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Hayao Miyazaki's film My Neighbor Totoro features the young sisters Mei and Satsuki, seen here sitting next to the whimsical and outsized Totoro. (The Kobal Collection/Tokuma Enterprises)

The Wondrous, Melancholy Worlds Of Hayao Miyazaki

Sep 3, 2013

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Kat Chow

The revered Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, 72, announced this weekend at the Venice Film Festival that he's retiring from making full-length feature films. (He previously went into "semi-retirement" after directing Princess Mononoke in 1997.)

Hearing the news reminded me that My Neighbor Totoro (1988) was the very first film I remember watching when an anime-obsessed cousin played the movie for me and my sisters on a VHS machine at a family gathering. We all sat in the basement, gawking at what flashed on the television screen while our parents clacked mah-jongg tiles together upstairs. Throughout my childhood, Miyazaki's visions chased me as I drew up my own imaginary characters.

When I first watched Totoro, I was pushed with wide-eyed wonder into a different world that was filled with unknowns but also whimsy. I wanted a mystical creature just like Totoro to be my friend — him and his enormous, engorged, bounceable belly.

Miyazaki's films left me with impressions I couldn't name or understand as a child — and feelings that parents (mine, at least) found hard to convey. That is, the longing to be a part of something larger, to simply not feel alone and to occasionally embrace eeriness.

And then, years later, I watched Totoro again as a teenager. I was older and watching of my own accord. There was something comforting, familiar, about the way Mei and Satsuki battled melancholy and fear. One of the things that set Miyazaki apart is his respect and understanding of the complex inner lives of young children. (I didn't get this type of emotion from watching American-made movies like Mulan. But I did dress up as the lead character one year for Halloween because I was so stoked there was an Asian Disney princess.) In Totoro, Mei and Satsuki's mother was bedridden with an ailment that seemed serious, if not terminal, and their father was not all that present. (My own mother died of cancer when I was 13, and my father grappled with how to raise a grief-stricken teenaged daughter.)

The scene where Mei and Satsuki wait for their father at a bus stop in the middle of the woods, at night, during a rainstorm, is heartbreaking. And stark. We're left with a pervasive sense of loneliness at the thought their father may not collect them. But the sisters are not alone. The forest is teeming with spirits that sweep away the girls' worries. There's the school bus in the shape of a cat with a maniacal grin. And then there's Totoro, with an expressionless, doe-eyed face. Together, the creatures whisk the sisters into a terrifying and whimsical world. All of it done without the benefit of much dialogue.

When Pixar released Up in 2009, one of my sisters worried that the movie would make my dad acutely aware of his own loneliness. The opening scene in Up shows a brokenhearted old man reflecting on his life and the love he felt for his late wife. Some cite Miyazaki's influence in Up. Fantastical yet grounded. In Up, the crotchety Carl Fredericksen (aka, old man dude) and the fresh-faced Russell (the badge-hungry, well-intentioned Scout who also happens to be Asian-American) go on an adventure in a house turned hot air balloon. Their relationship, at first antagonistic, develops into something that resembles the friendship between a grandfather and grandson.

But there's a difference between Up and Miyazaki's work. With the Japanese animator's films, there is no distracting humor ("SQUIRREL!") or no cheap pop-culture references ("Take a bath, hippie") directed at parents. In Miyazaki's work, there is artistry and, mostly, a silence that teeters on melancholy.

And that's perfectly OK.

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