Tsunderin: Soooo yeah, as you can probably tell this definitely is not Grave of the Fireflies. It fact, it may even be its polar opposite. If you were looking forward to reading our review of the World War 2 tragedy, I apologize. Luckily for you, Ace has already written a piece on the film, so all is not lost!
As much as the film is beautiful and for all the impact and wonderful storytelling Isao Takahata gives us, there’s just a certain amount of emotion one has to be willing to expend when preparing to watch this movie. I think many people will agree with me in saying that Grave of the Fireflies is an important movie, a movie that everyone should see, but it’s difficult to watch it more than once. As someone who’s seen it twice, I think I’ve reached my quota of watching children starve to death.
So let’s move on to something a little more lighthearted and more expressive about the joys of childhood, instead. Yes, it’s My Neighbor Totoro (Tonari no Totoro), and if you know anything about me, know this: I fucking love Totoro. So does Ace. In fact, while Ace and I were both studying abroad in Japan we managed to find our way into a Ghibli store and met with the largest stuffed Totoro I’ve ever seen (she would have bought it, too, if not for the fact it wouldn’t have fit on the plane home). In short, this is the movie I was warning you for regarding concerns of our nostalgia getting the better of us.
Of course, even if you haven’t seen the film before, it would be difficult to not feel some sense of nostalgia for it as every aspect of the film works its hardest to portray a sense of comfort, a sense of safety that makes people long for the ‘good old days’.
Plot-wise, this film seems far less ambitious than its predecessors. Two girls, younger sister Mei and older sister Satsuki, move to the countryside with their father. Upon arriving to the idyllic small town (and their old, but still charming house), the two girls come into contact with a cluster of soot sprites which lead them to believe that this place is holding more fanciful secrets. Indeed, they are correct. One day while Mei is playing outside, she stumbles upon two strange rabbit-like creatures, the chibi-totoro and the chu-totoro. Though they try to escape, she ends up following them into the inner sanctum of the forest surrounding the girls’ house, literally falling onto the “leader” of the totoros, the oo-totoro (more commonly referred to as just “Totoro”). After sharing a lovely nap with her new friends, Mei tries to show her sister and father where the totoro live, but finds that she cannot return.
Eventually, Satsuki does get to meet with this “keeper of the forest”—as their father calls Totoro—and they spend time with it planting trees, but life is not just about exploring the forests with spirits. There’s a much more serious subplot: Satsuki’s and Mei’s mother is ill, and the girls think that just because she wasn’t able to visit them like she previously promised that she may, in fact, be deathly ill rather than on the mend. Satsuki tries to handle it maturely and puts on a strong face, but explodes at Mei when the younger sister proposes to make their mother better by giving her something healthy to eat (an ear of corn). Hurt by her sister’s outburst, Mei goes off on her own to the hospital to deliver the corn, but only ends up getting lost.
After realizing what happened, Satsuki begs Totoro to help her find her sister. With the help of the Catbus—it is what it sounds like—they find Mei; Totoro even goes so far as to take them to the hospital so Mei can deliver her gift. The gift is left on the windowsill of their mother’s room silently, and they return back home feeling much better now that they are back together (also finding that their mother only suffered a cold and not a relapse).
MadameAce: Much like the previous films, Totoro also doesn’t feel the need to launch into backstories, and instead leaves things up to the viewers’ imagination. This film, however, truly doesn’t need the backstories, and the story doesn’t suffer without them. Totoro is told almost explicitly from Satsuki’s and Mei’s perspectives, or the view point of children. Because of this, we never actually find out what’s wrong with their mother and why she is in the hospital. The girls don’t seem to understand the reason or even why she cannot come home until their mother also catches a cold. Suddenly, they begin to worry that she’ll never come home. The drama here is caused more by the girls missing their mother than their actual understanding of why she can’t come home.
Totoro doesn’t have any kind of antagonist. Unlike the other movies, it’s set in a utopian version of our world. Life is not a military state like in Castle in the Sky, and there are no giant bugs like there are in Nausicaa. Totoro has a much more realistic story and is not going to focus on world-saving adventures of two girls that are four and seven years old. And being that this is a utopia, there wouldn’t be a need to save the world.
