My son Kris is a big fan of Hiyao Miyazaki films. Kris even has some of the Miyazaki characters as personal tattoos.
So when my HBO Now subscription upgraded to HBO Max, and I discovered I now had access to the entire Miyazaki catalog, I asked Kris which film I should start with.
“You could start with <i>Howl’s Moving Castle</i> or <i>Princess Mononoke</i>,” he said.
Well, there was this other film that apparently everyone in the world has seen … except for me. Thus, it became a new addition to the Royale With Cheese Movie Club.
And that was the Miyazaki film My Neighbor Totoro.
Mind you, I understand classic Japanese storytelling and anime. But I wasn’t prepared for this film. Not in the least.
What starts out as a sweet film about a who move to a ramshackle home in post-war Japan, turned into a film on the finality of life and the deepness of honoring those who pass away.
For the family have moved to this new home to be near a hospital where the girls’ mother, who is deathly ill, is in convalescent care. This is important. Later on, when one of the girls discovers a magical creature – Totoro, a furry puffball with a mighty roar – she befriends the creature. She tries to show Totoro to her family, but her efforts are thwarted each time. Eventually both girls see Totoro, and Totoro takes them on adventures as they ride a magical Catbus (yes, a bus with a cat face and cat legs for wheels).
It took a while for me to figure this movie out. Eventually I understood. And wow, what a sad and poignant movie.
The girls’ mother is in the hospital. She is very sick. And Totoro is, from what I can see, the spirit that comforts the girls, who themselves don’t realize that they too are sick and dying. This movie takes place in post-World War II Japan, and these girls may have suffered some sort of long-term radiation poisoning from the bombings at Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Trust me, I read Barefoot Gen a long time ago, so I understand this is possible.
Totoro is there to comfort and soothe the girls, to offer them peace as their mother takes ill. No one can see Totoro unless they are dying already, which explains why, during the film, only the girls see the creature – and later, the mother sees the creature, but the father never does. And in the final scene, I noticed something else – the two girls are in that final scene, but neither girl casts a shadow. And throughout the entire film, the animators are careful to add shadows wherever possible.
And then there’s the Catbus itself – a magical vehicle that looks like it was part of the Yellow Submarine cartoon by way of Ralph Bakshi. The Catbus can take the girls anywhere – including to the hospital to see their dying mother. Perhaps the Catbus can also take the children to the afterlife as well.
Wow. What a deep and moving thought. It’s like understanding that Bambi was about surviving as an orphan; or that Grease is an entire near-death hallucination of Sandy, who drowned on the beach in the film’s opening scenes. Watching My Neighbor Totoro this way, it makes total sense. It’s a film about making peace with your life, in life’s final moments.
And right now in this world, we may all need to make peace with our lives and recap our existences while we’re able.