Tight Times by Shook Hazen and Schart Hyman Analysis

Tight Times (1979) is an American picture book written by Barbara Shook Hazen and illustrated in graphite pencil by Trina Schart Hyman. Tight Times also happens to be the first ever picture book read by LeVar Burton on America’s Reading Rainbow series back in 1983.

I can see why they chose it. This short picture book elicits some strong emotions, and unfortunately, this story about economic deprivation is just as necessary today as it was at the turn of the 1980s. Today in America, one in six children are living in poverty.

From a storytelling point of view, this picture book is interesting because it does a fantasic job of helping the reader empathise with the boy and his parents. Below I go into how write and illustrator work together to achieve that.

Also, as the child character heads towards the story’s climax, the storytellers make use of plot points straight out of fairytale, even though this is a story baked in realism. These plot points are so old and so embedded in our collective wisdom that other storytellers can make use of them to create a vivid and affecting story, full of pathos like this one.

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Ty’s One-Man Band by Pitts Walter and Tomes Analysis

Ty's One Man Band back cover

Ty’s One-Man Band (1980) is a picture book written by Mildred Pitts Walter and illustrated by Margot Tomes. This is a good mentor text if you’re writing a picture book with plenty of rhythmic onomatopoeia. If reading to modern kids, they might find this slow, quiet picture book a bit more exciting if encouraged to bang away with wooden spoons or blow into comb and tissue instruments.

This picture book was popularised after featuring in Season One of Reading Rainbow, though hadn’t managed to enjoy the longevity of some of those other picture books from the early 1980s.

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The Day Jimmy’s Boa Ate the Wash by Hakes Noble and Kellogg Analysis

The Day Jimmy’s Boa Ate the Wash (1980) is a carnivalesque, cumulative picture book written by Trinka Hakes Noble and illustrated by Steven Kellogg. This picture book is a great mentor text for the way it handles dialogue visually, and also for the way the ironic distance between text and image expands at the end, leading to a satisfying climax.

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Arthur’s Eyes by Marc Brown Analysis

Marc Brown Arthur's Eyes

Arthur’s Eyes (1979) by Marc Brown is an early story of the popular Arthur series, about an ambiguously animal creature (only after looking it up do I understand he’s a brown aardvark) who lives with his nuclear family in an American suburb. This is a well-crafted story and really speaks to its young audience. The book is now over 40 years old. Reading Arthur’s Eyes in 2020, I notice some ideological issues with the plot and characterisation that date the story badly.

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Pettson and Findus Pancake Pie by Sven Nordqvist

Pancake Pie (1984) is a Swedish picture book written and illustrated by Sven Nordqvist, and is the first in the Pettson and Findus series starring a man and his cat who live together on a rustic farm, along with many little creatures who make the setting seem alive.

What is a pancake pie? Is it just… a pancake? I’m reminded of a certain song about a big pizza pie (actually just a pizza), which is much improved after the moray meme came out.

The Pettson and Findus books have been adapted for children’s TV. The Pancake Pie book became Pancake Pudding in the adaptation. I’ve not heard of a pancake pudding, but it does look more like a storybook cake, and I can see it works better on the screen. The storytellers don’t really want the audience to be stuck, as I am, on the question of what the food is. The food is not central to the story.

This is likely why Swedish Pannkakstårtan was first translated as Pancake Pie in 1985 but later as The Birthday Cake in 1999

SETTING OF FINDUS AND PETTSON

Max and Marla Are Having A Picnic
Contrast with Max and Marla, another human/animal duo who go off on adventures, sometimes by bike. The owl doesn’t talk in this one, so if you find Pettson’s cat a bit irritating, you may prefer the silent, stoic owl.
  1. PERIOD — Findus and Pettson live on a storybook farm which is clearly Scandinavian, if you are at all familiar with with a Scandinavian farm looks like, with the open rectangular arrangement of the farm buildings.
  2. DURATION — This particular story takes place over a day. It’s all done and dusted in time for a sit-down afternoon tea outside.
  3. LOCATION — rural Sweden
  4. ARENA — The whole story takes place between the farm and the nearby village where it is possible to buy anything you don’t have at home, in this case flour.
  5. MANMADE SPACES — The Swedish farm buildings, the village shops, the well (which looks unlike your archetypal storybook well — this one must be based on a Swedish well.
  6. NATURAL SETTINGS — pastures around the farm, hills in the distance
  7. WEATHER — The Pettson and Findus stories span all the seasons. Some of them take place when it’s snowing; this one happens in a temperate season, perhaps summer.
  8. TECHNOLOGY CRUCIAL TO THIS PARTICULAR STORY — Pettson’s bicycle is important to his characterisation. I really love this guy, with his pedal power and his cat. If he drove a car he’d be a different sort of guy altogether.
  9. LEVEL OF CONFLICT — In the hierarchy of human struggles, this is an unlikely, fantasy, carnivalesque struggle in which the goal is simple; to bake a birthday cake. It’s not even a high stakes birthday given that the birthday person celebrates birthdays three times a year, just because.
  10. THE EMOTIONAL LANDSCAPE — In the TV adaptation, Findus is annoyed that Pettson seems to have forgotten one of his superfluous birthdays. This story is also about how annoying things happen and there’s no point apportioning blame for these things. Rather, we have no choice but to get on and deal with them if we want to achieve our goal.

