Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Shintoism, Death Spirits, & Totoro

my-neighbor-totoro-respect-camphor-tree1Lady Geek Girl: My Neighbor Totoro is nothing more than a fun family movie produced by Studio Ghibli, right? Well, not according to some people. One popular fan theory says that My Neighbor Totoro is not the happy movie that we thought it was. Rather, it’s a story about death, and Totoro is actually a god of death or death spirit. As such, the theory goes that the two girls, Mei and Satsuki, can only see Totoro because they are about to die, and at the end of the film Mei runs off and accidentally drowns. When their neighbors find a sandal in the pond, Satsuki claims it’s not Mei’s, but the theory continues that Satsuki was so distraught and in denial about her sister’s death that she lied about the sandal. Satsuki runs to Totoro and he opens up the realm of the dead by calling Catbus, who transports spirits, so she can find Mei. Then, Catbus takes the two girls to visit their mother at the hospital. Their mother sees them because she too is close to death. At the end of the movie Mei and Satsuki also don’t have any shadows, further indicating that they are dead. Studio Ghibli has denied this theory, but nevertheless, it persists among fans. But are there any connections between the Shinto themes of the movie and this theory?

Trigger warning for mention of suicide after the jump.

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Ghibli Month: From Up on Poppy Hill

Tsunderin: At long last we come to the end of our very, very long month. Why, it seems like only a year ago we started reviewing these movies. Ah, how time flies.

From Up On Poppy Hill PromoToday, we’re taking a look at Goro Miyazaki’s second directorial attempt in the Ghibli roster. With memories of Earthsea ever lingering in our minds—or at least my mind—we were more concerned with the pacing and general narrative of From Up on Poppy Hill  than we were with other movies. Of course I wanted Goro to do well, but he had much to improve on. Did those five years between films help him? Let’s find out.

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Ghibli Month: The Secret World of Arrietty

Tsunderin: So far on our journey through Ghibli’s film library there have been quite a few films that MadameAce and I have disliked. And whereas my dislike for a film will certainly color my desire to see it in the future, I don’t think there has been a movie so far that I would outright not watch ever again. That all changes today. Today, we review The Secret World of Arrietty: the only Ghibli movie that I will go out of my way to never watch again.

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Ghibli Month: Ponyo

Tsunderin: Perhaps the only thing stronger than Miyazaki’s drive to write love stories with an unconventional twist is MadameAce’s drive to not actually watch the films until a month has passed since the last Ghibli film review. However, she finally got around to watching Ponyo, another unconventional love story, and though I doubt she’s very happy about it, she can save the complaining until her part.

PonyoPonyo is unconventional in how polarizing it is: people I know either love it or hate it. And while I know that I encourage artists of any medium to experiment and do things out of the box, there’s something about this film that just doesn’t work.

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Trailer Tuesdays: The Wind Rises

Last year I made a post about Studio Ghibli’s upcoming movies and finally the time has arrived where I can talk about one of them in more depth. A couple weeks ago, the trailer for The Wind Rises was released and wow, I think it’s going to be a film that crushes our hearts. Maybe not quite Grave of the Fireflies level, but close.

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Ghibli Month: Howl’s Moving Castle (Part 2)

howls_moving_castle_artwork_prop_10Read Part 1 here.

Tsunderin: Another unfortunate thing this film also does is put Sophie on a pedestal, and not just because she’s the protagonist. There’s no denying that Sophie is a rather good female character. The problem arises when every other female character is not so good. The Witch of the Waste is a good antagonist until it’s discovered that she doesn’t really have a motivation behind her actions, or at least not one strong enough to keep her from falling in cahoots with Sophie’s gang in the second half of the film and becoming a plot device rather than a character. And though Madame Suliman has the motivation of duty driving her actions, again there’s no real strength there because the audience never sees her again after that one scene. We never have the chance to put together whether or not she orchestrated any of these attacks against Sophie to punish Howl for his insubordination. All she leaves is an imposing image and a threat that boils down to just, “you better help me, Howl. >:(”

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Ghibli Month: Howl’s Moving Castle (Part 1)

Tsunderin: Within the Ghibli library, I would argue that there’s a specific trifecta of films that stand out as the Ghibli films to the general, movie-going American audience. There’s the breakthrough hit, Princess Mononoke, the award winner, Spirited Away, and the one everyone loves, Howl’s Moving Castle. Seeing as we’ve already discussed two of them, I think it’s pretty obvious which one is the topic of today’s discussion. (That and it’s also the title of the article. Duh.)

