I’ve never felt any special attraction to the anime genre, although I know it has many fans. I guess I mostly favor more realistic art styles, and the conventions of anime tend to feel very formulaic and superficial to me. However, in recent years, I’ve become a great admirer of the films of Harao Miyazaki. Although he’s catered more the expectations of the US market in his later work, he has the heart of a storyteller and a vision that is still in touch with the dreams we all had as children.
Several of Miyazaki’s films draw on the spiritual and cultural vocabulary of Shinto. While Buddhism and Taoism constitute the “high” form of religion in Japan, with their deep philosophies and ethical lessons, Shinto provides the earthy, day-to-day substrate of practice and belief. In Shinto, the world is alive with a multitude of spirits: every place has its own spirit, as do plants and animals – everything in nature, really. Rituals that acknowledge the spirits are a part of daily routine.
In My Neighbor Totoro (Tonari no Totoro), two sisters make friends with a local forest spirit, Totoro. The girls are being cared for by their father while their mother is in a hospital. They move to a new home in the country, where they encounter Totoro and his friends. Their adventures together help the girls find the confidence they need to deal with their mother’s illness.
This film is remarkable in several ways. First is Totoro himself. Like most spirits and magical creatures in Miyazaki’s films, Totoro doesn’t speak. He conveys messages by gesture and expression, and by his movements and body language. Miyazaki seems to understand that children can relate to animals without the talents of an Eddie Murphy or a Billy Crystal to mediate the connection. It is a sheer delight to watch the drawings and animation create the relationship, especially when the relationship is as gentle and nuanced as it is in this film.
This film is also special in its connection with the natural world. Totoro has power with growing and living things, and is totally at home in the elements of earth, air, and water. The landscapes and weather changes in this film are rendered with a loving attention to detail. The tree where the girls first find Totoro is a creature of great magic and power. Its essence and importance is conveyed by the artwork, rather than any gimmicky effects or cliches.
Finally, this is a film whose main characters are young children, and it stays true to that by finding all its drama and joy in the world as experienced by 3- to 8-year-olds. There is no violence, no evil villain out to destroy things, no subplots tossed in to appeal to parents at the expense of the story. It doesn’t need any of that, as its drama comes from things more basic: getting lost when walking far from home, age-based tensions between the two sisters, worry about an absent parent. The joys of this film are likewise uncomplicated: the simple magic of a big furry friend who doesn’t say much but always knows what to do.
Although it is always risky comparing beliefs systems from different parts of the globe, I have always felt that Shinto and western Paganism are expressions of a similar spiritual impulse: the feeling of living in a world that is alive and enchanted in its numerous details; where the sacred is found in the plants and animals and places we encounter each day, rather than in a set of writings or an abstract conception of God. When I first encountered modern Paganism, it felt like I was reconnecting with my true nature, a nature I had left behind along with my childhood. I realized that there had been something profound in those lazy childhood afternoons, lying in the tall grass or watching the caterpillars, or the play of sunlight on water. For anyone who appreciates the spiritual quality of those simple experiences, My Neighbor Totoro is sure to find a special place in your heart. It’s become a solstice tradition in our home.