STORY STRUCTURE OF PANCAKE PIE

PARATEXT

Translators over the years have had a bit of a job deciding on how to translate this series into English. The paper below makes for an interesting case study into how publishers try something then later change their minds.

From Pettson and Findus to Festus and Mercury… and Back Again: A Comparison of Four Translations of Sven Nordqvist’s Picture Books

The book title Pancake Pie is also translated as Pancakes For Findus (which I admit makes more sense). The title is probably modelled on Blueberries for Sal by Robert McClusky.

Pancakes for Findus is the first story in the adventures of farmer Pettson and his cat Findus. Pettson wants to bake a birthday cake for Findus, who has three birthdays a year. But how will they get the eggs with the bull in the way?
Findus and Pettson live in a ramshackle cottage in the country, with a henhouse, workshop, and woodshed. Their fascinating, magical world is inhabited by tiny creatures who move Pettson’s things about when he isn’t looking.

marketing copy

SHORTCOMING

We know from other books in the series that Pettson is probably a widower and his neighbours find him a little odd. The cat comes across to the reader like a proxy child. For storytelling purposes we can consider Findus a child ranging between the ages of 5 and 10, depending on what the situation calls for.

Pettson wears glasses as part of his character design. This shows how he is oblivious to the small creatures around him who are alive. Another character with the exact same trope is Muriel of Courage the Cowardly Dog. In both cases the pet can see all the opponents but the human occupant sees nothing. In Muriel’s case she fails to see some pretty dire baddies, but the setting of the Pettson and Findus stories is more utopian. The creatures are mischievous and sometimes cranky, but never evil.

The co-star Findus has all the shortcomings typical of a small child, and as in any comedic series, he never grows up. He continues to be self-centred and petulent, in a lovable way. I I find the TV version of Findus unlikeable, and I think it’s mainly to do with the English dub of his voice, which is irritating. Voicing animals is always difficult.

Another example of this exact difficulty: ‘Dog’ of Footrot Flats by Murray Ball. New Zealanders were already in love with Dog from the newspaper comic strips, and the makers of the 1980s Footrot Flats film had a hell of a time settling on how Dog’s voice should sound. I have a Border collie myself these days and I think they got it right.

The creators of the 1980s Garfield animations also got Garfield right, but as a kid I didn’t think so. I was shocked to find that Garfield had a lazy adult male voice when I had expected something more like… the Findus voice. More ‘miowy’, more aimed at kids. Now I’m an adult I can see Garfield’s voice is correct, and that as a kid I had been far too generous in my interpretation of that cat’s character.

DESIRE

Self-centred Findus wants three birthdays per year and Pettson wants to oblige his cat. However, this kind of self-absorption is only briefly critiqued, and only in the TV adaptation, in which a hen clucks at the extravagance of three birthdays per year. The young reader is not encouraged to side with the judgy hen though, so the idea of three birthdays per year is a carnivalesque bit of fun and also wish fulfilment. What kid wouldn’t want three birthdays per year?

On a deeper level, Findus wants to be the centre of attention with luxuries foisted upon him.

On the most surface level, Pettson and Findus want to celebrate the day by baking something and eating it as a treat, whether we call it a pancake pie or a pancake pudding or whatever.

OPPONENT

The storyworld itself stands between Pettson getting flour, or not. But ‘things going wrong in the world’ doesn’t usually make for a satisfying opposition, so literally populating the arena with tiny creatures, each with their own agenda, is a masterful way to make a setting come alive. Pettson doesn’t simply get a hole in his bicycle tyre; a little creature bites a hole in it.

