There have been times in the past when I’ve approached a particular title the same way I approach a plate of brussel sprouts. Heck, there have been times in the past where I’ve approached a whole genre with a scrunched-up face and a jaded attitude. But times and attitudes can change, and a desire to try new things can turn what was once an exercise in doing something “good for me” into something I genuinely look forward to.
What was once a plate of brussel sprouts now looks more like a slice of apple pie.
Now that I think about it, that analogy is rather apropos…since I looked at the selections for this year’s Blindspot Series, and basically started the meal by digging into dessert.
MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO is a staple in the anime genre, and comes to us from Hayao Miyazaki and the fine folks at Studio Ghibli. The story is about Tatsuo Kusakabe and his daughters Satsuki and Mei, and opens with them moving into a new house. Tatsuo’s wife and the girls’ mother has been hospitalized for a while, and the new house will allow the family to be closer to the hospital she’s been staying at.
As the girls look around their new house and the surrounding property, they get the feeling that there is more than meets the eye. For starters, a few of the rooms they walk into are inhabited by little black critters that scatter at the slightest disturbance. Their neighbour (also something of a Nanny) reveals that they are Soot Spirits, and will leave on their own if they find the new owners agreeable. But that’s not the end of their new home’s curiosities.
One day while exploring the surrounding woods, Mei sees a ghostly creature that looks like something between a cat, a racoon, and a rabbit scurrying away from the house. As she gives chase, a bigger one appears and that one ultimately leads her to their secluded home inside a hollow of a large camphor tree – where the largest one is snoozing. She hears his name as “Totoro” and sees him as a neighbor that will be a source of protection and good company.
Now if only she could get Tatsuo and Satsuki to believe her.
I find it hard to believe that anybody could come away from MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO and not feel utterly charmed. Hell, I dare anyone not to smile while looking at the iconic image of the girls and Totoro waiting at the bus stop in the rain. The story is a very simple situation (a family dealing with one member recovers from an illness), and really fits quite nicely into its own little box. However, the folks at Ghibli have joyously kept one flap of that box open to let the hopes and wants of two girls out, and likewise let their whimsical imaginings in.
It makes us think of times in our childhood when we might have chased a squirrel, or a rabbit…or anytime someone convinced us that trolls stole our left socks, or that there were gremlins in our attic.
Not a lot of these impish interactions affects the ultimate story all that much (give or take a Catbus), but that’s one of the things that elevates the film above live action fantasies like THE NEVERENDING STORY or LABRYNTH. These stories required us to believe that their characters wandered out of our world and fell down some sort of rabbit hole to somewhere fanciful.
Here, the magical interactions are self-contained to the wonders of two children, but hold little bearing on the situation at hand (the mother’s illness). It’s as if Alice could take a detour out of Wonderland anytime she wanted to.
In a way, that makes me feel like this is one of the best gateway drugs for anyone interested in anime, since one only need remember their childhood imaginings to sink into the story.
In a way, MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO reminds me of an era I fear is long gone. The reminder comes not just from the way Satsuki and Mei run around not just their house and their property, but the entire surrounding countryside.
They follow curious paths deep into wooded areas, and run laps around their surrounding areas that seem to take an hour to do a complete circuit of. They move about independently for long stretches of time, and it’s only when we know for certain that one of them is headed on an irrationally long hike that we get to worrying. I know this is a fairy tale and all, but it seems as though most parents nowadays – a good twenty-five years after this film’s release – would be freaking out if their children were going that sort of distance that often.
When I was younger, this was me. During the years I was Mei’s age, these wanderings and adventures would take me to the park at the top of my street and the ravine behind it. It would find me climbing up trees and skipping stones along rivers without my parents anywhere to be seen. When I got closer to Satsuki’s age, those outings took me further. I followed bicycle paths for miles up the river, or turned south and followed those same paths along the lakeshore. My parents never worried about me – or if they did, they never vocalized it – and I was able to amuse and engage myself with the world around the street I called home.
I never encountered anything like Totoro, of course, but my imagination during these trips had me pretending to be everything from police officers to soldiers to knights. Something tells me that the same way Satsuki and Mei wouldn’t be allowed to run around the countryside the way that they do, I wouldn’t be allowed to go as far as I did for as long as I did either. I don’t know why, but such a fate seems sad to me.
As I finished out my first anime selection in the Blindspot series, I was reminded of a similar series I worked my though three years ago. What comes to mind first and foremost is just how much my attitude to the genre has changed between then and now. Back then I needed to have my arm twisted somewhat to dig into the works of Miyazaki, Takahata, and their ilk. Nowadays, I go towards it gleefully. But as I look through that post and the titles that were laid out for me, I’m left a little bit perplexed as to how this movie missed the cut. One of the curators of my anime education did suggest it as an aside, as did a few fellow bloggers when I set out my intentions. However, it missed inclusion in that “Starting Eleven”
Its omission is especially weird since that loveable rolly-polly creature would become part of Ghibli’s studio logo. What’s more, the film is so wonderfully sweet, that it handily would have sent me reaching for more had it been one of the gateway drugs I was doped with. If I’m a betting man though, my guess is that my guides on that journey into the genre wanted me to understand that anime could be “something more”, and that I might not get hooked by the innocence on-display in MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO.
Whatever the reason, I remain thankful to both my original trio of anime professors and my readers who voted for it as part of this year’s tally. The original trio got me to a place where I was able to find my way around the world of anime with curiosity and wonder…and my readers made sure that I made a point of visiting a particular spot in that world that was an absolute joy to visit.
I usually post Blind Spot entries on the final Tuesday of every month. If you are participating, drop me an email (ryanatthematineedotca) when your post is up and I’ll make sure to link to your entry.
Here’s the round-up for January so far…
Becca Sharp watched SPIRITED AWAY
Nikhat watched RASHOMON
Beatrice watched BOOGIE NIGHTS
Al watched HOOP DREAMS
Courtney Small watched SPELLBOUND
Keisha Howerth watched CHILDREN OF MEN
Josh watch MONSIEUR HOULOT’S HOLIDAY
Wendell Ottley watched GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS
Daniel Bayer watched THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO
Bob Turnbull watched both THE DEER HUNTER and COMING HOME
Katherine Hogan watched ALL ABOUT EVE
Anna watched SURVIVE STYLE 5+
Fisti watched ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER
Ruth watched REAR WINDOW
Allie watched THE GODFATHER
Katy Rochelle watched SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE
John Hitchcock watched STRIKE
Andina watched CHARADE
Jay Cluitt watched MANHUNTER
Mette Kowalski watched BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN
Irene watched LEAVING LAS VEGAS
James watched CHINATOWN
Chris watched SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARVES
Dan Heaton watched WAIT UNTIL DARK
Brittani Burnham watched HIS GIRL FRIDAY
Rick Vance watched DEAD LEAVES
Luke Pajowski watched THE CONFORMIST
Paskalis Damar watched RESERVOIR DOGS
Sean Kelly watched HEART OF GLASS
Melissa Hunter watched METROPOLIS
Kevin Powers watched IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE
Steven Flores watched THE GENERAL