The long, friendly shadow of My Neighbor Totoro

EDITORS’ PICKS, Features, FILM, Film Festivals
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On the lineage and legacy of Hayao Miyazaki’s most enduring film. Plus, Isao Takahata and a new Studio Ghibli showcase.

Perhaps a critic’s toughest assignment is writing about the film he or she loves the most. In the past, I’ve tried unsuccessfully to write eloquently about my own special film love: Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Spring, a masterwork I consider the most important in my appreciation of cinema. In practical terms, to ponder Late Spring academically, to analyse it through a cold, dispassionate stare, is the easy option. But when it comes to explaining what is behind my deep personal affection for it and what makes it uniquely sublime, words fail me. Such is irrational, unconditional love.

A simple answer to the dilemma is this: why tell you about the film when I could just show you it? That’s also how I feel about My Neighbor Totoro, an iconic Studio Ghibli anime whose gooey centre is sweetened by the prize of discovery. Upon discovering My Neighbor Totoro, the only reasonable thing to do—though try as some might to capture its magic with gimmicky superlatives—is to let others discover it for themselves. Either that, or watch it over and over again, because no other film I know of is able to hold up to repeat viewings without this sense of discovery diminishing in returns. It is an eternal wonder, I think, because it understands the power of equivocation. We witness this most profoundly in the exclamation “It was a dream! But it wasn’t a dream!”, and in more subtle but no less significant ways, such as the surface tension between the transporting visuals and the meticulous attention to animating human and physical detail, or the internal notion that, for its young protagonists, belief and imagination are one and the same.

But there I go again, thinking language can adequately extol the virtues of a film as enduring and endearing as My Neighbor Totoro. Objectively speaking, Hayao Miyazaki’s best film is the one he’s vowed will be his last: The Wind Rises. My Neighbor Totoro, however, will surely be the one that outlives all other Miyazaki classics, and possibly every other animated movie on the planet. It’s that wonderful. Totoro’s fuzzy silhouette already graces the opening of every Studio Ghibli production, and yet I would argue that his (its?) shadow extends much further over cinema’s long fascination with childhood, and certainly beyond the realms of children’s animation. The idea of contemplating other film works—especially live-action features—that invoke the spirit of My Neighbor Totoro, either knowingly or unconsciously, was also a far less daunting proposition than attempting to describe the spell that Miyazaki’s film brings me under.

Though not necessarily inspired by My Neighbor Totoro directly, what’s evident in the adjacent films I discuss below is an atmosphere and setting perfectly crystallized by Miyazaki’s beloved anime: that of the pastoral upbringing and the slow pace of rural life, characterised by narratives steeped in bittersweet nostalgia and the seasonal passing of time. Not by coincidence, many of these films revere the countryside in a way that is quintessentially Japanese, which is to say as stories they are at once romantic and elegiac about notions of community, nature, and memory. Beyond this, what crucially allows them to speak to one another is their shared theme of loss and abandonment, their sensitivity towards events both ordinary and extraordinary, their portrayal of children as equally aloof and aware of their surroundings, and their proximity to the real or adult world, which is found either just beyond the frame or hiding in plain sight.

img_spiritofthebeehiveForbidden Games (1952)
Hugo and Josephine (1967)
The Spirit of the Beehive (1973)

Before My Neighbor Totoro’s influence comes its lineage, and I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge its melancholy predecessors: namely, two landmark films about childhood, René Clément’s Forbidden Games and Víctor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive. Forbidden Games and The Spirit of the Beehive are conversely much darker tales in tune with the morbid behaviour and corruptibility of children, though the spectre of death is by no means invisible in Miyazaki’s universe, hanging over My Neighbor Totoro and the likes of Spirited Away and The Wind Rises. The most haunted of these films, The Spirit of the Beehive, also gives off the loudest echo in terms of My Neighbor Totoro’s narrative, prefiguring its central relationship of two sisters, one of whom is transfixed by the ‘spirit’ of an imaginary being, James Whale’s Frankenstein. In Kjell Grede’s bewitching Hugo and Josephine, one of the most popular Swedish films of all time, this being is human, and he represents not the fear of the unknown but the protection of innocence. Warm, portly, and instinctively paternal, this kindly gardener feels like an early version of Totoro, looking over the titular children in lieu of their absentee fathers while encouraging some of the most delightful child’s play ever put to screen.

img_summeratgrandpasA Summer at Grandpa’s (1984)

While the ludicrous “God of Death” conspiracy theory connecting My Neighbor Totoro to a notorious child murder case continues to circulate online, there remains little to no speculation that Miyazaki’s anime may have in fact been a remake of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s 1984 film. Centred on an 11-year-old boy and his younger sister as they are sequestered to the countryside while their mother recovers from a serious illness in hospital, the plot similarities are striking.

