A Ghibli Gateway

On Parenthood and the Child-centric Miyazaki Movies

The question of how to introduce children to movies is partly a question of how to introduce them to the world. Lately I have been overthinking this question, no doubt thanks to intense daily proximity with a 7-year-old and a 4-year-old, and finding my own movie-appreciation priorities newly realigned. For me—a moviemaker and critic of infrequent practice and at best marginal repute—parenthood naturally enough includes the duty and privilege of imparting at least a rudimentary cinematic literacy, which in my case means favoring movies not just for children but about them, and not just about them but about their parents too. Wanting such movies also to be good narrows the list way down, and sure makes a person feel grateful for Studio Ghibli.

With no shortage of wisdom about how feeling domesticated isn’t the same as feeling at home, Japan’s magnificent animation company has dedicated an ample filmography to the matter of inhabiting new frontiers. 

Bittersweet tales of departure from the familiar are Ghibli’s stock-in-trade: You see a lot of young people leaving home, relocating, or being sent away for a season, and having transformative emotional experiences within sublime painterly wonderlands. You see a lot of strange magic, but also bracing alertness to details of geography, architecture, and the natural world. And in the ostensibly kid-friendliest of the Ghibli films, the masterful My Neighbor Totoro and Ponyo, you see parents coping with their responsibilities in unusual and revealing ways. Well, I do, anyway, and I’ve been watching those two a lot lately. Not exclusively, but not at all begrudgingly either; part of what makes them so lovable and shareable is how generously they reward repeated viewings. Other Ghibli greats in regular rotation around here include the glorious The Secret World of Arrietty and the again-masterful Kiki’s Delivery Service, but those protagonists are a bit older than my daughters just now, whereas the main characters in Totoro and Ponyo remain their immediate peers, in ways so few movie characters anywhere really are.

But it absolutely was on purpose (and too much a point of pride for me) that My Neighbor Totoro became my oldest daughter’s first experience of a movie on a big screen in public. This was a couple of years ago, when the chance arose in our banal local multiplex, a temporary better-than-nothing shelter for the tour of repertory Ghibli films occasionally arranged by Fathom Events. She’d seen the movie already, at home, but this was about more than seeing it. This was about joining the culture. Or so I obstinately had decided, which may account for why the experience felt less like sharing a work of art than like presenting a case, surely not the desired effect. Her younger sister still hasn’t been to a theater for anything, and, pandemic or not, already isn’t sure she’s missing much.

You shouldn’t need me to tell you My Neighbor Totoro is a tale of two young girls who move with their father to an old house in the country, where they make the acquaintance of benevolent woodland spirits and gradually become aware that their mother is touch-and-go with tuberculosis at the nearby hospital. Even that puts it too forcefully; in terms of narrative this movie is as much a sequence of moods and environments as of events. Its central priority is to consecrate an atmosphere of pastoral serenity, and make us understand how spirit-fortifying and valuable that is, particularly for young people. Yet it does so with unwavering emotional purity, and without a trace of didacticism. The ostensible title character doesn’t even make an appearance for about half an hour, more than a third of the way in, when a guileless toddler flops into the bucolic, butterfly-filled paradise of his lair while he’s napping—whereupon he slowly wakes, introduces himself, accommodates beatific nuzzles, and dozes off again with the girl stretched out and asleep herself on his fluffy belly.

After gently zooming out from this sweet moment, the film next partakes of a leisurely gaze at a snail ascending a flower stalk, then at a single ripple in lily pond, before getting back to scenes with any people in them.  If there’s anything explicitly educational about My Neighbor Totoro, it’s the gracious simplicity of it all, the nerve it has to leave room for so much silence and mystery. Theres no need to understand everything,” director and Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki once said. When Im asked what a Totoro is, I dont know myself.” What a relief.

Parenthood has not at all made me feel like a grownup, but a thought has occurred that the one truly salient feature of all the otherworldly beings in My Neighbor Totoro is that they become imperceptible to humans with age—they can be grown out of. Showing the movie to my kids therefore must be a way of saying to them: You need to see this while you still can. The impulse feels innately and at times worrisomely conservative. It isn’t lost on me that nostalgia for the 1950s was a conspicuous feature of 1980s cultural life, including the self-evidently simpler time seen in the 1988 production of My Neighbor Totoro and coveted by its audience then and maybe ever since.

“This would make a great secret hiding place,” says the father, on his hands and knees under a canopy of foliage, in a fine example of play-along parenting that may also reveal his own unconscious personal regression. A mildly aloof academic, here is a man who sometimes forgets to feed his children, rides them around steep bumpy roads on his bike without helmets, and remains as apparently unperturbed by the appearance of supernatural creatures in their lives, or at least in their imaginations, as he is by his wife’s potentially fatal illness. Hes also a man who advises laughter as an antidote to fear, and bows before trees to demonstrate easygoing and genuine respect. He may not keep a watchful enough eye on his girls, but he doesn’t patronize them either. And although he’d never be mistaken for a contemporary figure, his anachronism only buoys his appeal. I half expect my daughters to ask: Did this sort of balancing act stop being possible after the rural idylls of the 1950s, or the cartoon movies of the 1980s? 

