Last month we were grocery shopping, and found a copy of Spirited Away in a bargain bin for £3. This initiated Bean into the world of anime– Japanese animation. Specifically, it’s brought her into the world of Hayao Miyazaki. Mr. Miyazaki is revered in Japan and cited as a major influence by animators all over the world, including Nick Park (Wallace & Gromit) and the Pixar guys (John Lasseter et. al,). In fact, Totoro has a cameo in “Toy Story 3”:
To call Miyazaki a “Japanese Disney” would be incorrect– he hasn’t opened any theme parks, and there’s no studio pumping out pop starlets under his name. He sticks to lush, old-fashioned hand-drawn animation, mostly feature-length, and lovely, lyrical stories that usually feature ordinary girls who get caught up in supernatural situations. They might take some getting used to if you’re a Westerner brought up on three-act structure plots. They’re slower, more poetic, quieter. And deeply, deeply weird.
While Spirited Away (2001) is considered the big masterpiece (and it’s probably Bean’s favorite), I’m going to start with the movie that started getting Miyazaki really noticed in the west as an artist who creates for children and gave his production company, Studio Ghibli, its mascot: My Neighbour Totoro.
MNT tells the story of the Kusakabe girls, Mei (age 4, in the hat) and Satsuki (about 10, with the black pixie cut). They’ve moved out into the countryside with their father, who’s a sweet, caring university professor, in order to be closer to their mother, who’s being treated for something unnamed and serious in a hospital. Mae, being small and rambunctious, is sure Mom will be home soon. Satsuki, being older and wiser, worries more.
However, they’re excited about their new house. It’s old and creaky and possibly haunted, according to the locals. And there’s an enormous forest just behind it, presided over by a colossal camphor tree. The girls run around the place, looking for bugs and fish and ghosts. And they keep discovering acorns laid out, almost like a path. Mei, playing outside one day, finds some…
This creature leads her to a path through the hedges, which leads to a tree, which leads to the lair of…
This is Totoro. He’s the spirit of the camphor tree. He protects the forest, and he and the two mini-totoros befriend these two little girls and watch over them while they wait for their mother to get well. Totoro’s main job is to help things grow. He does this by dancing in the moonlight (I may use this in the garden on my squash seeds). And in every Miyazaki film, there’s at least one beautiful flight sequence. Here it is:
Maybe it’s just me, but when Satsuki yells “Mei! We’re the wind!” I get a little choked up.
In MNT, the kids act like actual kids: Satsuki draws pictures of Mei as a crab in letters to her mother. Mei dresses up in a hat and pocketbook and asks her Dad, “Do I look like a big girl? Okay, off to run some errands!”
She also exhibits excellent four-year-old logic: when the old lady who babysits for them now and then explains that vegetables can make a sick person better, Mei decides to take an ear of corn she’s picked to the hospital for her mother, whose condition, they’ve just been informed, has worsened. This, in spite of the fact that the hospital is miles away. When Satsuki discovers Mei has gone off by herself, it triggers a huge search of the area. Mei is finally found with the help of Totoro and the Catbus.
Ah, the Catbus. I haven’t mentioned it. This is because, in an otherwise sleepy and pastoral movie, the Catbus will have you struggling to recall if you licked a cane toad:
Depending on your kid, you may find the Catbus totally freaky and inappropriate. The Bean likes it, and mimics its noises.
We like this film. The music’s not bombastic. There isn’t a cut between shots every four seconds. There isn’t a slew of double-entendres or wink-wink pop culture references. There’s definitely no product placement. It’s as sleepily-paced as a summer afternoon, very sweet and pastoral and innocent. It shows people respecting nature, girls mucking about in the mud and enjoying it, and how a good big sister can help to protect a little sister, especially if the big sister is afraid. There’s lots of real love and courage in this story.
Disney did a perfectly respectful English-language dub of MNT in 2006. They didn’t cut the story at all, just added new voices (Elle and Dakota Fanning are the sisters). You’ll also have the chance to watch it in Japanese with subtitles, if you want. And whatever language you watch it in, you’ll end up humming the infectious theme song: