Monday, September 04, 2006
It takes a deft hand to craft a children’s film without alienating a mature audience or simply resorting to visual and aural stimuli for 90 minutes. Children may not understand the implications or dimensions of a complex narrative, but adults, presumably, can remember when they were children; so the best children’s films have always appealed to both groups by tapping into a rich vein of imagination and basic emotions. The career of Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki (and his production company Studio Ghibli) has been built on this principle, and his mastery of visuals, fantasy, and childlike wonderment, is in perfect evidence in My Neighbor Totoro.
Totoro begins with the arrival of young, bright sisters Satsuki and Mei (voiced by Noriko Hidaka and Chika Sakamoto) and their father into a country village to be closer to their hospitalized mother. The girls’ charming liveliness, especially in the face of dislocation, initially betrays any fear they may have. Even the father is admirably cheerful during the move, and he plays along with the girls as they claim to see ghostly soot in their rickety new home. It remains unclear how much the adults of the film believe in the fantastic (but unseen) events that later take place, but they have no desire to spoil the imaginations of their young ones. The mother’s illness lies just at the edge of their awareness when there’s a new place to be explored. The film perfectly encapsulates a time of life between willful freedom and a semblance of responsibility, without sacrificing a child’s awe at the surrounding world.
The movie is “wide-eyed,” like its adorable protagonists, and “crouching,” like the father following his daughters into the forest; it is literally and symbolically told from a child’s point of view. As the girls wander, the film takes in the lovingly detailed scenery from the ground up, and the camera’s graceful tilts and pans absorb trees, water, and everyday creatures of the forest. Mei, being the youngest, naturally stumbles upon the magic of nature first. She spots small, furry, bulbous creatures scurrying a garden for acorns, and her pursuit leads to a monumental discovery: the innocent, massive, sleeping creature Mei dubs “Totoro,” for a mispronunciation of the Japanese word for “troll.” Totoro seem to be some kind of a cross between a koala, a bear, and a cat, but its magic lies in its uniqueness. Despite its imposing girth, Mei immediately connects with a profound sense of communion and friendship. These children have thankfully not yet learned to fear the unknown. Totoro provides a comforting presence when the mother’s illness begins to loom in the children’s world.
Even though Mei is the first to experience the fantastic, it is Satsuki who proves to be the film’s protagonist. Despite being pre-teen and seemingly as carefree as her little sister, her situation thrusts duty and awareness upon her. It’s no surprise that Satsuki notices the magic around her when their father is late and Mei takes comfort on her back; she is becoming a surrogate mother for her sister (and an adult) by taking the first steps of responsibility. Her key to straddling the worlds of childhood and adulthood lies in the wonder of the forest, and her own imagination. Initially, she keeps her roles as sister and young girl separate, until Mei’s appearance at her school prevents this division. With the younger sister’s wild drawings and enthusiasm, Satsuki is understandably embarrassed. It takes a strange but wondrous encounter with Totoro for Satsuki to appreciate her sister’s ravings; and when Mei is missing, Satsuki discovers an adult responsibility, also by communing with the forest’s creatures. Her ability to be both an adult and a child comes directly from her imagination, a stereotypically childlike trait that need not be thought of as such.
Just as Satsuki is two things at once, the village is a magical synthesis of fantasy and fact, nature and technology. The most famous example of this is the Cheshire-like catbus, as literal a name as could be imagined. With a wide grin, furry outside, and warm, comfortable inside, it merges a reassuring, innocuous house pet with a modern transportation vehicle. Its first appearance, in conjunction with Totoro’s discovery of umbrellas courtesy of Satsuki (another meeting of natural being with modern technology), is delightfully unexpected and odd. Even the children, who recognize Totoro as harmless, appear nonplussed. Despite using a framework designed by man as machinery, the catbus flies and transforms as only something enchanted can do. There’s also a nice ecological undercurrent running through My Neighbor Totoro, especially during scenes of Mei and Satsuki planting acorns, but it never becomes saccharine or preachy, nor does it posit humanity as encroaching on the natural order of things. The forest inhabitants seem just as content as the serene residents of the village. Every animal or insect depicted in the film, whether realistically or fantastically, has its place and respect within the forest world.
Above all, the film eschews antagonism and conflict for astonishment and whimsy. There is no “us against them” connotation to the girls’ relationship with their father or with any other adults. Too many children’s movies paint grown-ups as naturally in opposition to children, or pander to a literally childish attitude. Perhaps this is sidestepped by the Japanese ideal of generational unity shown in the film. Children and adults, especially in a village without modern culture, are hardly at odds. In addition, Mei and Satsuki are regular kids, but their reactions to experiences are universal. There is even a shy boy, Kanta, in case young male viewers need someone to recognize. He gradually learns to accept his new neighbors and eventually provides shelter and assistance to the girls in need. With adults in the lead roles, Totoro would surely turn into a different movie, but it hardly takes a giant leap for someone of any age to identify with the sisters’ astonishment at discovering the supernatural or terror at being separated and far from familiarity. That oft-used phrase “inner child” could accurately describe the target of Miyazaki’s cinematic power. His images and sensibility strike at a deep, collective well of emotions that are considered childlike; but his message is that an understanding and embracing of these feelings, all too commonly lost in the rush of adulthood, lead to richer, warmer, even more fanciful lives.