Were you brought up on Disney movies? I was. Apparently the first movie I ever saw was Bambi. Disney movies are ideal for little kids allegedly. They have a G rating. There's no foul language or drug use or sadistic torture scenes. But frankly, that's about all you can say for them. If you were to stop and think about it, you'd have to wonder if they're possessed of anything good at all. In spite of the perpetual come-from-nowhere happy ending, Disney films are, in truth, wall to wall bullshit. They're full of: kids demanding things of their parents; kids arguing with their parents and each other; kids being led astray; kids lying; kids running away - really, I could go on and on.
If you wish to think that Disney movies are like this because kids are like this, it's my solemn duty to inform you that you have it arse-about. Your kids are like this because every thing they see at the movies and on TV is this way. So omnipresent and so perpetual are these lessons in self-centredness that most people can barely conceive of anything else. And so steeped are we in this lying-cheating-stealing mindset, that when we do encounter a film that lacks it, we're at a loss. We can barely comprehend what we're seeing.
If you want to see a perfect example of an un-Disney movie look no further than Tonari no Totoro. Says I - this is the greatest movie for little kids ever made. I've lost count of how many times I've seen this movie. Mostly I've watched it with my favourite niece who, like me, has yet to tire of it. I expect one day she will, and I'll have to watch it on my own. Never mind. (Interestingly, this little girl and her brother have never watched TV at home. Occasionally they may watch one of a handful of carefully chosen DVD's. It's possible that their being the most well adjusted and charming kids I have ever met is unconnected with their viewing habits, but I don't think so. And hats off to their parents - yoroshiku, ne!)
The director of Totoro is Hayao Miyazaki. He is one half of Studio Ghibli. The other half is Isao Takahata. If I was forced to have only a dozen movies to watch for the rest of my life, these two would take every spot. All of their efforts are animation. For those of you who wish to pile in and tell me of other great animation - please don't, I'm the wrong guy. Animation is merely a medium. To fall in love with a medium is silly. I apologise if I hurt anyone's feelings in saying this. The reason I love these two directors is because their movies are 'right' in the buddhist sense. And nowhere in cinema will you find a more perfect synthesis of Buddhism and Shinto. But more on this later.
But what of the film, ha ha? In short, a professorial father and his two daughters, Satsuki and Mei (8 and 4 respectively), arrive at their new house in the bucolic countryside. The mother is in a nearby hospital convalescing from an unstated illness. This absence of the mother is biographical on Miyazaki's part and is here (as perhaps with the director) the vehicle by which the two girls allow the natural world to more wholly occupy their imagination. Simple adventures follow.
The first occasion we see Satsuki and Mei they're jammed in the back of some mad three-wheeled truck. Why aren't they complaining? Did they just share some candy without bickering? And did they give some to their father? How come their father didn't say something stupid so that they could roll their eyes at how stupid he is? When they arrive at their new house in the country, why don't they sulk? What's going on?
Believe it or not, in Totoro, kids get on with each other and with their parents. There is no competition, rebellion, or bullshit mindgames. Throughout this film people are considerate of each other - the two girls take an umbrella to their father; Satsuki, unasked, makes lunch for everyone; Mei brings her father flowers. No one here is possessed of self-serving or ill will. No one desires anything which belongs with another - quite the opposite, everything is shared. Further, children, parents and grandparents talk to each in perfect equanimity with no sense of disconnect.
Perhaps this is the reason that simple scenes where nothing significant happens (which in a Disney movie we'd merely endure) are, in Miyazaki's hands, moments of delight that we wish would go on forever.
Miyazaki understands fear. As a Buddhist how could he not? Fear is the source of all delusion. But let's not get ahead of ourselves - this is a movie for little kids. And Miyazaki would have them know that fear is merely that which they do not understand. To this end, in exploring their new house, Satsuki and Mei encounter the wonderful makurokurosuke. I say wonderful, but it doesn't appear that way at first. On first sighting of these curious creatures the two girls' hair stands on end, and any little kid watching will do the same. But only on the first viewing - on subsequent viewings they will bravely demonstrate that all one needs to do is boldly shout 'Makurokurosuke dete oite!' (black fluff off you go!) and the fuzzy sprites are banished. My niece likes to show me how brave she is by screaming this at full volume three inches from my face. Ha ha ha, sweetheart, how brave you are!
