Film in Oxford: Forests and Fireflies – The 1988 Films of Studio Ghibli

2013 marks the 25th anniversary of not just one but two classics of animation, My Neighbour Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies. The two films (both produced by a Japanese animation studio, Studio Ghibli) were originally released as a cinematic double bill, a decision that was based less on artistic vision and more on financial necessity. It was thought that few people would be interested in Totoro, a film about two children encountering a forest spirit and that pairing it with the more ‘educational’ Grave, an adaptation of a World War II novel, would alleviate any box office risks. The reception of the double billing was mixed, and the disjunct moods of the two films meant that reactions were highly dependent upon the order of showing (when the cheery Totoro was shown first, many would leave during Grave).

Over time, however, My Neighbour Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies both came to be heralded as masterpieces in their own right, and achieved a great deal of success as standalone films. New back-to-back anniversary showings (e.g. in Oxford, at the Ultimate Picture Palace on Saturday 29th June and Tuesday 2nd July) have brought them together once more, and this week’s column explores some of the complementary characteristics of the two films.

My Neighbour Totoro follows two sisters, pre-teenage Satsuki and four-year-old Mei, as they move with their father to a rural area outside Tokyo in order to be closer to their hospitalised mother. It is not made explicit what the mother’s illness is, but it is assumed to be tuberculosis, a condition that director Hayao Miyazaki’s mother suffered from when he was young. While exploring the nearby forest, Mei falls under a camphor tree (in true Carroll-esque fashion), and stumbles upon a large friendly forest spirit, whom she names ‘Totoro’ due to the sound of his exhalations. (In the original version, Totoro’s name comes from Mei’s mispronunciation of tororu, the Japanese word for ‘troll’.)

In Grave of the Fireflies, brother and sister Seita and Setsuko find themselves without a home following the March 1945 Kobe firebombings. Their father is fighting for the Japanese Navy, and their mother dies after being severely burned in one of the blasts. They move to live with a distant aunt, who becomes resentful of their inability to work or go to school, and they eventually leave to fend for themselves, living in an abandoned bomb shelter.

There are many similarities between the two films that are obvious from the offset: two siblings are forced into new surroundings by matters out of their own hands, due to their mother’s illness or death. Both focus their stories on the siblings’ relationship as it is defined in correspondence with the world around them, and the storytelling takes place through a series of situations, rather than through a conventional narrative plot. It is the contrasting nature of these situations which, of course, provides thematic divergence. Totoro is propelled by fascination and exploration, whereas in Grave, any travel is a weary necessity. In the former, childlike innocence is cultivated and celebrated, while in the latter it is undermined and eventually suffocated.

To a greater extent than most nations, Japan is all too aware of the harm that humans can afflict upon nature (given the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki), and this conflict is a central theme of many Studio Ghibli films (Laputa: The Castle in the Sky [1986], Princess Mononoke [1997] and Ponyo [2008] are three clear examples). In My Neighbour Totoro, Satsuki and Mei’s father reminisces about a time when “trees and people still got along,” a remark lamenting not only his lingering memories of World War II – the film is set in the 1950s – but also the rapid industrialisation that followed the Meiji Restoration of 1868. This fleeting comment carries what I believe to be the greatest conflict of Totoro, the urbanisation of rural Japan. There is a tension here between what is made explicit onscreen and what takes place implicitly outside of the film’s boundaries, both narratively and historically.

Onscreen, Satsuki and Mei are shown to be in harmony with Totoro and the other forest spirits. The large camphor tree under which Mei first encounters Totoro has survived from before the Meiji period, and can still recall a time when there was peace between man and nature. At one point in the film, Totoro gifts Satsuki with some magic seeds, which she and Mei then plant. One night they wake to see Totoro and the other forest spirits performing a ceremonial dance around them, and as they join in the dance the seeds grow into a giant tree. Here, man and nature are seen literally united to achieve a common goal, and the film can be seen in its entirety as a celebration of such unity.

Any tension arises through the disjuncture between this filmic fiction and the knowledge of a very different historical reality. The Tokorozawa region in which My Neighbour Totoro is set was transformed during the 1950s and 60s from a farming community into a Tokyo commuter town. Areas of satoyama were destroyed, and preservation campaigns (often supported by Studio Ghibli, with Totoro as mascot) still continue in an attempt to prevent further urbanisation. In Totoro there are small hints of what is to come – the father is a Tokyo professor who travels by bus to the city, for example – but rather than decrying urbanisation, Totoro focuses on depicting, in Roger Ebert’s words, “the world we should live in.”

If My Neighbour Totoro offers a utopian idealisation of rural Japan, Grave of the Fireflies is its solemnly dystopian counterpart. Director Isao Takahata has insisted that the film is not anti-war as such, but rather aims to illustrate the impact that war can have on humans. This centralisation of the human aspects of war does not, however, preclude environmental concerns. The Japanese title of the film suggests a dual meaning; the non-standard kanji chosen for ‘fireflies’ simultaneously evokes the insects and, poetically, incendiary bombs (it can be paraphrased as something like ‘fire, dangling down (like a droplet from a leaf)’. Firebombs were occasionally colloquially referred to as fireflies in Japan, and to underline this interpretative reading, Setsuko at one point in the film remarks on their similarity.

