When today’s youth approaches the world of Japanese filmmaking, the most ubiquitous name is not Kurosawa, nor Ozu, nor Mizoguchi, but Miyazaki, the marvelous maestro guiding his Stuido Ghibli toward the clouds lifting up human imagination, and particularly childhood emotion, rendered sublime. It’s perhaps fitting that Miyazaki has taken up the mantel, for he combines the best of the past into a whole equal parts grandiose and sweeping (Kurosawa), spiritually elegiac (Ozu), and mournfully mythic (Mizoguchi). It seems inappropriate to discuss Japanese cinema without him, and it seemed inappropriate to not take the opportunity to review his two most achingly personal, most emotionally pure movies. That the two were released simultaneously in a theatrical double-bill, and that they are linked by so many diegetic features only to be as tonally opposite as any two films ever were, is an all the more fascinating testament to Miyazaki’s exploration of humanity at its most unrestrained and least affected.
My Neighbor Totoro
My Neighbor Totoro is at its best when it is at its simplest, which thankfully is every single frame of every single scene in the whole film. It is a deeply streamlined work, lacking superfluous event to the point where it is almost non-narrative in its impression of childhood amazement. The narrative mostly boils down to eight year old Satsuki (Hidaka Noriko) and her, for lack of a better term, adventures in the forest next to her new rural home.
There’s more to the narrative, relating to her family composed of four year old sister Mei, voiced by Sakamoto Chika and father, voiced by Itoi Shigesato, dealing with a grave illness having stricken Satsuki’s mother. They move from Tokyo to the calm, expansive, pensive country near the mother’s hospital. It’s no secret that the film’s starstruck delight and grand prettiness are mask for Satsuki’s internal pain, but the tension boiling within remains underneath the surface. This isn’t a heartbreaking analysis of childhood pain unable to approach the literal consciousness, but an expression of the very real joy felt within that state. It’s an ode to how, despite its temporality, sky-high joyous exploration is undying and eternally lively in the moment.
And in this moment, Satsuki meets the soot devils, small blobs of puffy charcoal blackness, and doesn’t even consider the adult temptation to find trauma and chaos in them. Instead, she throws herself head first into their liveliness, reacting with a sense of effervescent urgency long forgotten by a world interested in battering down human emotion into types and forms. But this is only an appetizer for the main character, Totoro, one of the most ebullient, enraptured, broadly sweet characters ever captured on the screen. Silent and obtusely round in a deeply direct and immediate way, the character needs no explanation, for the visuals do it all. The character’s most famous moment, where he observes from Satsuki the nature of humans hiding from rain and tries to repeat it with no knowledge of his own size or being, is just about the most charming image ever captured on film. And for a film very much defined by its childlike “hanging out and taking in the moments” sensibility, it feels entirely appropriate to discuss the film in terms of its string of visuals and moments. They are as a child would see.
Totoro is also very much out of unison with any of Miyazaki’s previous films (more on this later), all of which deal with grandiose and intentionally dramatic mythic-ness very much implicitly tied to Japan’s long historical tension between spiritualist tradition and nature and the modernizing pale of technology and machination (true all the way up to his 2013 offering, The Wind Rises, ostensibly his final directorial effort). In the place of such tension, and the ensuing dramatic insistence at the core of the narrative, we have something undeniably warmhearted and lacking in anything resembling heft or tension. Instead, it’s a giant aching grin of a film, plaintive in moments only to make the deep, feeling joy of the film that much more potent. This is not a film that knows “adult” concerns, and it is all the more radical and, ironically, challenging for it.
The visuals too are so out-of-bounds with the norms of mainstream filmmaking, where animation is all about insisting and demanding at the expense of evoking. My Neighbor Totoro wouldn’t know how to demand if its life depended on it. It doesn’t beg a thing. The backgrounds are devoutly relaxed and even hazy, like a watercolor impression of an environment as it would be seen by a child picking up only the broadest details and filling in the details with their own mind. It’s not quite Monet, but for an animated film, it’s remarkably mature in its ability to imply and ask of the audience. But even asks even seems like too strong a word for such a light, even meditative film.
If it does ask, though, the only thing it wants of us is to simply mill around a bit in everything the film offers, to experience it. Maybe, just maybe, if its winds take us as far back into our mind as Miyazaki may dream, we can find another version of ourselves long lost to our adult minds. For this reason, My Neighbor Totoro is Miyazaki’s most childlike construct, but far from his most childish. Rather, it is his most committed to childhood storytelling, without any of the pandering, moralizing rationality that always seems to hammer its way through in these features to let us know its “really” a well-reasoned adult calling the shots. It’s as wide-eyed as any film ever has been, and it elevates the worldview of a child to the point of majesty only matched in it’s lack of realist nuance by its delirious, gaping mirth. Like a child, it’s simply happy to exist and explore its own internal proclivities and lived-in momentous energy and cloud-gazing jejune superficialities rendered as feeling and deep as something so proudly surface-level can be. It sees the world from the perspective of a child, and because it is so committed to this viewpoint, we are too.
