appears out of the woods. Adorably, the critter has a leaf on his head, an ineffective blockage against the rain. Satsuki hands him a spare umbrella which confuses Totoro. Until he notices rain water plops pleasantly against the umbrella, at which point he’s delighted. The whimsy in the scene peaks with the appearance of the Catbus, a character that is nearly as iconic as Totoro. The Catbus is a weirder character, with nine inexplicable limbs, headlight eyes, and glowing mice crawling over it. The door opens with a stereotypical sci-fi noise in a way that would probably be unnerving in a live-action film. In animation, it’s quirky, funny, cute, and just the right level of mysterious.

The second moment comes a little later in the film. During their meeting in the rain, Totoro gives Satsuki a little package full of acorn. The girls plant the seeds and wait patiently for them to grow. At one point, Mei even sits by the garden for hours, waiting for a sprout to pop up. During the night, the two girls are called out of their beds by the trio of Totoros. Together the group chants and flexes, calling the seeds up through the ground. In a moment of pure magic, the tiny acorns sprout into a massive tree that dwarfs the home. Satisfied with his work, Totoro reveals a magically floating top. Leaping atop it, the two girls hug onto the friendly monster’s fuzzy chest. Holding tight, Totoro takes them on a flight through the night sky. The scene functions on a dream logic that informs the whole film to a degree. It might be the only scene in the movie that actually is a dream, since the tree is gone in the morning. Even then, its kept ambiguous, as the girls’ father seem to notice some of the noise from outside. It’s the most lyrical moment in a film full of moments of simple childhood understanding.

It is not immediately apparent but “My Neighbor Totoro” is also a period piece. Wikipedia sets the film in 1956 though the film could honestly take place during any point of the post-war era. When I first saw the movie, I assumed it took place in the modern day. There are hints at the period setting though. The vehicles on-screen are clearly antiques. The only phone in the whole countryside is an ancient, hand-cranked model. There’s very little modern technology on display, no cellphones, computer, or anything like that. What there is a lot of is rice farming. By setting the film in the in-determined past, it draws more attention to the nostalgic feeling that characterize the whole film. It’s a movie about childhood. By setting it in the past, it becomes a film about everyone’s childhood.

Like the best films about childhood, “Totoro” acknowledges that being a kid can be scary sometimes too. The fate of their mother hangs over Satsuki and Mei always. Though she appears to be recovering, her death is something the girls seem likely to face sooner, rather than later. The climax of the film revolves around Mei running away from home, racing to her mom in the hospital, clutching an unhusked cob of corn the whole time. The search for the girl provides a genuine amount of tension and the film smartly doesn’t reveal that Mei is safe until after the characters are aware of this. In addition, it’s a good thing the movie quickly characterizes Totoro as friendly and gentle because his initial appearance, which involves him opening his mouth very wide and roaring his name, could have been a little scary for young kids.

So there is a slight meloncholey to the film. But is there an even deeper darkness lurking within “My Neighbor Totoro?” A popular fan theory has it that Totoro is actually a spirit of death and that the girls are actually ghosts in their final scenes. At first, this appears to be yet another example of the internet looking for uncalled for sinister undertones in children’s entertainment. It also ignores the scenes glimpsed during the credits. And yet the theory does raise some interesting questions. The possible references to the Sayama incident seem unlikely to be coincidental, especially since Japanese audiences would likely recognize them. The presence of “Cemetery/Shrine” shrine and Shinto totems representative of dead children, when read in the context of the theory, gives the viewer pause. Miyazaki and Ghibli have repeatedly denied any intentional attempt at a morbid subtext. Personally, I’d rather watch “My Neighbor Totoro” unsullied by such thoughts too. Yet the popularity of the myth proves that film is not a static art form, that even the most far-out theories can take hold among viewers.

“My Neighbor Totoro” also features the first Joe Hiashi score that I actually like. The composer’s dependence on cheap-sounding synth has given way to deeper orchestration. The magical creatures of the forest have their own theme. What starts out as far-off clattering builds up into a sweeping, mystical overture that reoccurs most every time Totoro and company are on-screen. The music has become famous too and is as much associated with the film as cuddly Totoro plushes.

Miyazaki’s films are usually good, if not great, enough that they blow away a viewer on first watch. Repeated viewings can sometimes leave the viewer underwhelmed since even the best film does not always live up to that first impression. “My Neighbor Totoro,” however, never disappoints. It’s always fills me with good feeling and impresses me every time. Maybe some of the director’s other films are greater technical achievements. “My Neighbor Totoro” shows mastery of tone, story, and characterization, and is, without fail, always an immense joy. [Grade: A]

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