Compare this to the kind of fear Disney thinks appropriate for young viewers. Have you ever noticed how Disney's manifestations of fear are truly nightmarish? Collectively they are malevolent, red-eyed supernatural impossibilities. They are to Miyazaki's simple apprehensions what a werewolf is to a puppy-dog. Disney's objects of fear are variations of the darkest mythology, things that no one will ever encounter in their whole life. What possible purpose is served by scaring kids in this fashion? That they will have nightmares is a certainty. And have you ever noticed how little kids watching a Disney movie will be scared every time they watch a given scene? Their fear is never dispelled - instead it's reinforced with each repetition. What sort of shit is that? Why would we do this to children? If I said that Disney trains kids to be fearful would I be wrong?
Buddhism is one thing and Shintoism is another. They're not incompatible of course, they're just different. Rather than me attempting to explain Shinto, just watch Tonari no Totoro and see if you might not be a little closer to understanding. In this film, Miyazaki has distilled a child's mesmerised intoxication with nature into the entity of Totoro. He is an avatar of Shintoistic nature expressed in a lexicon suitable for little kids. Indeed, upon Mei telling her father of having met Totoro he reacts not with incredulity or disbelief but merely states that Totoro is the spirit of the forest. He then takes the kids to the top of the hill and, by way of a communal prayer to the thousand year old tree that crowns it, instils in them a reverence for nature. Onya Dad!
Don't confuse what you see here with Western models. Miyazaki's films are not mirrors but windows. Do not look for yourself. Lumping Totoro in with other anthropomorphised characters with which you are familiar will lead you in the wrong direction. Totoro is emphatically not Disneyfied. In the medium of human representation, hands are very important, second only to the face. Significantly Totoro has claws. At no time is he 'knowable'. He never speaks, or even acknowledges that he has understood what has been said to him. No nods, no winks, no meaningful looks.
Indeed Totoro is not even his name. It's merely Mei mispronouncing 'troll' ('tororu' in the Japanese transliteration) from the book 'The Three Billy Goats Gruff' that she is reading. Never do we find out his true name, what he actually is, or what purpose he serves. But it doesn't matter. Free of any desire to command him, or even to figure him out, the girls are permitted to share in the joy of whatever it is he's doing. And in every Miyazaki movie, nature is always represented thus. The very unknowability of it is what makes it such a thing of wonder. To master Totoro would be to see him disappear from one's life.
Says Miyazaki, nature is not ours. It is not here to serve us. It will always remain unknowable and we should consider ourselves fortunate to marvel at it.
As a side note - I will happily acknowledge that the Japanese are not perfect. Not like us, ha ha. But go to Japan and be astounded at the ubiquity of Shinto shrines. The middle of big cities aside they seem to miraculously reveal themselves in every spot where nature is present. There is nothing quite like it in any other country I've ever been to. Before you start muttering counter-propositions about the Japanese, know that Miyazaki is not the single biggest film-maker in Japan for no reason. His films are not mistakenly popular. His world view strikes a deep chord in the hearts of the Japanese. This is for many reasons but not least because he gives voice to that which could otherwise only be expressed by pressing one's hands together and bowing one's head.
What is childhood? As I've stated elsewhere, I like to view things through a lens of time. For what percentage of human existence have kids been wise-cracking, cooler-than-thou fashion plates filled with insatiable consumerist desires? When was the generation gap invented? Were teens always unintelligible, sulky, self-obsessed gits?
I've lost count of how my times I've heard people say that kids today are different. Me, I don't buy it. Where did this difference come from? Did human DNA evolve in a single generation? Was there some pandemic that only affected the young? Think about it for more than three minutes and the answer is obvious - how could the difference be anything apart from inculcation by TV? And yet we all behave as if this was a force of nature, something beyond our control (or remote control, ha ha). It seems there's nothing to be done but shrug our shoulders and leave the kids in front of that flickering blue light in the loungeroom.
Bullshit. There is a choice. Certainly the crap in the media is endless and the worthy choices are few and far between. Totoro is just one film and all of Miyazaki's other movies are but a drop in a cynical ocean. But it's proof nonetheless that something else is possible. There are other ways to view the world. Simple unaffected truths are ours to grasp if we wish it. Cynicism can be shed and joy can be rediscovered. Miyazaki's gift is that you, and your children, may borrow his eyes for an hour and a half. And if the television was then turned off with the kids running outside to poke acorns in the soil, nothing would make him happier. Nor me, nor you, nor the kids, ha ha.