I say this is a utopian version of Earth, however, because there are significant differences between the Japan Satsuki and Mei live in, compared to Japan’s actual history. The setting for this movie takes place only about a decade or so after WWII, in 1958. Japan suffered terribly during WWII—and I’m not just talking about the bombs. There was famine and death everywhere—see Grave of the Fireflies—and a lot of people suffered horribly and died. Though the fourteen years between the end of the war and the start of Totoro is certainly a long period of time, the entire country was not completely recovered from what happened. You might notice while watching this movie that Totoro either exists in a world where WWII never happened, or where WWII never reached Japan.
Tsunderin: And, most arguably, that’s where the nostalgia comes from. If you think about it, nostalgia is not drawn from facts and actual events, it’s drawn from feelings. Feelings of a certain time perhaps, but it’s still a feeling. For instance, when people say they’re nostalgic for an era like the 90’s or the 50’s, for the most part they’re not longing for specific things, that’s why it seems that when they get their hands on said specific thing that it’s not as good as they remember. Rather, they’re looking for the feeling of comfort it gave them: the feeling of being younger, without as many concerns of fear. This aspect in particular is why I think Totoro has been so successful worldwide.
Compare it to Grave of the Fireflies. Certainly no one can deny the impact that movie has made on not only the hearts of its viewers, but on animated cinema as a medium as well. Yet it doesn’t shield the viewers from the pain and misery of the world. This isn’t a bad thing, but it’s also the reason why people don’t love it like they love Totoro.
The pain in Totoro is still real, but it’s filtered through the emotions of a child and diluted by a universe that doesn’t have the scars or the fears of a place savaged by wars. We know that everything will be okay because the rules of their world would not allow for such tragedy. Their naiveté and wonder with the world that even the adults carry is something that we can relate to having and something that many yearn to have once more, so for those ninety-some minutes we allow ourselves to be drawn into that world. It may be a place that has no possibility of ever existing, but damned if it doesn’t seem appealing.
MadameAce: What Totoro does here is something a lot of media from Japan tries to convey. If you pay close attention to anime, you’ll notice a lot of stories that seem to take place in a WWII-free universe. However, I’ve never felt as captivated by those stories as I do by Totoro. This is probably because Totoro goes the extra step when it comes to nostalgia, by telling the story from a child’s perspective. In that regard, it’s easy to see why Totoro is so appealing. This is the childhood everyone wanted to have.
It also raises a question about whether or not everything happening is real or not. The totoro may very well be Satsuki’s and Mei’s imaginary friends. There’s plenty of evidence to indicate that Totoro isn’t real, such as the dad and all the adults being completely incapable of seeing the totoro and Catbus, but there’s also plenty to indicate that everything is real, and that the children are the only ones privy to it.
The nanny who watches over them and their house once mentioned that she used to be able to see them. Then there’s the incident with Mei near the end of the film. Satsuki only found her because Catbus led her to Mei. On top of that, how else would the sisters have been able to give their mother an ear of corn at the end of the film if Catbus hadn’t taken them to the hospital? While there, their mother even thinks that she might have seen them.
This is another reason Totoro is so appealing. It not only works on nostalgic value, but it makes the nostalgia real by having Totoro be a real thing. This once again stands in contrast to what happens in Grave of the Fireflies. The children have imaginations, but their imaginations work as an escape from a horrible reality and ultimately helps lead the children to their deaths—the little girl becomes so hungry, she pretends that dirt is food and starts eating it—whereas Totoro shows a child’s imagination in a much more positive light that will ultimately help Satsuki and Mei learn to grow. The totoro are not an escape from a terrible reality; they’re an addition and a healthy coping method to a reality that may have bad things every once in a while.
Tsunderin: Though this is clearly a film for children, it still can entertain the adults in a more aesthetic and thematic sense. Because the characters and events are seen through the eyes of a child, there’s nothing deeper going on here—no big plot twists, no hidden motivations—so in that way the characters that are not the two main girls seem a little flat. But, like in other Ghibli movies, the mere scope of the scenery is enough to captivate the audience and make us look for a little magic in our normal lives ourselves. The focus of Totoro is small, but by no means boring.
Next time, we’ll be taking a look at another film that focuses on personal growth and acceptance with just a dash of magic (okay, it’s more than a dash).