With the upcoming release of Miyazaki’s 12th (and possibly final) film, How Do You Live?, we at Flixist will be taking a look at Miyazaki’s career over the decades. By going through each of his films starting from the pre-Ghibli days, we’ll see how the man has evolved as an artist and helped shape the landscape of anime for generations to come. This is Miyazaki Marathon!
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Following the success of Castle in the Sky, Miyazaki firmly established Studio Ghibli as an animation studio worth paying attention to. The film was a box office success and garnered a ton of critical praise from audiences around the globe. While technically his fourth film, to the public who was unfamiliar with his pre-Ghibli work, people were eagerly awaiting what his studio’s second film was going to be.
When it was eventually released, his next feature film would become one of the most iconic films in all of anime. Its characters would become a fundamental part of Studio Ghibli, even becoming the studio’s logo, and audiences both in and outside of the anime community would become familiar with them. To Japanese school children, the cute creatures in the film would reach the same status of popularity much in the same way Winnie the Pooh and Paddington are to English children. The success of the film would give Studio Ghibli a financial safety net in order to allow them to take greater risks and step outside of their comfort zone thanks to the gargantuan profits the film would make over its lifetime. That film, of course, is My Neighbor Totoro.
It’s easy to look back on the film nowadays and see why it become such a fundamental part of Miyazaki, Ghibli, and the anime community’s identity, but the film actually wasn’t an immediate hit when it was first released. The idea was that for their next big project, Studio Ghibli would release two films as a double feature. On April 16, 1988, Studio Ghibli released Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro alongside one of the studio’s other co-founders, Isao Takahata’s, first film for the studio, Grave of the Fireflies. Now, it’s important to mention that Grave of the Fireflies is not a bad movie, not in the slightest, but it was marketed alongside My Neighbor Totoro as being a fun film for the whole family. While that statement is most certainly true for Totoro, I can’t imagine any reality where a movie about two war orphans starving to death in a post-war reconstruction Japan is “fun for the whole family.”
The film did alright upon its initial release, but actually did somewhat worse compared to Castle in the Sky, making around only $6.1 million at the box office. Maybe this was because of audiences not wanting to sit for a double feature or the more tonal whiplash caused by it being paired with a much more adult-oriented film, but it certainly wasn’t bringing in the big bucks at the box office. That is, until, it got a home video release. Once it was disassociated from Grave of the Fireflies, families purchased the VHS of the film in droves and kids wanted cute plushies of all of the creatures from the film. So thanks to a strong merchandising push, over the next three decades, the film’s multiple theatrical runs, its home video sales, and merchandising would net Studio Ghibli $1.4 billion dollars as of 2018, and that’s before taking into account how the film has debuted in China since then.
I don’t think it would be inaccurate to call My Neighbor Totoro Miyazaki’s most popular. It begs the question though what made the film so popular with audiences, especially young children? Personally, I think the film really captures a lot of simplistic beauty about life, childhood innocence, and simpler times when we were kids. Like most of Miyazaki’s works up until this point, Totoro is a fairly simplistic movie with very easy-to-grasp and understandable messages. In fact, I think it may be a bit too simple in its messages to the point where when I watched it for the first time, I didn’t really get the film.
I saw every Studio Ghibli movie initially during one of my summers in high school and out of all of his films, I found My Neighbor Totoro to be a bit bland and boring. Even now after rewatching the film, I really couldn’t tell you about the main plot or get invested in any of its characters. It involves two girls, Satsuki and Mei, moving to an old house so they can be closer to their hospitalized mother and the two girls go on cutesy misadventures with Totoro and his magical friends, like little soot spirits and the Catbus. There’s no real conflict to speak of and the film is more interested in just showing the kids play with the magical creatures.
Totoro is not a movie that you watch for its plot. It doesn’t really have one, instead relying on several sequences just to string its characters along from set piece to set piece. It really does show why the film was popular with kids since it would be easy for them to grasp what was happening on screen, though I wouldn’t be surprised if the kids who really gravitated towards the film were of a much younger demographic. Like Paddington and Winnie the Pooh, I believe that mostly young children that are in either preschool or early elementary school would find a lot of Totoro’s charms to be entertaining. There’s nothing difficult to wrap your head around and you can just enjoy the pretty and bouncy animation on display.
And it is indeed some gorgeous animation. Several of the shots within the movie have become some of the most iconic frames within the medium, like the shot of Totoro and Satsuki waiting for the bus in the rain. It’s the poster of the film and without even needing to describe it in more detail, you already know what the image is like. There’s something to be said about creating such iconic and poignant moments of animation that everyone within the anime community recognizes, much in the same way seeing a black screen with the phrase “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” is immediately recognizable to the sci-fi community or hearing “ch ch ch ah ah ah” is to the horror community.
When Miyazaki was crafting the movie, he stated in the book “The Place Where Totoro Was Born” that there were two things that he really wanted to focus on. The first of which was one of his go-to themes, the importance and beauty of nature. Totoro is set in a small rural village and features very little interaction with urban environments. Much like Nausicaa and even with a bit of Castle in the Sky, Miyazaki loves to impart the majesty of nature in his animation. If Nausicaa was a more overt message about the need to protect and respect the environment, My Neighbor Totoro is more of a subtle fable about how we should protect nature by encouraging children to go outside and play in the woods rather than stay inside.
The other message, one that is a bit more somber, is the wistful nostalgia of childhood and the loss of nature to urbanization. Miyazaki remarked that the film was meant to capture what it was like within the city of Tokorozawa when he lived there in the 60s with his wife. The film is set in the 50s and he wanted to recapture the same beauty of the city when he was there, but in the twenty years since he left, Miyazaki was saddened to see the city had succumbed to urbanization and the magic of nature that was present there was lost to time. It was disheartening for him to see a place that was so magical and pure be overtaken by industrialization and city expansion. In that essence, Totoro is a time capsule not just of childlike innocence, but of a Japan that no longer exists, a memory of Miyazaki that is a distant dream.
Looking back on it now, I don’t think I’ll ever truly love Totoro as a movie. It’s a bit too simple for my tastes, but I will always appreciate it for embodying a Japan that Miyazaki found special and for a world that no longer exists. We are living in a more modern age where the beauty of nature is slowly but surely being forgotten. Films like My Neighbor Totoro are important to watch and remember because they remind us of a place and a time that isn’t too long ago but is vastly different from the age we live in now. It’s Miyazaki’s most popular film, but it should be remembered not for what it did for Ghibli and for giving them the capital needed to fund future projects, but for the childlike wonder and nostalgia for a long-gone world it homaged.
Join us next time as Peter Glagowski takes a look at one of Miyazaki’s most comfortable movies, Kiki’s Delivery Service.