This is literally how people of yore saw the world. We only need look into earlier versions of fairytales such as The Elves and the Shoemaker to know this. That tale’s reason for existence is to warn people against fraternising with small creatures and spirits in the home, so clearly many people thought they actually existed!

We might as well consider these little creatures fairies. They don’t look like the 21st century conception of a fairy — small, butterfly-like femme coded creatures influenced by Disney’s Tinkerbell. Fairies can refer to any creature who lives in the world around us, and in our living spaces. Earlier humans imagined fairies absolutely everywhere. (Modern audiences get the feeling we now understand Earth and seem more concerned with populating space… we call them aliens though, not fairies.)

This page layout beautifully expresses the flow of events from fishing a key out of the well, to fixing a tyre to riding to town to the goal of enjoying pancake pie for Findus. Notice how each image blends into the one below, creating a clear visual sequence for the reader.
This image reminds me very much of The Tomten. I haven’t even read The Tomten yet, but I still recognise the imagery of a Scandinavian character peering in through a window.

The neighbour who ambles by right as Pettson is washing his pants in a bucket also functions as an ‘observer opponent’. I’ve seen these scenes in other children’s stories, recently in Bluey, in which the father is playing a ridiculous game with his daughter when a dressed-up judgy poodle walks by and drags him with side-eye. She hasn’t got the memo that this small snippet is part of a game.

Audiences seem to love this gag — in which a main character is caught in the most humiliating part of a plot when someone happens to amble by. A funny moment now becomes comedically humiliating with the addition of an intradiegetic audience member. Funny how that works.

In such scenes, is it not humiliating enough that we, the audience, are watching? No, not if the fourth wall remains intact. Also, we are in possession of the complete story. We know how the character got into that position. Humour derives from the fact that the passerby is in audience inferior position. The joke is sort of actually on them, for failing to understand the whole scenario.

PLAN

Pancake Pie is basically a There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly cumulative plot, except for one major difference: In the fly story, the old lady’s self-formulated plan is ridiculous. She herself is ridiculous. Perhaps for this reason I have never found that old lady an empathetic character. I couldn’t care less whether she lives or dies (and both endings exist in the world).

In the case of the empathetic Pettson, the scenarios are ridiculous (thanks to the fairies) but his plans are quite sensible, given the world of the story. Key falls down the well? Get a long stick and fish it out. Pants covered in egg? Take them off and wash them in a bucket.

It’s not Pettson who is eccentric; it’s his farm. Pettson is a misunderstood widower.

Another beautiful sequence of events illustrated on a single page. These pages are excellent examples of Continuous Narrative Art. This describes art which gives clues about the sequence of events, without making use of frames. In a Western picture book, the reader’s eyes are trained to move from top to bottom, left to right.

Honestly, I couldn’t follow the Plan part of the plot sequence on first reading. if you’d quizzed me immediately after for comprehension I would not have been able to tell you how Pettson goes from looking for flour to being chased by a bull in a field. But that doesn’t matter. We enjoy the spectacle and don’t mind the sequence.

That said, the sequence must make sense for the story to work, and it does if you’re paying attention, with a clear path from A to B to Z. Lucky for me, someone else wrote the sequence down in a humorous consumer review:

If Pettson, P, is to make a pancake pie, then P must buy flour.

If P is to buy flour, then P must cycle to town.

If P is to use a cycle C, then C’s tires must be intact.

If P is to make C’s tires intact, then P must obtain a cycle repair kit R.

If P is to obtain R, then P must have the key to the toolshed K.

If K is in the well W, then P must have a fishing rod F.

If F is on the roof, then P must have a ladder L.

If L is in the bull B’s field, then P must scare away B.

If P’s neighbor N had known all of the above, then N wouldn’t necessarily have thought P had lost his wits when he saw him playing Jussi Björling records for B on P’s wind-up phonograph.

That’s logic. What do they teach them in schools these days?

Goodreads

THE BIG STRUGGLE

This story might align more closely to the carnivalesque picture book story structure if it weren’t for the bull sequence.

The animals in this story span a broad section of the ‘animal-ness continuum’, with Findus basically human (a child), and the hens who are middle-aged gossipy women archetypes and also this bull who is nothing more than an actual bull.

The bull is a Minotaur opponent (more literally than most Minotaur opponents, which can come in any shape or form and most have nothing to do with actual bulls).

That curtain tied around Findus’ ankle is very handy to the illustrator as a framing device which double as indicating the flow, leading the eye in the correct direction. As an accomplished adult reader you probably take this skill for granted. Younger, emerging readers need help with this.