Constitutionally, A Summer at Grandpa’s even more closely resembles My Neighbor Totoro as an episodic bildungsroman whose depiction of childhood is gloriously amorphous. Hou’s film interestingly sits just inside the margins of an oeuvre regarded as the most important in Taiwanese cinema—it is accessible in form yet at the same time discreetly motions towards Hou’s signature master shot aesthetic brought to international attention in such films as A City of Sadness and The Puppetmaster. The resulting style blends naturalism and curiosity to poignant effect, with the child performers at ease in their interactions with each other while slowly but surely absorbing the environment around them—in particular, the differences between city and country life, and some uneasy glimpses at adult violence, cruelty, and dysfunction. In its own right, A Summer at Grandpa’s encapsulates everything memorable and confusing about childhood, though for the purposes of this article, it is just as much a minimalist version of My Neighbor Totoro without the imaginary overdrive. Also, on a personal note, A Summer at Grandpa’s reflects my own childhood more than any other film.

img_movingMoving (1993)

Shinji Sômai’s Moving greatly intensifies the notion of mistrust in adulthood, as well as charting the small steps towards it, through its magnetic 12-year-old protagonist, Renko. Played by Tomoko Tabata, it’s a performance that ranks as one of the finest by a child actor in all of cinema. Furthermore, I would not consider it hyperbole to call this film one of the best Japanese features of the past two decades, and by extension, the director’s masterpiece; prematurely, he passed away at the age of 53 in 2001.

Nominally, Moving evokes My Neighbor Totoro in its escape from city to country—a time-honored journey in Japanese society, the destination steeped in spiritual and cultural tradition—though its passage is more neatly aligned with relatives of Miyazaki’s anime, specifically the quotidian nostalgia of Only Yesterday and the grounded coming-of-age drama A Letter to Momo. The problems that children face in this particular subgenre are often funneled into a fantastical experience—in A Letter to Momo, an adolescent girl’s grief and regret manifest supernaturally, as does the sisters’ loneliness and apprehension in My Neighbor Totoro. For Sômai, however, the upheaval of his story—the divorce of Renko’s parents—has a stronger emotional resonance when explored through a heightened reality, which comes to the fore in the final 30 minutes, a tour de force of the senses. Few films capture the dichotomy of a youngster’s wide-eyed perspective—to be simultaneously overwhelmed by the world and all its possibilities while being able to acutely perceive its contradictions and flaws—quite like Moving.

img_kikujiroKikujiro (1999)

By contrast, the heartfelt Kikujiro restores our confidence in adults, though not before delivering a few home truths about their dishonest nature. Like the lonesome Josephine, nine-year-old Masao (Yusuke Sekiguchi) longs for a friend or simply a parent whose whereabouts, kept from him by his grandmother, are unknown. After stumbling upon an address for his birth mother, he goes in search of her with a retired gangster (played irrepressibly by maverick director/archetypal yakuza Takeshi Kitano) as his unreliable chaperone. At first, the callous Kikujiro exploits the boy’s helplessness, gambling his travel money at the races and generally ignoring his needs. At one point, Masao is almost molested by a stranger until Kitano’s twitching thug violently intervenes. In no uncertain terms, Masao is let down by the people who are supposed to care for his well-being—a deeply unsentimental outlook—until Kikujiro sympathises with the boy and becomes a father figure to him after he is rejected by the mother he never knew.

As a film about abandonment and what it feels like to be an outsider, Kikujiro is imbued with a quiet sadness, though it is otherwise tonally and thematically in sync with My Neighbor Totoro; its gentle humanism guided by emotions associated with naivety, protectiveness, and pure unadulterated fun. The motley crew of adults who rally around Masao become surrogate Totoros as his playmates and guardians, and the locations of his road trip—from countryside, to seaside, to summer matsuri—further establish this idea of a formative experience, as chronicled in many films about childhood, being inseparable from nature and the warmest months of the year. If My Neighbor Totoro can also be thought of as impressionism, then Kikujiro paints a similar picture in terms of brightening Kitano’s career, arriving after a sustained period of bloody yakuza movies, a well-documented motorcycle accident where art became a form of therapy for the hard-living celebrity (one of Kitano’s paintings appears in the title sequence of Kikujiro), and the Venice-winning Hana-bi (1997) which tempered rage with compassion, and hinted at a more emotive, introspective period of filmmaking to come. Plus, one other qualifying factor: My Neighbor Totoro composer and frequent Miyazaki collaborator Joe Hisaishi provided Kitano with one of his loveliest scores for this film.

img_tasteofteaThe Taste of Tea (2004)

Against the unhurried rhythm of the countryside, it’s only natural for a film to adopt a leisurely approach to storytelling, and My Neighbor Totoro is a prime example, containing next to no plot, conflict, or explanation of its strange goings on. The beauty of The Taste of Tea is that its languid, sometimes dreamy everydayness becomes a state of mind for the viewer—despite clocking in at nearly two-and-a-half hours, it’s one of the most relaxing films I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing. Katsuhito Ishii, whose movies tend to be structured around vignettes and random comic episodes, casually documents the daily life of a family living in a rural prefecture north of Tokyo. Within this identifiably Japanese milieu—lush green fields, thick evening humidity, the soothing sound of crickets—are characters whose only inclination, it seems, is to daydream and snooze.

