Whittaker Chambers has an essay on St. Benedict, where he claims that one of the saint’s important contributions to the cultural revival of Europe was the reinfusion of meaningfulness into manual labor – something which Ancient Rome in its decadence had lost.
It may seem odd to begin this post on My Neighbor Totoro with an observation about Benedict. But Miyazaki’s 1988 film, which is set in rural Japan, has among other things a fascination with manual labor, and is an explicitly Shinto film, seeing the lives of its characters as intertwined with the spirits inhabiting the locales. To make my second name-drop of the post (I love how loose citational standards can be when it comes to blogging) I believe it was C.S. Lewis who said that Christians often have more in common with pagans than with the modern secular mindset. I think this is particularly true of us Catholics, for whom physical things can become manifestations of God’s grace, who recognize the idea of sacred space, and have in the communion of saints a colourful cast of folks to help us out.
All this is I suppose a roundabout way of saying that although the theological differences between my religion and Shintoism are immense, I feel My Neighbor Totoro to be a much more relatable movie than Inside Out.
And I also think that Miyazaki has an interest in the meaning of work. I haven’t called much attention to it so far, but Miyazaki’s characters in Nausicaa and Laputa are often shown to be industrious and resourceful, and this is impicitly seen as a mark of being in touch both with the land and the people. Given Miyazaki’s own worries about how the entertainment industry and modern lifestyles are preventing kids from getting out there and living, I think his choice of rural Japan in this film is particularly noteworthy, even if there isn’t any of the commentary you see in Spirited Away. Something exemplary about it, perhaps.
But another reason why Totoro shows a fascination with work is because it is looking at it through a child’s eyes, and children often like to play at being adults. For Totoro is the first Miyazaki movie that is clearly meant as children’s entertainment.
Naturally the man takes the opportunity to get a little experimental in the story department. Totoro has no real plot to speak of, and virtually no conflict until the last 20 minutes or so. It concerns a family who moves into a new neighbourhood. A father, two daughters (the elder called Satsuki and the younger Mei) and a hospitalized mother. There is no drama generated from the move at all; the film spends most of its time on the random adventures of the two daughters as they explore their new locale. The high point being, of course, their run ins with the titular Totoro, a neighboring forest spirit who has become the de facto mascot of Studio Ghibli.
Miyazaki is committed to taking the behavior of children at play completely seriously. The film so perfectly captures the world of childhood that if it doesn’t provoke any delight in you, I can only assume that you were never a child. And this is Totoro’s singular artistic achievement. There are so many things here that I can remember doing: yelling into a spooky room in order to scare whatever may be hiding in it into plain sight, being fascinated by the spaces between the floorboards, and so forth.
Animation wise, the pencil-drawing style of Laputa has given way to much more vivid, bright colours, but with a slightly smudged, watercolour background, emphasizing childhood. Joe Hisaishi’s score is suitably playful and bouncy.
Totoro himself is a triumph of physicality in animation. He is massive, heavy, awkward and fluffy, but also weirdly bouncy. The animators have a lot of fun making him catch some air, having him yawn and show off his gaping mouth and making his whiskers shudder, showing how his tail reacts when it gets poked, and in short acting like one of the great cartoon characters. He is also, like the two daughters, curiously childlike; in the wonderful scene immortalized by the poster, he shows a visceral delight at the sound of raindrops hitting his umbrella.
There’s also, almost as iconically, the strange multi-legged cat bus, who could have come across as creepy and cronenbergian but instead somehow manages to come across as cute. And the sound effect he makes when his doors open…
Yeah, it’s safe to assume that Totoro is much weirder than your average children’s flick.
Anyway, as mentioned, there’s a mother in the hospital. And while this does factor into the kinda-sorta climax, the movie completely resists the temptation to weave it into any sort of predictable plot like, say, “Totoro can heal mom, but the adults won’t believe us so we have to convince them before she dies!” It does a better service to kids to portray illness as one of the facts of life.
And I’ll wrap things up on a personal note: Totoro was technically my first Miyazaki film. I say technically because I watched it at such a young age that the childhood memories I hold of it are vague impressions at best. As such, I can’t feel nostalgic about it, but there’s no denying that it was one of the many non sequitur episodes of my childhood. And that’s kinda Totoro-esque, if you think of it.