#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.

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!

#22 : The Grave of the Fireflies

I often find many people remark about how The Grave of the Fireflies may be one of the best anti-war films of all time. True the story takes places during the final stages of World War II in Japan, but this film has nothing to do with war as we usually think of it. No where do we see soldiers in trenches or the politicians sitting high and pretty. But I must say, this is a war film. A war between the individual and society, a war between compassion and ignorance and a war of distrust and survival. This is my personal take on one of Studio Ghibli’s most un-Ghibli films (if that can be the case?). May I present Isao Takahata’s The Grave of the Fireflies.

gof_1One of the biggest misgivings about reviewing or researching information is the fact that in many cases we end up adopting what others say or have said and in return we regurgitate that same information. The ability to create one’s own unique experience can become lost. Such is the times we live in, but if you go in with very little expectation and your own perspectives often times you come up with a unique point of view since you are not obliged to meet another’s standard. When I first witnessed The Grave of the Fireflies the only things I knew was it was told through the eyes of two children during World War II and it is noted as one of anime’s most tragic tales. That first viewing I was with my mom as I had corrupted her into becoming a fan of anime as well. At the end we both had the wind knocked out of us and our faces were wet from tears.

gof_2For me The Grave of the Fireflies is the loss of potential. Young Seita and Setsuko, have to survive on their own merit because they have no choice, or do they? True they have lost their mother, their aunt was cruel and unkind and the doctor was nonchalant about treating their physical ailments. No one showed interest in helping the children, but what if perhaps they tried yet another person? Maybe that next person could have been the break through that was needed. But for adults to shove away children for any reason instead of helping them achieve everything that they can become is a crime beyond criminal. Though in times of war there can be difficulties, but to ignore another individual’s cry for help is extremely uncalled for. It shows that adults are often not the wise hopeful teachers that we often have been led to believe. Sometimes adults become self obsessed to a point where the humanity that they once possessed has been sold off for a bit of false prestige. But this is not true of every adult.

But part of the blame has to be on Seita as well. Being too stubborn to admit he needed more help than what is led to be believed can for anyone lead to downfall. Often we all get to a point were we go enough is enough and we just keep sliding along thinking it will get better because ‘I’ can do this. ‘I’ often needs to be, or more truthfully has to be, a ‘we’ in times of desperation. No one can carry the weight of the world when you don’t have the understanding that it does not have to be your burden alone. Life can be hard, but making it more difficult by not opening up to change is infinitely more dangerous.

gof_3My only message from all this is to learn from this movie. If a child needs help, help them. If an animal is starving, feed it. If a friend, loved one or stranger you encounter needs a moment of aid, give it as it can change someone’s life. And if you are in need and no one is helping you, you have to take the initiative to say enough is enough. I need help either from a phone call, therapist or trusted advisory figure. Don’t let the fireflies burn out in all of us because there is enough light in us all to make the world shine even brighter.

“War is over if you want it” – John Lennon and Yoko Ono