While this film perpetuates much of what audiences have come to love about Miyazaki’s directorial style, it also takes many risks with its script, one of the most looked over or ignored being that this movie is based on another person’s work. Author Diana Wynne Jones penned the original Howl’s Moving Castle in 1986, but to fans of Jones’s work, Miyazaki’s Howl is only sibling by name and nothing else. We’ll get into that later, however.

Howls Moving CastleFor now, let’s start at the charming little hat shop in a stereotypical, adorable European town—in Jones’s novel, the setting is the imaginary kingdom of Ingary, which I can only assume looks just about the same—where our protagonist, Sophie, works. Sophie, finding herself unexciting and bland, especially in comparison with her more vibrant sisters, has resigned herself to living a quiet life of solitude and hatting, until she is suddenly scooped up into a political and magical plot by the womanizing sorcerer, Howl. Well, it doesn’t start out that bad, but he does rescue her from some of the henchmen belonging to the nefarious Witch of the Waste before dropping her off back at home. Unfortunately, the Witch is madly in love (lust?) with Howl and also extremely jealous. Taking Sophie’s five minute interaction with the sorcerer as competition, the Witch curses Sophie to live in the body of a ninety-year-old woman for the rest of her life.

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Ghibli Month: An Aside

As Ace and I have been going through these movies—some for the first time, some for a review—the trends and tropes that are specific to a particular director really start to stick out. For all intents and purposes, the more trope-y of the two directors is certainly Miyazaki, but again I feel as though that has more to do with his intended audience than his lack of creativity or inability to simply write a different story.

For a younger audience, it’s certainly easier to equate a message or a lesson with a certain set-up, and with so many of his films being about coming of age, Miyazaki had to have known that. Reading our previous review on Spirited Away, you’ll remember that I’m not particularly fond of the “everyone’s gotta be in love” trope and Ace’s peeve is the “strong females have short hair” trope (from the Princess Mononoke post); however the trope I’m going to discuss today is a little less overt and has much less to do with the perception of gender. Rather, it’s much more intertwined with the actual emotional state of growing up.

Usually, character-wise, the set-up of a Miyazaki coming of age film is laid out as follows: protagonist has lengthened exposure to one person (the friend/love interest) while strengthening familial bonds or creating bonds with their pseudo-family, then a smattering of secondary friends and acquaintances (with the ‘antagonist’ usually being a situation rather than an actual person). However, to add a dash of the fantastical even in a completely normal setting, and to set the tone of the protagonist’s maturity journey, Miyazaki employs a character that is readily found in many other forms of media: the animal sidekick.

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Ghibli Month: Princess Mononoke

Tsunderin: After the confusing, unemotional mess that was Nausicaa and with a whole roster of films now under his belt, Miyazaki decided to try his hand at another, more ‘user friendly’ environmental film—which was probably needed more than ever due to Pom Poko. Indeed, the ten year hiatus of sorts was beneficial because it helped Miyazaki learn to zero in on his message, bring it out, and not hit people over the head with it. For these reasons, as well as the gorgeous art, Princess Mononoke is considered a masterpiece, even transcending the cultural barrier—Mononoke is much more Japanese in feel than, say, Porco Rosso or even Nausicaa—so much so that it’s even gotten its own musical. But what is it about Mononoke that has captured so much of the world?

Princess Mononoke

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Ghibli Month: Whisper of the Heart

Whisper of the HeartTsunderin: Whereas Only Yesterday was the Ghibli film I wanted to see the most, Whisper of the Heart is indisputably the Ghibli film I love the most. I barely know any people that remember this film, let alone talk about it, but I think there’s something beautiful in its understated glory. Perhaps my love for this film is what helped me love Only Yesterday: the films share a soft-spoken nature and a realistic message about growing up and deciding your own path. But look at me already digressing before I say anything about the plot.

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