My Neighbor Totoro: Soft Power Bestiary

September 4, 2009

Tonari no Totoro/My Neighbor Totoro
Directed and written by Hayao Miyazaki
1988, Studio Ghibli, 86 minutes.

***

Vive l'autobus du chat!With a Ponyo viewing just around the corner, I thought I’d revisit this classic — the penultimate kids movie of all time.

My Neighbor Totoro is a simplified celebration of several of Miyazaki’s recurring story themes. There is an emphasis on the social bonds between the very young (first ten years) and old generations (given more heavy-handed treatment by Akira Kurosawa in the movies from his career twilight, Rhapsody in August and Dreams), the importance of nature, and the transition out of childhood via the overcoming of (often internal) personal tribulations.

Miyazaki vocalizes great concern for the well-being of children — their upbringing and sense of self-worth and inner willpower. This is especially apparent in his attempt to portray strong young females, whom he has expressed have few positive role models in the media. At least two times in the film, the young female protagonists take refuge by statues of the Jizo bosatsu — the (Japanese) Buddhist bodhisattvas who specifically care for the abandoned and dead children of this world. It’s pretty crazy how the young female protagonists in this film, Satsuki and Mei, are somehow more charming and life-like than any real young kids in existence (uh, not to mention how Totoro is somehow more charming than even real life animals with obscene, off-the-scale charm factors, such as golden jackyls or tuxedo cats).

Miyazaki also vocalizes environmentalist views in some his stories, which should have been incredibly apparent to anyone after even a lackadaisical viewing of 1997’s Mononoke Hime (Princess Mononoke). That one was rather heavy-handed in explaining humanity’s burden on the animal world, and is the most graphically violent Miyazaki-directed film. Though still tame by anime standards, a little bit of graphic violence expressed by Studio Ghibli is far more impacting than the blatant gore engendered by many animes. Here too, the environmentalism is in full-swing (more so than in other projects like Lupin III, Kiki’s Delivery Service or Porco Rosso). Totoro is a creature of the forest, where the most magical things happen in the middle of the night. And somebody prays to a tree at least once!

Totoro was such a smash commercial success, everyone in Japan wanted a stuffed animal of the big man afterwards — and understandably so! It is ironic since Totoro is an imaginary creature, evading tangible human senses and blatant desires (even little Mei can’t find Totoro when she is really eager to!). Instead of finding the real Totoros that exist in this world, many instead try to fill that hole with material representations of Totoro — this speaks volumes about the “stiff” quality of adult perception and imagination suggested by the film.

Or maybe it doesn’t (you athiest materialist!). Whatever, Miyazaki movies are like Monopoly “Get Out of Jail Free” cards for real life, only instead of getting out of jail with his films, you get out of depression. Totoro gets special bonus points for being ridiculously captivating without a single villain or traditional concrete story arc. As if Miyazaki is single-handedly undoing so much of the obsessive, Puritan “good vs. evil” moralizing that Disney’s cartoons have x-rayed into our souls for the past 60 years.

***

@ Amazon
@ IMDb

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