Rethinking “Tonari no Totoro”
This is a darker reinterpretation of “My Neighbor Totoro” that has made the rounds in Japan recently. SPOILER ALERT: the film came out 20 years ago, but if you haven’t seen it, you really should go do that rather than reading this!
The settings are identical, but people have known for some time that the movie is based on Saitama. The plot of the case and the plot of the film have a lot in common, and now I too believe that Miyazaki drew on his memory of the former to write the latter. That enough is fascinating and adds a lot of depth to the movie. But I strongly disagree with his conclusions. I think that rather than recreating the incident, Miyazaki wanted to reclaim it.
This alternate interpretation is the complete opposite of the “nature loves and protects us” theme that is one of Miyazaki’s most cherished. The blog mentions Miyazaki is left-wing, but that’s exactly -why- he wants Japan to return to the carefree, natural way of life depicted in the film. He certainly wouldn’t imply The smoking gun seemed to be the destination of the catbus, which the blog infers is “墓道,” but that’s one of the SEVEN potential destinations the bus rolls through on its ticker before finding the right one, which is “Mei.” It’s natural that some passengers would want to go to the graveyard to visit their ancestors, right? As for the names being Satsuki and Mei, both of which mean “May,” that’s because it’s totally a springtime movie, and seasons are very important for Japanese aesthetics.
“My Neighbor Totoro” was initially a commercial failure because it debuted as the second half of a double feature. The first half was “Grave of the Fireflies,” which is about two children, the same age as Satsuki and Mei, orphaned by World War II and neglected by their next of kin, who go live by themselves in a glen down by the river. It’s one of the most tragic films I’ve ever seen, people didn’t want to make their children sit through the first movie to get to the second. But in Miyazaki’s mind, and in mine, the movies complemented each other. Both are about the recent past, a time many adults would remember, and in both, children go into nature to escape the dark and threatening adult world. The first film is dark and realistic, and the second is light and hopeful. It’s an animated yin-yang. And both are amazing movies.