Unlike in Totoro, man and nature are seen in Grave to be working in opposition, and the ambiguity of the film’s title foregrounds this conflict. There is still nature in Grave, but usually jarringly accompanied by destruction and death: at the beginning of the film, a can containing human ash and bones is thrown into a grassy field, and the lake that Seita and Setsuko come across lies beside a disused bomb shelter. At another point, in what is perhaps a nod to My Neighbour Totoro, Seita tells Setsuko – falsely – that their mother is buried beneath a great camphor tree. If in Totoro the characters inhabit an idyllic alternate reality, in Grave the characters yearn to be part of this despite its impossibility. Nowhere is the disjuncture between man and nature made more obvious than in the final scene of the film, in which Seita and Setsuko, surrounded by fireflies, watch over the modern city of Kobe.

With the industrialisation and imperialism that are so apparent in Grave of the Fireflies come hierarchies of gender, class, age and relationships. Seita and Setsuko are treated condescendingly throughout the film by adults, most notably by their aunt and doctor. Seita’s reluctance to conform to the consequences of such a hierarchy (such as the demands of his aunt) offers liberation in the form of isolation, but eventually leads to his downfall. His belief in the powers of the Japanese military betrays his naivety; despite being a victim of the systems that imperialism has imposed, he stands by its chief proponents. Doubt is only planted in his mind when it is already too late, when he has discovered that Japan has surrendered, and that the Japanese navy fleets have sunk.

In My Neighbour Totoro, no such hierarchies exist. Despite his inability to see the forest spirits, the father believes Satsuki and Mei’s stories, and it is him who matter-of-factly suggests that Totoro is a “keeper of the forest”. Similarly, their granny tells them reassuringly that the susuwatari (‘soot bunnies’) in their new house are nothing to be afraid of, and they soon scurry away for good when the father helps Satsuki and Mei to settle in. As Ebert has pointed out, there is no kids-versus-adults dynamic here (though such a dynamic is present in so many children’s films), and the focus on sisters – rather than brothers – also turns away from American convention. In Totoro, children and elders are respected alike, and the family is a haven of stability and safety.

The presence of safety (both for the characters and for the audience members) in My Neighbour Totoro is again countered by its absence in Grave of the Fireflies. At one point in Totoro, Mei gets lost trying to walk to the hospital to see her mother, and sits in a roadside shrine. Such shrines are common in Japanese Buddhist worship, and this particular one is inhabited by statues of Ksitigarbha, the patron deity of children. Many have seen this as Miyazaki reassuring Mei and the audience members alike that she is – and will remain – safe. A central scene in Grave offers a notable comparison; Seita and Setsuko catch fireflies in order to light up the abandoned bomb shelter, to the wonder of Setsuko. By the next day, however, these beacons of comfort have gone; the fireflies have died, and Setsuko is distraught.

In Totoro, then, safety is a permanent state, whereas in Grace it is fleeting and temporary. The marked difference between the hospitals in the two films is indicative of this. The mother in Totoro is well looked after; she is staying in a comfortable bed and has access to high quality long-term care. The mother in Grave, however, is hospitalised in a makeshift ward; care is undersupplied, the number of patients requiring medical attention is great, and although she is treated, her death is inevitable. In the absence of anyone or anything else to look to, Setsuko – and the audience – rely on Seita for reassurance.

Setsuko’s relationship with Seita is one of complete dependence, and perhaps the principal tragedy of Grave of the Fireflies is the extent to which Seita’s decisions are so inextricable from Setsuko’s wellbeing. Seita certainly has his flaws – he is naïve, proud, and perhaps a little selfish – but ultimately he is young, scared, and only human. The original novel Grave of the Fireflies, by Akiyuki Nosaka, was semi-autobiographical, and Nosaka has admitted that he would often eat food before sharing it with his younger sister. The novel, and subsequently the film, explores this inability to empathise with or help others during difficult times. The aunt, doctor, and farmer in the film all fail to show sympathy to the children, and Setsuko relies solely on Seita for any acts of kindness. A can of fruit drops is central in this regard; Seita rations these out and gives them to Setsuko intermittently throughout the film. After receiving each fruit drop, Setsuko beams with happiness, and these acts of kindness become inseparable from hope.

In My Neighbour Totoro, selflessness is the default, and acts of kindness are commonly made and reciprocated. In the famous bus stop scene (in which Satsuki and Mei, waiting for their father in the rain, are joined by Totoro), Satsuki’s offer of her umbrella to Totoro is returned as he gives her the magic seeds. Later in the film, Kanta (the sisters’ neighbour) also lends Satsuki and Mei his umbrella. There are countless other acts of human kindness, but one in notably stark contrast to much of Grave is the banding together of the community in order to look for Mei. As a whole, Totoro is remarkable for its absence of villains or discernible conflict.

This column only touches on some of the themes and contrasts of the two films, which deserve to be observed in much greater detail than has been done here. I cannot recommend My Neighbour Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies highly enough, and for those unable to make the double screenings at the Ultimate Picture Palace in Oxford on Saturday 29th June or Tuesday 2nd July, the films are now readily available in DVD. Both are examples of masterful filmmaking and exquisite storytelling, and twenty-five years on they are as eye-opening and heart-wrenching as ever.

J. Wadsworth

For more information about film times for films featured in this week’s column, please visit the Ultimate Picture Palace website. As always, up-to-date listings can be found at these links: Phoenix Picturehouse; Ultimate Picture Palace; Odeon George St; Odeon Magdalen St; Malmaison Rooftop Cinema. If you know of any film events or showings that you think should be included here in the future then please e-mail J. Wadsworth at theoxfordculturereview@gmail.com

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