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!