Thoughts on My Neighbor Totoro (Youtube Pulled Our Movie Edition)

Well, folks, I wanted to post another movie here on the blog, and I stumbled along into another copy of My Neighbor Totoro on YouTube. Well, why not? That works perfectly fine. And it's in the original language? That's fine, too; everybody knows the words by heart. At least, you should.

I've been watching Ken Burns' The War this week, and it's been a moving and profound experience. Above all else, it's a heavy film, the heaviest retelling of World War II I've ever seen. Likely this will become the war's heaviest statement, as that fateful and legendary generation is dying.

I wanted to write posts here that connect with that war, or deal with war in general, to continue the dialog. It isn't really that hard, since the two principle filmmakers at Studio Ghibli were born and raised during WWII, and profoundly affected by them. Hayao Miyazaki, especially, has been shaped by the war and its aftermath in his native Japan.

Which kind of brings us back to Totoro. Despite its reputation the world over as one of the happiest, most pastoral tributes to rural childhood ever put to film, it is likewise impacted greatly by the war. In this way, Miyazaki created a deeply personal film. He's always been a personal storyteller, narrating his own idealism and cynicism and romanticism and despair, engaging the audience into his ongoing dialogs. But My Neighbor Totoro is different. It's far more nostalgic, it carries into his past, without ever really engaging the present. If we can relate to the characters in Totoro, it's because Miyazaki touches universal themes of our collective humanity.

Japan's post-war years were wracked with poverty, suffering and disease. Tuberculosis was a deadly disease among the civilian population. Miyazaki's own mother was hospitalized, on and off again, for many years. This affected their relationship greatly; the son was especially impacted. In a sense, he never really recovered. His mother's illness, the son's pain, and the emotional distancing between them would be portrayed in My Neighbor Totoro, and both the film and manga versions of Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind.

Absent or surrogate parents played a role in Future Boy Conan, Laputa: Castle in the Sky, and Kiki's Delivery Service. Porco Rosso deals with alienation and the difficulty to emotionally connect to loved ones. And the struggle to find and maintain those connections in a world torn by war and suffering are at the heart of Princess Mononoke and Howl's Moving Castle.

For Miyazaki, so much of his emotional trauma comes back to those early childhood years. The reality of so much suffering around him, caught in forces beyond their control. My Neighbor Totoro, in a sense, is an effort to make peace with that past. He creates a pastoral paradise, one where childhood is truly cherished and allowed to flourish and grow. It is a world without the trapping of the adult world; here, landscapes are teaming with life, dark forests only offer mystery and awe, and a giant furry animal lies underneath the trees, quietly snoring away.

My Neighbor Totoro is a movie with a dozen sides. You could appreciate it from any of those angles. That's why it's so beloved by all ages around the world. Well, here's another angle you may haven't thought of before.

Enjoy the movie! Get some more popcorn!


Michael Sporn said...

This film really is the gold standard, isn't it. The character animation is so beautiful, and it doesn't matter that parts of it are on 4's and 3's. There's so much genuine character in each of the principals, and most of it comes from their movement. Regardless of that, the story is so rich and deep. A beautiful work. And a rarity in the last dozen or so years.

Ian Appleby said...

Michael says it all about the quality of the film, in almost all of its aspects. I can't think of a better. Your reference to its roots in Japanese experiences of the war is interesting, I hadn't thought of it in quite that way, and it does as you say illuminate themes running through other Miyazaki films.

I am just surprised that you didn't also mention the fact that Totoro was originally released in a double-bill with Grave of the Fireflies, which, before reading this post, I had thought one of the most incongruous matches possible. I am always astounded to recall that, of the two, it was Totoro that audiences were unlikely to want to watch. Sure, Fireflies is also a very good film, but it is incredibly hard viewing emotionally. Thanks for bringing out the commonality between the two films.

Daniel Thomas MacInnes said...

Thanks for everyone's comments, as always. I didn't mention the fact of the Totoro/Fireflies double bill since it's common knowledge now in the West. Besides, I'm pretty sure I've mentioned that before.

I've written about Totoro a few times before, and I've shown the movie here on the blog once before, so I'm more compelled to show some new insights, some new angle to consider. We already know about how warm and happy it is.

Also, as I've written, I sat glued to my television for Ken Burns' The War, which proved to be emotionally overwhelming. The sheer totality of it all, the brutality and cruelty and mass's all too much. Of course, tonight was the final episode, which, depsite being the final installment, felt the heaviest and darkest. The Holocaust, Okinawa, the Japan firebombing campaign, the death of FDR, the destruction of Berlin, the atomic bomb.

So, when I chose My Neighbor Totoro for the weekend viewing - probably to help ensure my rapidly crumbling sanity (you do know we're going to war with Iran, right?) - I tried to tie everything in with Miyazaki's own war experiences.

As for Fireflies, I've observed that there are many moments of peace and beauty. All of which only heightens the suffering and misery. Interesting that the WWII films that had the greatest impact on me are those with a documentary bent. Saving Private Ryan, Shindler's List, Grave of the Fireflies, and now Ken Burns' The War.

C. said...

This movie is so tender :) I love the rain scene!

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