Grave of the Fireflies
And now for something completely different. Different from Totoro, different from Miyazaki, and different from the world precisely because it dares unlike so many films to fly so close to the depressing heart of that world and strangle itself on the sheer overwhelming fact of it. Grave of the Fireflies is the ultimate animated tone poem to human decay and nihilist destruction, a deeply feeling movie for which moments of humanism only serve to highlight how brittle and frail humanity is at the core. That audiences in 1988 were subjected to this and Totoro back to back is, well, inexplicable and a little mean-spirited. The two films are as artistically voluptuous as they are wholly at odds, both stunning achievements that go together like oil and water. They both share a complete and total commitment to the worldview of a child, but they explore those children in circumstances so radically different it hurts to see the two near each other.
At the same time, that one company produced both within the same year is just about the greatest display of forethought, integrity, and audacious human feeling as one is likely to find anywhere. If My Neighbor Totoro is a cinematic candy-coated Christmas morning, Grave of the Fireflies is, well, very much not. It’s about as monumentally deadened a film as can be found, animated or not. If Totoro’s rough outline went something like “a child watches the clouds and has an unspeakable amount of fun doing so”, Grave’s matches it for elegant simplicity to wholly opposite means by having us just watch two children die. Specifically, they struggle to hold onto the slivers of life falling through their hands like sand in a hell wrought by the firebombing of Kobe on March-16-17 1945 and the death of their mother. We watch, and Studio Ghibli has nothing to console us.
With that description, one immediately thinks of the political. Yet for all Grave’s pinpoint specificty and knowing, realist depiction of human emotion, it is not a political film, nor one that is remotely concerned with anything modern at all. The specificity of the film’s real-world basis belies its mythic underpinnings. Indeed, the film, like Totoro, could have taken place anywhere humans and their emotions tread. Only, while Totoro set about a child and a grand ol’ forest filled with imagination and wonder, Grave’s flights of fancy are achingly desperate and always set in contrast to the soul-ravaged desperation they attempt to mask.
Befitting the film’s mythic nature, and perhaps the main way it shares technique with Totoro but uses it for widely disparate purposes, the animation circles around impressionism to give us one of the most poetically simple, hauntingly lovely tone poems to human despair ever essayed on film. It’s not hyper-detailed, and like with Totoro, it has the effect of asking the audience to fill in the blanks, implicating watchers who must become themselves part of the film. And what they must become a part of is something no human would want.
It’s all deeply pensive, filmed with the spiritualism of something so caught up in the world it can’t but stop and look on as it finds itself crushed under its weight. There’s a slow, quiet heartbreak here, not one that insists with violent imagery, but something that implies a deeper, more scarring kind of hurt impressed on the soul. The evocative title captures it all: humans lost to the world, each little bits of light capable of great human moments that nonetheless flicker away in the mass grave of time. And the most telling animated sequence captures the title’s somber tone, seeing the lovely crimson of fireflires rendered sickening as it dots the unholy blackness of death. The scene is gorgeous and hauntingly beautfiul, but any positive emotion is undercut by the realism on the other side, in the form of a quiet scene where the young girl who loved them so dearly buries the dead flies as a sort of after-impression of her mother’s death. We wonder how any two people, let alone children, could survive this. Then we see that, perhaps children – with their penchant for segmenting off human emotion through imagination and the chaos of the mind – may be best suited for survival. And then we see that they still can’t survive, and we all die a little on the inside.
Even when it has human kindness on the mind, this is a film of simple movements and images given an earthy concreteness even as they are elevated to ethereal beauty. When elder brother Setsuko (Ayano Shiraishi) provides lies for his sister to soothe her soul, we pause and worry, and when sister Seita (Tsutomy Tatsumi) makes food for her brother out of mud in return, the simple, graceful humanity of the act is unspeakably warming. The humans move with the gentle simplicity of a dream, even as the facial expression utilizes the flexibility of Japanese anime to render emotive caricatures that capture Herzog’s notion of ecstatic truth, the emotional truth behind the pithy nuances of real world make-up. Yet if there’s a breathing warmth to all of this elegant simplicity, Grave finds the human truth of it only in despair. This is a brutal film, but it’s also piercingly beautiful, emphasizing images that move beyond the consciousness and seep into the soul. Together, it and Totoro capture the highs and lows of human emotion better than any pair. It is because they do not remotely belong together that they need to.