By the time my sibs were born I was already a highly opinionated young person, so they were reared on whatever I happened to be watching at any given moment. A lot had changed in my life—new house, new dad, new sibs—but I remained thoroughly myself through it all. Un/fortunately for my siblings this meant they were exposed to fringy things from early on.
And in the mid-90s, Hayao Miyazaki was not a household name in central New York. It wasn’t until 1999 that Studio Ghibli’s films traveled from Japan to be released in American theatres, and 2001’s Spirited Away cemented Miyazaki’s spot in the global film scene. Somehow, in 1997 I had a dubbed copy of My Neighbor Totoro that was played at least weekly on our giant tube set. I loveloveloved the movie and couldn’t believe no one had heard of it.
Folks: This movie is a treasure. And an ideal gateway film to the rest of the Miyazaki catalogue. Though the story is about a pair of sisters who are befriended by a giant spirit of the forest, the themes speak to the heart of human experience: family, love, ecology, self-respect. And these themes are carried throughout Miyazaki’s films, and almost always through a girl protagonist. The girls in these movies are smart and resourceful as they are thrust into unexpected challenges on terrain both familiar, and strange. That is, we follow these girls through inflection points when they must retain their self-awareness as circumstances change around them; they tackle the unfamiliar to keep and protect their sense of self because, ultimately, the self is HOME.
I’m not animated (though, see below for My Neighbor Tampopo), but Miyazaki’s girls spoke to me across language, culture, and distance. My family had changed shape. I was in a new house. I was suddenly connected to tiny babies. But Totoro remained, and then became a shared touchstone for the grown fam. It would have been easy to feel lost in the shuffle during so much change, but I didn’t. And I wasn’t. I hadn’t lost anything through these changes but, rather, had gained a family group to love and share with.
And by the time my sibs had become highly opinionated young people themselves, I’d ask them which Miyazaki they wanted to watch. To which they would reply, All of them! But Totoro first.