Another favorite in our house, Ponyo also implicitly resists the advance of history, or at least acknowledges a desire to slow it down. The first person we meet in that film—another father—is a man who’s most at home when lurking in his subaquatic bunker, planning wide-scale historic reversion. Later he literally squeezes his daughter into a protective bubble, sweating and frothing at the mouth and shouting at her, “Don’t change, don’t change!” Yes, he is understood to be the movie’s antagonist, but to my eye Fujimoto also is a deeply relatable dad out of his depths. Perceptive humanism obviates absolute heroes and villains in many Miyazaki films, and resonates especially in this characters final lines, a poignant fatherly farewell: Try to remember me kindly, if you will.” 

Now an undersea wizard, he says he was human once, but has since renounced that planet-polluting species on the grounds that it’s disgusting. (Fair.) A rakish nervous wreck, Fujimoto looks like someone who hasn’t yet admitted his days of glam-band-frontman glory ended at the moment he became a parent. Probably he was asking for trouble by naming his most precocious fish-daughter Brunhilde; under a cute boy’s influence, she would rather be a human called Ponyo, and declares this intention by way of apocalyptic, tsunami-inducing Wagnerian rapture.

It’s to the movie’s great credit that this disaster never seems particularly frightening. In retrospect, the adult perspective might consider it an awful premonition of the Fukushima catastrophe, but as seen from a curious child’s point of view it’s just a cathartic event, vividly and bizarrely exciting. Similarly, in Totoro’s enthralling late-night ceremony of accelerated tree growth, the girls thrill to their triumph of magical gardening, blessedly unaware that it might briefly remind the rest of us of mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Offering respite from the adult perspective without denying it, these films invite viewers into exalted states of innocence. For parents, they’re practically field guides. We may bring our children out to sea or into the woods and say, “Isn’t this wonderful?” But in order to think so, in order to be moved, the kids must explore those precious places themselves, at least enough to accumulate their own experiences—fantastical perhaps, but also mundane—and later remember and yearn for and reforge them by way of imagination. Entertaining, aesthetically rich reminders of this fact are very much appreciated. 

I should add: I didn’t grow up with Studio Ghibli movies. Somehow they just seeped into my consciousness. As an adult I took a more active interest, but that was from a cinephile’s perspective, with the intent to stoke inspiration and fill in educational gaps. That was before I became a parent and found myself in the market for other-than-inane family entertainment. On that front, the whole Ghibli back catalog has become a kind of counter-programming to airless, simplistic, aggressively merchandized mainstream American fare, and a place to go for reliable, re-watchable solace.

So I am of the opinion that where Hans Christian Andersen adaptations are concerned, Ponyo has much more of worth to offer than The Little Mermaid; and where stories of sibling bonds are concerned, Totoro feels like outright respite escape from the assaultive, ubiquitous, on-the-nose Frozen franchise. Of course, the girls already are wise to my effectively anti-Disney bias. They are becoming aware of the princess-movie industrial complex, because how could they not be, and accordingly hanker for its many and variously plasticized products. (Don’t get me wrong: We have a few Ghibli toys in our house, but it has taken real effort to make that happen; in the U.S. they’re weirdly hard to come by.) It probably goes without saying how eager I am to introduce some princesses whose nobility strikes me as more earned, such as Ghibli’s eco-warrior activist Nausicaä and “wolf-girl” Mononoke, each a paragon of independent feminine intelligence prevailing over vindictive, planet-ruining violence.

In the meantime, I admit we’re in no rush to get to Spirited Away, the most celebrated Ghibli movie of all. It’s not that I don’t admire the unparalleled world-building and anti-sentimental fortitude of a film that so brazenly plunges its young protagonist into hopeless identity-crushing dystopian servitude. It’s more that her parents turn into self-satisfied pigs, destined for slaughter unless she can rescue them. So, yes, less about whether the girls are ready than about whether I am. Introducing children to the world means eventually resisting the urge to protect them from it, which in turn means eventually they’ll know as well as I do that smugly curated Blu-rays can only carry a parent so far.

At any rate, I’ve been content to wallow in the alternate world of my self-made Ghibli starter set, and to share it with my daughters as much as possible, in as large a format as possible. It’s a world where the crossroads of reality and fantasy overlap with those of adulthood and childhood, where plausible amazement happens, and where—perhaps best of all, if I may be allowed to say so—kids really seem to thrive when left unattended for a while.