I know I watched a lot of movies as a kid, but looking back on my childhood, I associate three movies with it: The Sound of Music, Empire Strikes Back, and My Neighbor Totoro.
And it’s that last one that really sticks with me; one of the few movies I remember my first viewing of, a quintessential flashbulb memory that’s strongly warm in the stomach, if foggy in the brain. I can’t tell you how the conversation rolled around to it, but I distinctly remember the heightened excitement in the room when my friend looked at our family and said “you haven’t seen Totoro?” Next, I remember plunking down in front of the TV, unsure what to expect. What came after was pure movie magic.
I’m not sure how many times my sisters and I watched Totoro growing up. It’s probably the reason why Studio Ghibli’s animation style feels so familiar to me, why looking at the faces of Ghibli characters feels like registering familial features.
After Totoro, Hayao Miyazaki’s movies were regularly welcomed into our home, so much so that I never registered the difficulty my parents must’ve had acquiring them—this being the mid-90’s, before the internet provided easy access to subbed versions of foreign movies.
At the time the movies felt fun, full of colorful characters and furry creatures—a logical choice for a parent to make. But looking back on it, I realize there’s much more to it than that. The truth is his work speaks for itself; so often in Miyazaki’s worlds it’s the women that count.
I came up during the 90’s, when the Beanie Babies were hot and girl power was the name of the game. From Buffy and Xena to Spice Girls and Destiny’s Child, there was a ballsy new breed of woman everywhere you looked, and she was full of spirit and self-sufficiency. For my sisters and me, that power was most often expressed through different Disney heroines, whose flaws typically went over our heads in favor of the strength imprinted on us.
Totoro’s Satsuki and Mei didn’t come with those women’s adult lives. Their existence is smaller, contained almost entirely on the patch of land they just moved to with their father in order to be closer to their mother, in a local hospital. Neither of them are going to war or anything as grand as that. They’re just living their normal, preteen lives when they happen upon a forest spirit.
Said friendly neighborhood forest spirit is more ewok than Tinkerbell. He comes and goes as he pleases, appearing when Mei’s killing time while Satsuki’s at school, or when the sisters are waiting for their father’s bus. He could be a figment—the plants they grow together vanish and Mei falls asleep on Totoro’s stomach only to wake up in a dense clearing—but the wonder he has on the girls, the things he helps them do, it’s all very real.
Totoro, and his troupe of wood spirits, are the posterchildren of My Neighbor Totoro. They’re the fuzzy fellows we all imagined we’d happen upon when we climbed over twisted tree limbs and ran our hands over soft green moss as kids. But Mei and Satsuki are the ones who sell Totoro. When you’re a young thing, it’s easy to register kids in adventure stories as older than they are, but I think I always identified these sisters as my age. They always felt real enough to touch, like the sort of small hands I might reach out and grab to run across the playground.
Miyazaki captures the wonder of being a child. Many scenes in Totoro are secondhand to me, trapped in a chicken/egg scenario where they feel based on my lived experiences, instead of lived so many times they’ve become their own experience. I could explain why it’s so much fun and so goddamn necessary to run around every room of the house when you’re moving, but Miyazaki captures the unencumbered glee as Mei and Satsuki explore every corner and closet of their new abode. The grumpy way Chihiro lays herself across the backseat as she drives with her parents to a new town in the beginning of Spirited Away hits exactly what it’s like to be so focused on who you’ve left that you can’t think about the opportunities ahead of you.
But more specifically, it’s always felt like Ghibli movies understood what it meant to grow up as a girl, still unconvinced by the world that she has to fight for everything she has. Coming back to his movies as an adult, the worlds feel so rich, yet there’s so much I didn’t see, so much I couldn’t possibly have known as a child. Sophie being cornered in an alley by some overly-flirty guards at the beginning of Howl’s Moving Castle awakens a familiar fear in my grown-up self. As a child, though, it felt dangerous in an existential kind of way. I didn’t yet know what it meant to be a woman walking alone in an alley. Miyazaki, somehow, does.
His movies capture a unique worldview: The pressing responsibility of adulthood, the pessimism and fatigue at the work to be done to live and keep good in the world—it’s all kept at bay for just a moment, even as he engages with it directly.
The key is somewhere between the means and the end. There are happy endings that come at a cost. That cost involves sacrifice, danger, risk; sure. But he never lets it come down to apathy.
Miyazaki’s heroines could feel overwhelmed by the mounting pressure of the world on their back but they don’t, at least not permanently. They refuse to fall into the bitter strength that reeks of male gaze; they don’t become jaded as they discover the underbellies of their world. These women lean into the strengths that endeared them to us to begin with—arguably distinctly feminine strengths. Mei and Satsuki’s bond stays strong even as one dips further into unknown adulthood; Sophie pushes her new family to be their best selves with care and devotion. Even San, the titular Princess Mononoke, one of the more angry heroines with the most at stake, trusts her feelings and forgives where she can.
These girls retain their capacity to love, and they cling to it fearlessly even as their worlds get torn out from under them. Miyazaki worlds, with all their saccharine and shiny visuals, exist on a plane where women’s love and empathy find them stronger, not derided.
Looking back, it’s not a message that I remember getting from many other strong women in my youthful zeitgeist.
When I was in ninth grade, a health teacher explained to us that she didn’t allow movies like Cinderella, Snow White, or any other princess movie where the heroine wasn’t involved in saving herself. It took me a day or two, but I realized the list she shared with us had the same holes in the Disney library we had growing up.
Turns out it was intentional; my parents wanted their three daughters to grow up strong, believing that we could do anything. They were fine with us watching whatever movies we wanted, but they made sure the ones we kept in the house, the ones we were devouring over and over again, were held to a stricter standard.
Studio Ghibli movies invariably passed this standard. Like the princess collection, or the way you always lost naptime bets as a kid, it’s the sort of truth that washes over you as a child—only to look back as an adult and realize it was all a grand design.
But as a 5-, 6-, or 7-year-old, all you know is what you appreciate. Maybe you taste the fiery flavors of independence when Kiki sets off on her broom to pilgrimage away from home as a 13-year-old, but at the time it just seems like what you would expect from a young woman. Maybe you see girls not that much older than you profess love for guys they’ve really only known for a week, but you’ve also seen her take the lead and receive nothing but his support. It’ll be years before you realize that implicit egalitarianism in love, that sense of security in society, isn’t a thing your friends will expect to have. They certainly aren’t things your friends expect to fight for.
But that’s what you get when you grow up watching brave, self-sufficient girls leap into battle to defend what they believe in. You see heart and strength vanquish ignorance and resistance. A Ghibli universe can be scary (just like our own), but it’s also chock full of girls and women who never let self-doubt corrupt their sense of right and wrong. Women are allowed to be good, bad, leaders, behind-the-scenes rulers, powerful warlocks, and, blissfully, girls.
Mei and Satsuki aren’t yet dealing with these global issues (at least not directly); they’re not making sure a blimp doesn’t take out thousands of people, or defending a kingdom, or rescuing their parents, or saving the environment. Totoro, at its core, is about two sisters who suddenly find themselves separated by an ineffable boundary of age. I didn’t pick up on all that entailed as a child, but I could feel that Miyazaki took them as seriously as I did.
Totoro is iconic, and though I’m pretty sure most people wouldn’t count it as their favorite Ghibli movie, I can’t get over it. I can’t divorce the movie from all it’s done for me. It feels like such a fundamental part of my making that my inner-child and I can both still beam at it proudly.
She just keeps popping that VHS tape back in, and I’m so glad she had it.