Thursday, October 11, 2018

My Neighbor Totoro (Hayao Miyazaki, 1988)

Monster, Inc.

(CAUTION: plot and narrative twists--which aren't all that much and anyway aren't the heart of the film--to be discussed in explicit detail!)

Hard to believe Hayao Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro was seen as a too-risky project, and had to be double-featured in its original commercial run with Isao Takahata's Grave of the Fireflies, an adaptation of a well-known World War 2 short story. Both made a modest profit (the former earning $6.1 million in Japan and Europe according to Wikipedia) but Totoro went on to become a family favorite, earning $265 million home video sales in Japan and the USA (again according to Wiki--sometimes you wonder at their figures). Totoro has since grown into a small but persistent cultural phenomenon: Studio Ghibli (which produced the film) adopted the creature as its corporate logo; a Japanese astronomer named an asteroid 10160 Totoro; biologists have dubbed a Vietnamese velvet worm Eoperipatus totoro; and I've spotted stuffed toys being sold in Rotterdam stores.

Totoro is considered a family-friendly delight, purest sunshine and cheer. Some fans though make the case that the picture is darker than it seems, that despite the animator's reputation for creating epic adventures like Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and Princess Mononoke this little production is his true masterpiece.

The opening sequence is as quotidian as can be: a family with belongings piled high on a little truck, driving through the Japanese countryside (Tokorozawa City in Saitama prefecture, a former farming community--the film being set in 1955, more or less). But the background art (by Kazuo Oga,* who has worked on landscapes in Miyazaki's films from Kiki's Delivery Service to Ponyo) is breathtakingly intricate, with flooded paddies reflecting solid blue sky, and brilliant emerald seedlings rushing past in a startling display of full-motion animation.

*(Background art in Japanese anime in general was given more care and consideration than in American productions--more I submit than in today's productions, where the backgrounds are usually digital renderings. Oga has been praised for the photorealism of his work but there's more to him than just slavish mimicry: the forests in the film shine with a sense of sharpened awareness of heightened life)

The little hairs along your arm (if you are at all aware of the difficulties in animating anything on film) rise in excitement; you're primed for something funny or dramatic to happen, and Miyazaki rewards you with ten minutes of the family--Tatsuo Kusakabe; his daughters Satsuki and Mei--opening up the house they bought, carrying in their belongings, basically enjoying the creaky old structure's benign spookiness.

Not exactly attention-grabbing cinema. But Oga continues to work wonders: the house is all dark shadow and rusted metal and splintered wood, and what are those furry little balls with eyes that scurry out of sight when you open a door? Not roaches or mice--Granny explains that they're 'soot sprites,' little creatures that inhabit empty houses; if they decide you're good people they'll leave you alone, perhaps move somewhere else (they like their solitude).

The Kusakabes move in establish a comfortable rhythm: Satsuki goes to school, Tatsuo works at home, Mei runs about looking for things to poke or gawk at. A natural-born filmmaker, Mei uses the rusted-away bottom of a water bucket as a rough camera frame to peer at her surroundings, and (through framing's simple yet somehow magical ability to focus attention and reveal detail) spots the glint of a shiny acorn (they've been dropping from the house's ceiling for no apparent reason) on the ground; nearby, a pair of white rabbitlike ears makes its way through the grass. Out pops what looks like a cross between a bunny and a raccoon--a Chibi (small) 'Totoro' (Mei's mispronunciation of 'tororu' or troll).  

The Totoro runs; Mei gives chase. The animal scampers under her house's front steps through broken slats, hides in the crawlspace. Mei decides against ducking under the steps, looks for another opening, peers into the dark (she sees something move in there--a little figure with a sack slung over one shoulder). She squats and waits and here's a neat example of Miyazaki's gift for staging and composition: crawlspace hole to the left, Mei in center screen. Butterfly flutters in from the right, cuing you to the possibility that something might happen at that end, and something does: not one but two Totoro--the white and a larger blue Chuu (medium-sized)--pad quietly past her, the larger carrying the previously glimpsed sack. 

Lovely little sequence featuring the precisely observed behavior of  a little girl pursuing a littler animal (evoking--deliberately I suspect--memories of Alice pursuing her White Rabbit) with a clever plot point inserted: the Totoros--who presumably feed on acorns--have been storing them in the house. Now that people have moved in they're trying to smuggle the nuts to a quieter place. 

Miyazaki thusly introduces the various spirits and creatures inhabiting the edges of the film, with similar nonchalance introduces the film's more serious subtext. Tatsuo, Satsuki and Mei take a biking trip, a happy outing with a purpose: they're visiting Yasuko, Satsuki and Mei's mother, who has been confined to a hospital (her ailment isn't specified, but Miyazaki's mother suffered from spinal tuberculosis). The crisis occurs some days later when Yasuko isn't able to visit their new home as promised; apparently she's caught a cold and needs to recover. 

Mei throws a tantrum. The fissures implied in the hospital visit--Mei, who usually defers to Satsuki, acts like an attention-hungry brat around their mother--pull wide open. Satsuki yells at Mei, who screams her rage and disappointment (the voice acting I thought quite good, the Japanese better than the English, the character animation perfectly capturing the way not just two girls but two closely bonded sisters quarrel). They mope about the house awaiting further news from their father, then Mei disappears; apparently she's run away, to try reach the hospital on foot.

Satsuki looks for Mei with a rising sense of desperation. Miyazaki in a simple yet profoundly affecting gesture dims the sun over the countryside, suggesting through darkened fields and deserted roads an increasingly forlorn look. Occasionally Satsuki meets a farmer working late or another taking his wife home on a motorbike--they're polite but not much help, their brief presence emphasizing the encroaching emptiness. 

Suddenly news--a child's slipper is found in a pond! Was it Mei's? Miyazaki doesn't pound the ear with dramatic music or have Satsuki shriek in dismay; he simply cuts to a little pink sandal floating in water, arguably the single saddest shot in the film.   

Lovely how Miyazaki folds fantasy into everyday family busyness. While no one actually contradicts Mei and Satsuki's assertion that the Totoros exist--if anything Tatsuo explains that spirits do make their presence known when they want to--Miyazaki leaves the film open to the possibility that perhaps the kids dreamed up these creatures, manifestations of their emotions and longings. Mei in a lazy afternoon--running in and out of frame as her father works in the foreground--dreams up the Chibi Totoro and its blue brother the Chuu, complete with sack of acorns. When there's a downpour Satsuki and Mei take their father's umbrella to the bus stop, to greet him there. Lonely portrait of two kids in a forest, waiting for their father to come home...and perhaps Satsuki taking her cue from Mei conjures the sound of big padded feet squishing into muddy ground. Is that a ten-foot-high creature with nine inch claws--an Oh (big) Totoro--standing beside her? A frog across the road croaks assent: yes he's as real as I am. 

During the final crisis, with Tatsuo at the hospital and Satsuki left on her own--without even Mei for support--of course the young woman turns to the Oh Totoro, and of course things turn out all right. But consider: though we see the mother in the end credits happily hugging her daughters at home, this is at best a temporary visit, the mother still stricken with tuberculosis the children still having to do much of their growing up without her. Miyazaki gifts us with a brightly tinted portrait of childhood--the Oh Totoro rising into the air the children clinging to his chest fur, one of the most purely ecstatic images in all of cinema--only to smuggle into that vision (like the Chuu Totoro with his sack of acorns) a tiny unyielding kernel of sadness.

First published in Businessworld 10.5.18

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