#200 : My Neighbor Totoro

Imagine a world with the perfect neighbors. Mr. Rogers would be among them, John Lennon too and maybe even a giant furry woodland creature who represents all of nature and what is great in life. This is not just any furry woodland troll, he is in fact one of the defining symbols of a little studio named Ghibli and even anime as well. Totoro represents the magic we often need in our lives to make everything work and often times we forget this when we get so stuck in our day to day lives. Hayao Miyazaki is responsible for bringing many characters to life, but Totoro is something on another level. For two lucky children, this mythical creature would bring much into their lives as both a guardian and a loyal friend. I now want to return again to a place of peace. Return again to My Neighbor Totoro.

“I’m going up the country, baby don’t you want to go? I’m going up the country, baby don’t you want to go? I’m going to some place, I’ve never been before.” How about a little Canned Heat for good measure and no this is not going to be a trip out to Woodstock. Ah man I was looking forward to Richie Havens, Santana and Jimi Hendrix…

MNT_1Another time, another place… a family buys a country home that’s slightly run down, surrounded by lush greenery and has lots of mysteries including dust sprites and acorns scattered in odd places. The story dynamic is basic. So basic I argue there isn’t really a story. It is more like the unfolding of our lives… things just happen. As the father and two girls get situated into this new home they wait patiently for the ailing mother to recuperate from an illness in the hospital. During this waiting period we find the two girls exploring this ‘Garden of Eden’ like paradise. The encounters they have are nothing like they have ever experienced before. Trees, streams and clean fresh air abound. And then, like magic, a chance discovery of a large nature spirit. Isn’t he just some kind of giant odd rabbit? Nope, he is Totoro and it is he who gives these girls the greatest adventures of their lives. Be it growing a large tree, flying in the skies, enjoying time in the rain, or riding a cat bus… cat bus?… yes a cat bus! It’s the only way to travel!

MNT_2Much of Miyazaki’s experience both personally and professionally made this film the way it is. His childhood memories about his own mother’s illness and his staunch believe in being in accord with the natural world around us are ever present. In true auteur fashion the world he created in Totoro is and was the ideal childhood he did have, or perhaps wished he also had at the same time. He would craft a family film unlike any other that even to this day still stands out. This is not so much a story, but a feeling, an experience, a place of solitude. Stylistically, Totoro is as much about the totality of Miyazaki’s experience as an animator more so than originality. Why not borrow what works from previous productions; after all it ain’t broke…

MNT_3From the opening credit sequence we see influence from his work on early Toei films and the short Panda Go Panda movies he did with Takahata. The giant panda from Panda Go Panda is much like a precursor to the giant Totoro n terms of stature and facial expression. The lush green of the scenery and the placing of children into the wilderness where they can run free brings back memories and influence from his work on Heidi, Girl of the Alps. The main characterization of a strong young female lead, Satsuki, is reminiscent of Nausicaä from Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Little Mai could have been Mimiko from Panda Go Panda. Even the father looks a little like a young Miyazaki from my eye. Totoro could be an amalgam of everything Hayao Miyazaki had done up to that point in terms of animation? I argue that this movie is both autobiographical and a snapshot of his portfolio at that point in time.

MNT_4Many of us have a place in our hearts for My Neighbor Totoro and I too have a special relationship to this film in regards to the Studio Ghibli catalog. By no means my all time favorite Ghibli film, though I admire Totoro very highly, this was my very first experience of both the work of Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki. At the time I was not very well prepared being more into sci-fi and mecha properties. Here was a simple, yet highly complex film about nature, relationship dynamics, wonder and the magic of childhood. Yet I knew something of substance was there from the very beginning. I was now in the grasp of the Ghibli and Miyazaki’s visual presentation style. A style that spares no expense in creating a world that is beautiful and as close to tangible reality as I ave ever encountered in animation. While this was not Akira, another film released in 1988, in terms of action, intensity, or atmosphere, Totoro would show me another way of visual expression. More yin in approach compared to the yang of Akira.

MNT_5Masterpiece… My Neighbor Totoro is just that being a movie about simple living, quiet moments and being outside in the ‘real’ world. As I have aged these facets have become more my regular pattern of existence. Action and far out stories used to be my mythology and it still has it’s a place, but now the world of Totoro is more in accord of where I am presently. That being said I respect Totoro more today than I did in the beginning as I have grown into a place to call my own home in all the ups and downs of life. Even with the under lying tensions in the plot of this movie (with the mother’s illness), a place of serenity was found. The same holds true in many aspects of our lives. Yet it is the knowing about the simple quiet place where we can truly just be and that is true reality. Be present, be here now, I shall forever be with you my friend, My Neighbor Totoro.

#181 : Animal Treasure Island

Oi! There be treasure on that there island me boys and girls. Yah interested in finding it? Yah need a map in order to find it’s whereabouts… are you up for some treasure hunting?  Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel Treasure Island is beloved by many. Adventure, pirates, the high seas and lost valuable treasure await you. Except… we are going to throw in a catch of sorts. Let’s make most of the characters anthropomorphized animals and tell this tale in terms of an animated feature film. Classic anime studio Toei would do this in 1971 with the aptly titled Animal Treasure Island. Ahoy we go!

