Hayao Miyazaki excels at depicting children. They are sweet and playful, with hammy little thighs and pudgy grins. They’re always tripping and smiling and cackling at icky things. Even the bullies let you borrow their umbrella if it’s raining (though don’t expect them to be happy about it). But this is all somewhat easy, especially for a parent, who can easily picture their little dumplings having a good time in the backyard world made especially for them. What is not so easy – and why Miyazaki’s brood is special – is depicting the other parts of childhood, which parents hope do not exist as children hope of evil spirits that disappear so long as you don’t look. This is the fear of a world over which you have no control, which four feet from the ground seems as likely influenced by science as by spirits, by medicine as by magic acorns. The climax of My Neighbor Totoro doesn’t involve the Volvo-sized hamster of the title, nor does it involve a sick mother who can only be cured by magic – it involves only a five-year-old girl who is lost and scared because she thinks that she can. Like childhood, the film involves a lot of running around and laughing and getting grass stains in exotic places. And it drifts into genuine fear, and magic saves the day.
In Miyazaki’s Japan, this magic seems not to be separable from the environment, which permeates all his work. I think it is best used here. As opposed to Princess Mononoke, in which the diatribe of not burning forests to build factories is a heavy thematic load, Totoro takes a gentler approach. I’ll sum it up this way: according to Miyazaki, we should protect nature so that it can protect us. You can see this in Nausicaa, Spirited Away, Mononoke. But for good reason, only Totoro has become the Ghibli company logo.
This is perhaps because of the way the film treats magic, not that it’s real, but that it doesn’t have to be. The magic is what children believe may come of the world from a little kindness or adventure: a hole in a tree where a great plush Totoro lives beneath a canopy, which disappears when you try to show your dad. Can’t you imagine the American movie parent saying, “Oh, you kids with your imaginations,” or worse and wearier, “Haven’t I told you not to lie?” Instead, Miyazaki’s dad character talks to his girls with reassuring ambiguity (magic requires this contradiction, since you will never find proof that it exists but must believe that it does). He tells them that the king of the forest can’t be expected to show up all the time. Just wait until you need him (which of course will be right after you find him).
So the children Satsuki and Mei play with the Totoros at a distance, flying with them on a spinning top powered by breezes and playing the movie’s theme on pan-flutes. Yes, that did happen. And what of it? Miyazaki has the most bizarre fun with images without ever compromising their self-assurance. He will never play Totoro for irony, or for a fart. The forest king is not above slapstick, but he will never let it tarnish his mystique. Notice that he can still be funny, sometimes very slowly. It’s both ethereal and charming when he lumbers in out of the rain and stands by them at the bus stop. They teach him how to use an umbrella and he gets amused by letting raindrops hit his tall ears. Miyazaki has this quietude of funny, in eyeballs and little bristles. Waving grass can become desolate and sad. I watched the film in Japanese but the subtitles, apparently, were the transcription of the American dubbed version and not the literal translation of the Japanese. How do I know? Because so much of the dialogue (at least a third) appeared on screen but was not spoken. Could there be a more poignant dismissal of all that Miyazaki stands for? To pulverize his scenes with trains of reaction dialogue and obvious observations?
My question is simple: what about this do Americans not understand? It could be children in general, since ours are so munchy they leave no scenery unchewed. Or it could be the simple beauty of a well-earned silence, a lonely road, a weave of untended grass. A nation versed more in gardens than hamburgers is tasking us with a little quiet cognizance, not even to believe in magic but just to enjoy it. We fail so hard sometimes, at our good works.
So now we’re at the low-point of the review. Kids talk too much, parents are there too little, and those who believe in magic are endangered by the belief. The girls receive a telegram from their mother’s hospital doctor – “Call me.” They never find out why, because Mei knows it must be bad. It isn’t, but no child would think differently (unless they loved their phone more than their mom). Her little knees go clopping down the dirt road, miles to the hospital, clutching the corn she picked that a wise Nanny unwisely suggested would make mom feel so much better. There is very little dialogue for many minutes, in the Japanese version.
Traditional animation is the last magic we’ve forgotten that Totoro can teach us. Those who believe in it may see Mei’s worry as real and more than real. They may realize that the mother really is cured by magic, if no other than that which exists in the belief of a child. And we may remember how adept drawings are at showing this. Someone’s hands have to be on it. And thank goodness Miyazaki’s are still working. Disney may claim the greater returns, but Miyazaki alone could claim to be a virtuoso of wonderment (though he wouldn’t, since his work would retroactively not exist without his humility).
In fact, even reviewing his work might be too self-exalting to truly represent that work. So get going. Totoro’s waiting.
Cast & Crew
|Satsuki Kusakabe (daughter)||Noriko Hidaka/Dakota Fanning|
|Mei Kusakabe (daughter)||Chika Sakamoto/Elle Fanning|
|Tatsuo Kusakabe (father)||Shigesato Itoi/Tim Daly|
|Yasuko Kusakabe (mother)||Sumi Shimamoto/Lea Salonga|
|Totoro||Hitoshi Takagi/Frank Welker|
|Kanta Ōgaki (boy)||Toshiyuki Amagasa/Paul Butcher|
|Nanny||Tanie Kitabayashi/Pat Carroll|