As popular as animated movies are in the United States, they are perhaps even more so in Japan. Japanese anime offers not just kids’ movies, but also a wide range of different genres. From horror to sci-fi to action, the stories told in these films are often fantastical and very sophisticated, often not geared toward children at all, but toward adults.
One name, however, stands apart as a hallmark in Japanese animation. Hayao Miyazaki is known for films of fantasy and whimsy that appeal not just to adults, but to children as well. For this reason, and also due to his indisputable genius, his films have skyrocketed in popularity with American audiences, who are more accustomed to animated films being meant for the whole family. One of his films, My Neighbor Totoro, happens to be my daughter Emma’s (current) favorite movie.
Totoro is a whimsical creature that looks sort of like a mix between a cat, a squirrel, a rabbit and a bear. As mysterious as he is magical, one wonders if he is the product of a child’s active imagination or if he’s something far more real than that. Totoro’s world is filled with an amazing array of characters — from the soot sprites that lead us out of “reality” to the two mini Totoros to my personal favorite, the Catbus. The Catbus is exactly what the name implies: a mode of transportation in Totoro’s world with the head and body of a cat, but with a dozen or so legs.
At its heart, however, My Neighbor Totoro is a story about a father, Tatsuo, his two daughters, and the trials and tribulations they face together. Tatsuo is a university professor and has moved to the country to be closer to his severely ill wife, who is in a local hospital. Tatsuo is responsible for two precocious daughters, Mei and Satsuki, who have to deal with the emotions involved in being uprooted, moving into a new home, being displaced, and feeling the constant and acute absence of their mother.
What’s always interesting in Miyazaki’s film is the interplay between “fantasy” and “reality,” but his treatment of these worlds is slightly different in Totoro from many of his other films. Often, Miyazaki blurs the line between the two worlds, but in Totoro, the two worlds are kept relatively separate. Particularly poignant for any parent, there is a magical realm children are privy to that we are locked out of after a certain age. Miyazaki makes the adults in the audience WANT to believe in this magical being, Totoro, while children undoubtedly accept Totoro wholeheartedly. The lesson for us dads lies in the way Tatsuo, whether he believes his daughter Mei’s stories or not, shares in them with her.
Through most of the movie there is not a shred of evidence for the wondrous beings that little Mei describes, or the adventures she claims to have, but not once does Tatsuo get upset, lose his temper, or show disbelief. Instead, he inspires her, and encourages her to find ways to adjust to their new way of living. In so doing, he is able to bring his struggling family closer together, making Tatsuo a truly great role model.