Saturday, July 08, 2017

"My Neighbor Totoro"

I rewatched this last night, after thinking of it yesterday (and the larger idea of watching/rewatching movies on Friday night, for relaxation and to ease into the weekend. I also realize now I bought a copy of "1776" a while back and never watched it...maybe that's next Friday)

"My Neighbor Totoro" is really, one of my favorite movies. And I find that with movies like that, I rewatch them less to revisit the plot or even the characters as for the feeling it evokes. And by and large, the feeling of the movie is peacefulness. It's slow-paced, for one thing - there are a lot of long, loving shots of the vegetation and the landscape and the giant camphor tree where the totoros live.

It's also mostly a quiet movie: the two girls (Satsuke and Mei) are a little rambunctious, they occasionally quarrel - but they are fundamentally well-behaved. Satsuke makes lunch for the entire family on their first full day there, even though she has school - she even packs a bento box for Mei, who at 4, is too small for school. They are reasonably polite to the neighbors (well Satsuke does stick her tongue out at the neighbor boy Kanta, but they wind up friends). There is "Granny," the grandmother of the neighbor family who watches the girls while their father is at the university. (I love Granny as a character: she is definitely not physically beautiful, but she is so makes me think of the bit from the book "Matilda" where Dahl writes about how you can be very physically beautiful, but if you're an awful person, that awfulness actually begins to affect your looks and drag them down, but conversely, you can be ugly or funny-looking, but if you are kind, that kindness shines out from you and eventually all people see is your kindness and not your crooked nose or the wart on it. I also like that Granny is obviously a fairly old woman, but she's physically tough and strong: she works in the garden, for example).

Not a lot happens in the movie, which is why I like it. Oh, there are two big things that handled differently, would be sad: first, the motivating factor for the Kusukabes moving to the country: the girls' mother is in a hospital (presumably with tuberculosis, though it's never mentioned in the movie). There's talk that she's improving, and the idea of the house in the country, I suppose, is that it's closer to the hospital (so she can visit her family) and that the country air and food are better for one's health (Granny talks about how her vegetables can make people healthy).

The moment of Big Peril in the movie is related to this - the girls are looking forward to their mother coming for a visit, and then a telegram comes - something has happened and the girls' father needs to call the hospital. Because of the rural area and the time (it seems to me the movie is set in the 1950s), the family does not have a phone, but the Ogakis (the neighbor family - Granny and Kanta's family) do.

So Satsuke runs off to phone her father - everyone is worried (and yeah, a telegram seems, as it turns out, to have been a bit excessive, but whatever.)

As it turns out, the mother has had a setback - it is described as a cold - but we later learn she's reasonably OK.

However, both Satsuke and Mei are worried, and their worry feels very "real" - how Satsuke reacts is much how I would have reacted to similar news as a child.

Mei, however, being younger - Mei feels cheated that her mother won't get to come home. And then Mei, after getting lost while trying to follow Satsuke, decides to go to the hospital to see her mother and take an ear of corn to her. And then Mei gets lost.....and there's fear something bad may have happened to her.

But as it turns out, it didn't; Satsuke eventually finds her and gets her back home.

Woven in and around all of this "natural" story is the "supernatural" part - there are soot-sprites in the house when they move in (the sprites move after the family is shown to be happy; apparently they only inhabit unhappy houses). The girls, walking home on a rainy day, stop in a shrine (I presume the religion is Shintoism, which I know next to nothing about) and ask the spirit of the statue in there if it's okay for them to stay. (Granted, I am watching the 2005 English dub, so maybe some of the dialog is different in the original Japanese). The family thanks the camphor tree for its protection and for being there.

And most importantly, there are the forest spirits - the totoro. Mei finds them first, but then when the girls go in the rain to meet their father at the bus, the big totoro shows up to wait with them. (Totoro don't speak; the big one roars a bit.) There's also a dreamlike nighttime sequence after the girls plant the big totoro's gift of acorns, where the totoro and the girls magically call a tree up out of the earth, and travel with the totoro....and there's Catbus, who assists in finding Mei.

And it's interesting, and perhaps indicative of cultural differences, but the adults (the girls' father and especially Granny) take their ability to see these creatures very matter-of-factly - they don't laugh at the girls or "humor" them ("Oh yes, honey, I'm sure you saw a forest spirit..."). In fact, Granny makes some comment early on about how she was able to see soot-sprites as a girl, and she was happy that the girls could see them.

And yeah, there's some edgy 'fan theory' out there that claims that the girls or dead, or that Mei died when she got lost and.....I don't know. I've watched the movie many times and I reject that edgy theory; it seems the simplest and best explanation is: yes, there are forest spirits in this world, and yes, the girls can see them, perhaps because they're still relatively innocent (thinking of Granny's comment). Being a scientist, I tend to operate by Occam's Razor, and I dislike the edgy fan-theory things where they stretch a point terribly to make a situation seem sadder or darker than it actually is. (There's a similar theory out there about "Rugrats," which I never cared much for as a show, but I think the edgy theory is fairly ridiculous). I don't know why people do this; I suppose it's a similar attraction as conspiracy theories have - you feel like you are superior because you have "secret knowledge" (Not all the Gnostics died out in the second century...) or maybe there's some appeal for trying to "ruin" something someone else likes (I have met people like that, and really, how small and sad must your life be if you want to go around trying to turn things that give people joy into something they think of as dark and creepy?)

(ETA: Studio Ghibli personnel, including Toshio Suzuki, the producer, have debunked this theory wholeheartedly, so suck on that, would-be Gnostic-destroyers-of-feelgood-animation)

Anyway: I prefer the more straightforward interpretation: the girls live in a world where magic exists. They are aware of it because they are children, and so, observant and innocent. And even their father enters into it a bit - he is the one who suggests greeting and thanking the camphor tree.(Or maybe that is part of the religion they follow, I don't know). And the movie ultimately ends happily: in the end credits we see the mother arriving at the house, and there is one drawing of her in bed with the girls, reading to them. So I presume - MY theory, though it's not edgy - is that the mother eventually recovered and went back home to her family, and they stayed in the house in the country because it was nicer than where they used to live, and there's Granny to help with things when it's needed, and the dad's commute in to the university is really not so very bad - and so Satsuke and Mei grow up and have a mostly happy childhood there. And maybe at some point they don't see Totoro any more, but they remember him....

1 comment:

purlewe said...

*sigh. I love this movie. I am glad you do too.