That nothing much happens is both accurate and erroneous. Ishii unfurls the inner lives of these family members in surprising and touching ways: a shy teenage boy, spared the usual hormonal angst, modestly desires to play Go with the prettiest girl in his class; a stay-at-home mother works passionately on a short film for anime genius Hideaki Anno (who, incidentally, was handpicked by Miyazaki to voice Jiro in The Wind Rises); and a goofy grandfather turns out to be a secret artist in his own right. Also part of the family is an idle sound engineer (Tadanobu Asano, who’s bizarrely played this occupation at least three times in his career), and a deadpan eight-year-old who is being stalked by a giant version of herself. The girl’s doppelganger is of course a figment of her imagination, but like the appearance of the Totoros, its presence suggests something deeper—in her case, overcoming literal and figurative obstacles. The reverie of My Neighbor Totoro has always made it a calming film to watch. The Taste of Tea, with its placid sense of character and place, and drowsy steel drum soundtrack—the perfect summer accompaniment—is the equivalent of something else: a lazy Sunday.

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Madman Entertainment, distributor of Studio Ghibli in Australasia, has curated a new theatrical showcase celebrating the key works of the studio’s co-founders, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. Among those programmed is My Neighbor Totoro (1988), a film that has gained a life of its own on home video, but is all too seldom seen on the big screen. Both directors’ swansong films, The Wind Rises and The Tale of Princess Kaguya, return, as does Mami Sunada’s fascinating documentary on Miyazaki, The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, fresh from the New Zealand International Film Festival. Rounding out the retrospective is Takahata’s devastating masterpiece, Grave of the Fireflies (1988), as well as a new behind-the-scenes documentary on the making of Princess Kaguya.

Isao Takahata

Isao Takahata

Produced for a Japanese TV network, Isao Takahata and His Tale of Princess Kaguya initially appears to consist of leftovers from The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness (there is clearly some crossover footage between the two projects), opening with an intrusive shot of an exhausted Takahata, who is visibly annoyed when asked by the interviewer, “What kind of movie are you trying to make?” The elephant in the room for much of Sunada’s documentary, the image of Takahata as a taciturn recluse is, thankfully, quickly dispelled in the aftermath of this brief moment, with the remainder of the film illuminating many of the details present but hidden from sight in The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness. Pivotally, this film also pays homage to Takahata’s singular approach to animation, bringing his legacy out of Miyazaki’s shadow and into a new light. A literature major before directing anime, Takahata’s artistic practice runs in opposition to Miyazaki’s more conventional workflow: scripting and voiceover is completed before a single frame is sketched out; storyboards are illustrated by a key collaborator (Osamu Tanabe), as Takahata himself does not draw; and his overall vision is predicated on trial and error rather than a clear and decisive plan. This method of madness has major consequences for the efficiency of the production, and while the film is quick to celebrate Takahata’s cerebral and uncompromising style, it is grimly honest about the incompatibility of a certain kind of creative freedom with the practical realities of the Japanese animation industry.

Takahata famously broke the Studio Ghibli production model with My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999), a radical departure from the cell animation system, and up until Princess Kaguya, was the last feature film he was involved in. And although the future of Studio Ghibli seems to hinge solely on the commercial viability of any new productions going forward, this is a documentary that instills admiration for everything Takahata has achieved, box office failures be damned. If you’ve already seen Princess Kaguya, you can only come away with a higher appreciation of Takahata’s commitment to pushing the envelope, as well as a better understanding of the process behind the film’s distinctive gestural animation and delicate watercolour backdrops. Complementing The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness are chapters devoted to some of the unsung heroes of the Ghibli family: Yoshiaki Nishimura, the young producer set to takeover from stalwart Toshio Suzuki; Oga Kazuo, the indispensable background artist on My Neighbor Totoro and many other essential anime features; and Joe Hisaishi, whose music is the beating heart of all but one of Miyazaki’s films. But most revealing of all are the scenes of Takahata visiting Miyazaki, exchanging advice on each other’s films, talking about their aging bodies, joking around like old war buddies. The perceived rivalry and standoffishness implied in The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness is nowhere to be seen. Just as there are two great imaginations behind the magic of Studio Ghibli, there are two sides to every story.

The Tale of Studio Ghibli Showcase screens in Auckland (Academy Cinemas) and Christchurch (Hoyts Riccarton) on November 6-19, and Wellington (Embassy Theatre) on November 13-26.
Filed under: EDITORS’ PICKS, Features, FILM, Film Festivals

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Tim Wong is the founding editor of The Lumière Reader. He specialises in film and visual arts criticism, has covered film festivals in Europe and North America, and was the only New Zealand-based critic invited to vote on Sight and Sound’s decennial “Ten Greatest Films of All Time” poll in 2012. He is also a freelance web and graphic designer. In 2015 he wrote and directed Out of the Mist.