Tag Archives: Miyazaki

Follow the Acorns: Totoro Isn't Gojira, can you find him in YOUR back yard?

16 Mar

Anyone familiar with Japanese popular culture knows that it is haunted by the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Ishiro Honda’s Gojira is one seminal example of that haunting. But those evil ghosts are by no means the only spirits animating the Japanese psyche and landscape. In this post I examine the life spirit Hayao Miyazaki has embodied in My Neighborhood Totoro, a story that is rich with a deep sense of locality, locality as humble as an acorn and as exhalted as a mighty camphor. Even as we meditate on Gojira as a cautionary tale about techno-hubris, let us also meditate on Totoro as an affirmation of life.

totoro camphor

My Neighbor Totoro is set in rural Japan in the 1950s. The story centers on two young girls, Mei and Satsuki, and the Totoro. Along with their father, the girls have moved into a rural house that’s near the sanitarium where their mother is hospitalized. As the story opens the three of them are in a small moving truck traveling the final distance to their new home. They arrive, stop the truck, and start moving in.

As you know, the story is set in rural Japan in the 1950s. The story centers on two young girls, Mei and Satsuki, and the Totoro. Along with their father, the girls have moved into a rural house that’s near the sanitarium where their mother is hospitalized. As the story opens the three of them are in a small moving truck traveling the final distance to their new home. They arrive, stop the truck, and start moving in.

About six minutes in – the film is roughly 86 minutes long – Satsuki and Mei notices a huge tree towering over the forest. Their father tells them it’s a camphor tree (that’s it, at the head of the post). We’ll see this tree again; it’s a major motif in the film.

About a minute later – 6:41 – Satsuki notices an acorn on the floor in a room. And another. For the next minute or so she and Mei will chase down acorns. Father suggests they’re evidence of squirrels . . . or rats.

The girls begin to investigate the rear of the house and, upon entering, detect soot sprites, which will have their attention for the next eight minutes or so, to about 16 minutes in. Soot sprites are small fuzzy balls of soot with eyes. There are lots of them, and they seem to have something to do with the acorns. The girls report back to their father, who has been joined by Granny, the old woman who’s been taking are of the house. She’s the one who identifies the little creatures as, yes, soot sprites, and tells the family a bit about them.

We now know that there’s a bit of fantasy in this world, and its visible to children, but not adults – that’s what Granny said.

At this point we’re roughly a fifth of the way through a film named after Totoro and we haven’t seen one, nor even a hint of one. That won’t happen until roughly 29 minutes in, a bit over a third of the way through the film. But I’m getting ahead of the action.

They finish out that first day doing this and that and end up taking a bath, all three of them together – this is, after all, Japan. They laugh vigorously to drive the spirits from the house – and the last of the soot sprites scurry away. The next day they travel to the sanitarium to visit their mother (and the father his wife). On the third day, Satsuki prepares box lunches for the three of them. She heads off to school, father goes into the study, and Mei sets out to play.

By this time we’ve forgotten about the acorns and the soot sprites.

At about 28 minutes in Mei spots an old bucket with its bottom rusted out. She picks it up, looks through the hole, and what does she see? An acorn, that’s what:

totoro acorn spotted thru bucket

One acorn leads to another and before you know she’s got a pocket full. Then she spots a pair of ears sticking up from the grass:

totoro ears

Perhaps they’re rabbit ears. But no, when she sees the whole creature, it’s not a rabbit, it’s not even fully solid. It’s translucent. It can’t be a “real” creature:

totoro translucent

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