ATI_1Jim Hawkins sits alone with his baby brother (I assume this is his brother?) in their family’s inn dreaming of adventures in the high seas. With a model ship in hand on a lonely night a visitor would arrive that would change his destiny. The hero has been called to action. From this visitor, Jim would be gifted a treasure map by chance that holds the possibility of a great fortune. Time to hire a ship, yet our young man has only a couple pieces of gold for payment. Never fear because kids are often times more resourceful than many of us who call ourselves adults. Jerry rig a barrel with a few contraptions including an engine, sail and a cannon and you get the ideal way to travel on water. Conquest awaits, but also setbacks, untrustworthy folks, and even new friends to aid oneself on this journey.

ATI_2This is a fun movie, at times very silly and slapstick, but far from perfect. Perhaps I am not the target market as this is a film made primarily for young children, but then again, I love many children/family films and stories. Reason… I am a child disguised as a ‘mature’ adult. Shh!, it’s a secret. No that’s not it, perhaps the film is a little long in the tooth? Now this makes sense. At least for me this movie really drags in the middle and while there is a lot of fun action and comedy, it felt like filler. This is an approximately 80 minute film that could have fit more into a 40–45 minute space. My opinion now, you may see different. It starts really great and then I fell into a little boredom that eventually breaks at the end to a surprise ending… be careful when pulling that chain in the cave and make sure to read all the directions.

ATI_3A little trivia for everyone… ever hear of Hayao Miyazaki? He worked on this film, but not in the executive role that he is most famous for; director as an example. These were his salad days where he was making his way through the animation industry and by the early 1970s being put into middle management type roles; key animator as an example. The designs of Jim and Cathy, the two main characters, have part of the Miyazaki flavor in terms of design and many of the action sequences have the fluidity and at times comedy he is known for. That being said, Miyazaki had some say in the making of this film, but was in many ways, ‘working for the boss’.

ATI_4Toei was known for many decades of the company’s history for the creation of big budget animated films for children and families; Japan’s answer for Disney. (what about Warner Brothers?) Animal Treasure Island fits properly into this tradition along with other titles including: The Wonderful World of Puss n’ Boots, The Little Mermaid, Swan Lake and Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp. Animation no matter what, takes us on trips into worlds that can only be understood by the imagination. While not ‘reality’, and also in my opinion a more average experience of a film, Animal Treasure Island is still a vital part of anime’s history and an important stepping stone for many who worked on this project.

Capturing the Wind: Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata Before Studio Ghibli

Up until recently I had given panels at my local anime convention, a run of about five years from 2015–2019. My most successful panel, and one I gave for three years in a row because of the evergreen content, was Capturing the Wind: Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata Before Studio Ghibli. Obviously it was a popular event for an hour of time and witnessing Studio Ghibli panels from the past and noticing the audience turnout, I knew I had to do one, yet I had to do it my own way within the framework of my definition of ‘classic anime’. Reason being, talking about anime from the 1980s, let alone the 1960s and 1970s can be a very niche category. Most fans are younger than me, or have a frame of reference that is the most zeitgeist of properties available. By the way I was born in 1979 in case you want to do the math. That being said, how do I do a panel discussing the work of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, two men I respect, within the confines of my focus of study?

CtW_1And then it happened… of course, talk about their work before Studio Ghibli’s foundation. These two gentlemen cut their teeth on a lot of movies and television series, all of this before the year of 1985, the year of Studio Ghibli’s birth. I had my content! Of course I focused on their major projects, mostly when they had the directors chair, because I could run a laundry list of doing key animation for this one episode of this series, or assists with whatever task was available for that movie. Ten productions would make the cut, each with video clip, but for here it will all be in the written word. Studio Ghibli fans, who is here to learn and experience some lost, or perhaps not so lost if one has familiarity, treasures of the careers of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata? Don’t be surprised that what you love about the work of these two gentlemen also shows up in their earlier works as well; good habits and styles never change once they solidify.

Beginning with directorial debuts for a feature film, then leading to initial collaborative efforts, I would continue with two final categories: television work, because we often equate Miyazaki and Takahata with their cinematic presence and finally a quartet of final projects from the early 1980s that directly preceded the founding of Studio Ghibli. I will not explain in detail each of the productions here, but with link them to my other posts where you can read more in depth on each particular production. Of course this panel only covered what I had seen at that particular moment. Even now I am still filling in gaps by watching other anime not available at the time where I could have had opportunities to showcase more material. But then again I only had one hour and what I had to work with was enough of a fun show.

Here were the following anime that I focused on for the panel Capturing the Wind: Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata Before Studio Ghibli:

My initial goal was to showcase to Studio Ghibli fans that the names of Miyazaki and Takahata go well beyond the familiar movies we have watched time and time again. Did I succeed? I think so, but now that legacy can live here online and reach a wider audience. Of course there are a couple more anime that I wish I could have included, but at the time I had no access to the show or movie, Heidi: Girl of the Alps being the best example (watching that one now!). If you love Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, their collective work at Studio Ghibli is only the beginning to a world of many treasures which featured their creative talents. Before capturing the wind of Ghibli, we can witness the emerging portraits of these two artists as young men… a little nod to you James Joyce 🙂

CtW_2Many a thank you to the work you both did. We love you!