Hayao Miyazaki turned 72 years old yesterday. Born in 1941 into the chaos of a world-spanning war, his career has been devoted to making beautiful statements of his belief in peace, harmony and respect for other life forms. Another such statement is expected in his next movie, due out in the summer of 2013.
My first encounter with his work was in 1989, when I saw the movie he made a year earlier, Tonari no Totoro (My Neighbour Totoro.) It became, and remains, my favourite film. It took me on a journey to Japan, where I had tea with Miyazaki in his own studio, Buta-ya, and met Toshio Suzuki and the team at Studio Ghibli. The immediate outcome was my book about Miyazaki, the first book in English devoted to an individual anime director/auteur.
But there was another, subtler outcome of my first encounter with Totoro. That evening in 1989, where I started watching a videotape in a first floor flat in East London and ended up in a different world, was an object lesson in the power of narrative structure. In lesser hands, the almost eventless, conflictless story would have made a beautiful film for small children. Writer-director Miyazaki made it an elegy for the ages, a summary of the human condition as part of the natural world that both accepts and celebrates its fundamental fragility. It’s a film in which Death, never mentioned, never discussed, is front and centre, the fulcrum of the plot, the ultimate antagonist.
Miyazaki once said: “… if we try to make an adventure story with a male lead, we have no choice other than doing Indiana Jones. With a Nazi, or someone else who is a villain in anyone’s eyes.” But what if your plot revolves around the ultimate Man in Black, the one opponent who can and will outgun everyone? And what if your framing narrative is entirely rooted in early childhood?
Generally speaking, Western culture is afraid to talk about death, and especially afraid to talk about death to children. It wasn’t always so; my childhood in an immigrant Catholic community allowed me to see and understand death’s processes and consequences. The faith of my fathers celebrated death as the gateway to ultimate fulfilment.
Miyazaki, coming from a different tradition, takes another route. His narrative frames death, not as a battle we can fight, or as a door that opens only one way, but as a dance in which humans take their turn with all other living things, a journey as simple as the passage of the wind through grass. The girl protagonists, if such a term can be used for a story in which there is no conflict, are aged around five and ten, and their mother is ill. She’s been in hospital for a long time. Over one summer in the country, they learn to fear that she might never recover. Then another and even more terrible separation is threatened. The situation is resolved when the power of Nature, personified in the magical figure of Totoro, reminds the girls that to everything there is a season, and that instead of wasting time on rage or fear of what we cannot change, we should live in the moment we are given. The end credits depicting the change of nature through time give us a final, uplifting set of images of the joy that will come for the children – without denying death its due, but without giving it primacy over the delight of life.
One can profitably consider the structure of the short comic strip (yonkoma in Japan) and the different ways it is used by different cultures and artists. Typical Japanese strips involve a first panel setting up the situation, a second panel developing it, a third panel in which an unexpected event occurs and a fourth panel showing the effects of the event. No resolution or conclusion is required. The situation may be comic, tragic or neutral, but it doesn’t require an “outcome”, simply an observed moment.
In the hands of some directors, the children would strive to help their mother overcome her illness, and her recovery and return home would be framed as a victory. Miyazaki highlights the innocent stupidity of such an approach through an attempt by the smallest child to take some nourishing food to her mother in hospital. Having been told by all the adults around her that eating nourishing food is the way to grow strong and healthy, she reasons that it’s all Mother needs to enable her to come home. But however strong you are, however healthy, the time will come when your life ends, like the life of the food you eat.
Internet discussion of the role of death in My Neighbour Totoro has included speculation that both girls die in the story, that Miyazaki was inspired by a genuine Japanese murder case, that Totoro is a God of Death and that the Catbus is a ferry to the Other Side. Many commentators have expressed horror that such a terrible message could be conveyed in a film for innocent children.
I think they’re missing the point. As Philip Pullman observes in The Amber Spyglass, each of us is born with our death. Every living thing, from the snail and the grass stem it crawls up to the mighty cedar tree, from the sun that sets so magically over the fields to the little girl running along the road in the dying afternoon light, from the merry old woman who welcomes the girls to the village to the children in the village school, every living thing will die. This is not dark. This is not terrible. This is merely a fact, as simple as the fact of life.
For those who don’t have a religious framework in which to discuss death with children, My Neighbour Totoro provides a wonderful starting point: a life-affirming view which doesn’t deny reality, but puts it into context. In the world Miyazaki creates for My Neighbour Totoro, there are no victors or vanquished, no more or less important forms of life. There is love and loss and sorrow and joy. The point of being alive isn’t fighting death, or fearing death. It is living.
By refusing to frame his narrative as a conflict, or a struggle, or a story with an easy resolution, Miyazaki acknowledges the infantile foolishness of the fairytale tagline, and gives us something stronger and truer. They didn’t all live happily ever after. They just lived. Until The End.