My grandmother passed away in February. She was 94 years old. Her life ended peacefully in a small nursing home nestled into the hills of rural Japan. After her funeral, my mother and I dug through dusty boxes of photos and documents. We found an old shopping list written in calligraphic handwriting. We found fading photos of immaculately posed families, the women in kimonos and the men in suits; no one was smiling. We found an old measuring cup which someone long ago had used to scoop rice. As I handled these artefacts, I was overcome with a powerful yearning for the past they represented.
Hayao Miyazaki’s animated masterpiece, My Neighbor Totoro, left me with a similar sensation. The film, set in a rural town in mid-20th century Japan, features a pair of sisters who move into a rickety old house with their father. They are often left unattended because of their mother’s prolonged stay in the hospital. As the film progresses, it follows the sisters who explore their environs and find that the woods are full of gentle spirits.
Totoro captures the essence of childhood and post-war Japan like no other film. My mother, who grew up during that period, once told me that the film is unbearably sad to watch. It reminds her too much of her own childhood in rural Japan. I understand what she means despite growing up under very different circumstances. As the final credits rolled, I felt homesick.
Early in the film, as the girls move into their new home, they encounter swarms of shadowy creatures as they enter long-sealed rooms. When they bring them up to the old neighbor, she responds wistfully:
“You’ve got soot sprites in your house… I used to be able to see them when I was your age.”
Reality and imagination aren’t so separate for children. I was afraid of the ghosts living upstairs, but I can’t remember them anymore. How did I find the sublime in the mundane? I recall the feelings of childhood but can’t experience them anymore. All I can do now is watch children enraptured by the world and look on in mourning and gratitude. I too had the ability to be mesmerized by a rotting log abandoned in a wooded park.
Totoro offers adults a chance to experience these spectral versions of the past. We can see a world of twelve-legged cat-buses that soar across the countryside. We can ride a spinning top into the sky and peer down at the world. We can see an unspoiled countryside where we live in peace, a tightly knit community.
The film premiered in Japan in 1988 and remains popular there today. Perhaps the film’s adorable character design accounts for its lasting impact. I prefer to believe that the film endures because it allows a dispirited and aging nation to dream of a simpler time before everyone crowded into cubicles in search of prosperity. The nation yearns for a time of contentment on the farm; no one needed to be stuffed into a train car at 7:45 am. The rickety old house and the communal rice planting are just as phantasmal to the modern Tokyoite as Totoro and the soot sprites.
But romanticizing the past begs the question, “Am I remembering it right?” Was childhood as carefree as my yearning suggests? The worries were simple, but they didn’t feel any less burdensome. Didn’t I stress as much over a missing toy as I do over deadlines today? And was life in rural Japan happier than modern urban existence? Children died of unknown illnesses. The memories of relatives lost in the war still loomed heavy. People starved. Examine the past carefully and you’ll realize that nostalgia creates a fantasy out of the past.
Miyazaki, while playing on nostalgia, recognizes its true nature and never succumbs to its charms. The past that the characters in Totoro inhabit is full of everyday challenges. The worries of the children are always treated with gravity. Throughout part of the movie, the younger sister, Mei, desperately clings to an ear of corn that she believes will cure her sick mother. The film allows us to understand the depth of emotion that the corn symbolizes. An ear of corn is nothing to an adult, but for a five-year-old with a sick mother, it’s everything. Perhaps I will never believe in anything like Mei does in that corn, but Totoro helps me believe in a past where I did. While Totoro pushes me to yearn for the past, it never pushes me to romanticize it.
Unchecked nostalgia is as tragic as it is comforting. It fills us with heartache for the unattainable. We long for a past filled with honest simplicity that never existed. At the same time, it gently reminds us of our true desires. Life screams by as we worry about careers and bank accounts and relationships. We rush from work to home to work. We spend so much time juggling our fears and hopes that we forget to feel anything. Totoro provides us with just the dose of nostalgia to remind us that we want something more in life.
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