In which Stephanie Reviews a Film from Notmerica
My Neighbor Totoro
“The Anti Disney-Princess Fantasy Movie somehow still brought to you by Disney”
Okay, that retitle is a little misleading. My Neighbor Totoro is a film by legendary animator and director Hayao Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away) and released in 1988. It was one of many Miyazaki films that Disney acquired the distribution rights to, because that what happens to popular franchises these days. Under strict instructions not to cut a single scene or reedit in any way, Disney hired American actors, most notably the very talented Fanning sisters, to re dub the movie and it was rereleased in the United States in 1996. Thanks to the acclaim of having a genius Japanese director in part with Disney’s enormous distribution complex, the film became an instant cult classic among film lovers and hipster parents who don’t want to raise their daughters with the kind of values prescribed by some of Disney’s more famous franchises: the Disney Princesses. It is exactly what makes this movie different from your typically Disney movie that makes it so compelling.
This movie is of the fantasy genre. It tells the story of two sisters, Satsuko and Mei, who are growing up in a post-war Japan. The film opens with the girls moving to the country with their gentle and supportive father. Some of the most gorgeous animation of the entire film is found in these scenes of the Japanese countryside. Long enough into the first act when you really start to think, “where the hell is the mother?” It is revealed that the girl’s mom is not with them because she is sick in the hospital. Dealing with her illness and subsequent separation from her makes up the main conflict of the story. The fantasy element is introduced when the girls befriend a big, furry, rabbit like forest creature named Totoro.
What truly sets this movie apart from other children’s stories is the way that it incorporates fantasy in the storytelling. Having been a Disney-oholic as a child, I believed that fantasy as it existed in story telling was a portal that provided an escape from the conflicts and drudges of day to day life. I didn’t just believe it, I didn’t see how it could be used any other way. Consider the aforementioned Princess movies. The story of The Little Mermaid where Ariel dreams of living on dry land, a place she knows nothing about, to escape the familiar boring world under the sea.
Now remember Sleeping Beauty, who falls into a coma, which means she was legally brain-dead, and only a kiss from a hot prince can revive her. In The Beauty and the Beast Belle is from a poor, French, hick town where all the filthy ignorant yokels shun her for *gasp* reading books and she is stalked by an obvious rapist.
Belle is kidnapped into a magnificent castle full of books and adorable servants made out of inanimate objects who sing songs and make her an 18 course meal because she was, “a little hungry.” No god-damn wonder she wasn’t in a big hurry to leave. Fantasy has always served as an escape from what is boring, awful, uncomfortable and dangerous. Escapist fantasy is directly linked to what the imagination perceives as a threat. That would make escapist fantasy and the imagination inextricably linked through fear and the imagination’s concept of how to remove the threat causing the fear.
In a move unique to my understanding of the fantastical, My Neighbor Totoro uses the fantasy elements not as an exercise of the imagination or the threats it believes it’s up against, rather these elements exist outside the imagination and serve to pull the main characters out of the fears and threats the imagination conjures up and, ironically, root it in reality. Consider the the most iconic scene of the movie:
This is where older sister Satsuko meets Totoro (who can only be seen if he wants to be seen) for the first time. One day, the sisters go to their father’s bus stop in a rainstorm to give him an umbrella. It’s getting dark, it’s pouring rain, and it is getting later and later without any sign of their only live-in parent and to boot, they are in the middle of a spooky and unfamiliar forest. Just as Mei falls asleep and the isolation and fear start to set in for Satsuko, this big hulking spirit creature shows up and…just stands there next to her. Had this been an escapist fantasy he might have been some sort of handsome knight come to protect Satsuko and Mei from the evils of the forest, but look into his big dumb eyes; there is no threat, no danger, and dad will be along in a minute. He hands Satsuko a gift, a bamboo leaf full of acorns to plant. Besides the obvious life-cycle metaphor, Totoro gets Satsuko out of her own head and grounds her into what is happening in the present moment. He exists outside of her imagination. He isn’t there to take the girls away to a place without danger, a place where her mother isn’t sick, somewhere where there is no pain and suffering. He exists as a fantastical element here to lure her out of the most frightening place there is (and I think every kid can relate), the place in her imagination where fear lives and grows. He is a fantasy element that enables the characters he presents himself to to live life as it is and not be incapacitated by fear.
As an American moviegoer this movie blew my mind away with possibilities I didn’t know existed in storytelling. Miyazaki is famous for children’s stories that don’t treat children like dumb little bags of money. I honestly can’t wait to go share this movie with my nieces.