The story climaxes at the bull fight. Although the ridiculous events around baking a simple pancake pie build into something more and more ridiculous, the level of ridiculousness is not enough to ‘finish off the story’, which must be finished somehow. So Nordqvist ends it with an actual battle scene, complete with danger of death and a chase.

Note the way Nordqvist depicts the movement. I suspect this is influenced by photography, specifically long exposure photography. I’m thinking of all those shots of highways on dusk, in which the headlights look like one long stream on the road of moving cars, or car singular.

ANAGNORISIS

Findus and Pettson have no major epiphany, because this story was all about spectacle (for the reader). They realise that when they have their hands on the flour that they can sit down to enjoy an afternoon tea of pancake pie.

NEW SITUATION

Though the desire for food is mostly the McGuffin of this particular story, Pancake Pie is an excellent example of a children’s book where all is well when the main characters sit down to enjoy food. A number of series work like this, including the more recent Mercy Watson picture books by Kate DiCamillo and Chris Van Dusen. Those stories end when Mercy sits down with everyone to enjoy hot buttered toast.

Food is very important in children’s stories.

EXTRAPOLATED ENDING

Findus learns nothing. I fully expect him to wrap Pettson around his little dew claw in further stories of the same series.

RESONANCE

This story established the intriguing world of Pettson and Findus. I fell in love with Pettson immediately. For me the farmer is the sympathetic character, though for children I expect the cat will be relatable. In this way, the series achieves a dual audience.

Worlds populated by tiny creatures endure. The Pettson and Findus books were just a small part of that. The golden age of fairy and goblin stories may seem to have passed, but look at the Hilda series, recently adapted by Netflix, for a similar utopian world populated by tiny creatures who each have their own agenda but who pose no significant threat to the main, human characters.

PIES IN STORYTELLING

The Truth About Twinkle Pie by Kat Yeh
The Truth About Twinkle Pie by Kat Yeh
Gourmet Magazine November 1945
Gourmet Magazine June 1958 Vol. 18 No. 6
Pie by Sarah Weeks
Pie by Sarah Weeks
Old-Time Farmhouse Cooking Rural American Recipes and Farm Lore by Barbara Swell
Old-Time Farmhouse Cooking Rural American Recipes and Farm Lore by Barbara Swell
A man carrying logs for the fire admires pies cooling on a table inside a cottage.
Amos Sewell for Jan 1945 cover of Country Gentleman ‘Eyeing The Pies’

MORE MEN AND THEIR CATS

Lemon girl young adult novella

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Harvey Slumfenberger’s Christmas Present by John Burningham Analysis

Harvey Slumfenberger's Christmas Present cover

Harvey Slumfenburger’s Christmas Present (1993) is a picture book written and illustrated by British storyteller John Burningham. The pacing in this story is a little different to most picture books seen in bookstores today. The word count is higher than 300-400 words. There’s a reason for this. The cumulative nature of this narrative feels designed to lull excited children to sleep on Christmas Eve.

I know it’s a hugely controversial thing to say that some reading material is designed to lull children to sleep. After all, shouldn’t reading be fun and exciting at all times, to hook kids on reading? I don’t think this is the case in reality. Some books are writtten to soothe and calm. Also, I feel there is a time and a place for lulling children to sleep. I suspect this story can do the trick nicely. Also, kids seem to have a much higher tolerance for repeating scenes than I do; it is in fact myself who starts yawning uncontrollably while reading some stories structured like this one. (Also, I suspect some kids will be riled up by the excitement of what’s in Harvey’s present.)

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Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney Analysis

Miss Rumphius 30th anniversary edition cover

Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney (1982) is a beautiful picture book with a gentle message encouraging children to create beauty in the world. Cooney’s art is a mixture of full-bleed landscapes and spot illustration.

That said, this is a classic example of an old picture book with an environmental message which has not held up well, at least outside America.

(Actually, not so well within America, either. Miss Rumphius features cigar store Indians in it and on the prow of the ship.)

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Dead Calm Film Study

Dead Calm movie poster landscape

Sometimes horror movies are even more terrifying when read metaphorically. In Dead Calm, the story of a husband and wife at sea with a murderous intruder is bad enough, but what if the murderer doesn’t exist?

Dead Calm is a well-executed but outdated psychological horror, adapted in 1989 for film from a 1963 novel by the same name by America Charles K. Williams (1909 – 1975).

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There’s A Crocodile Under My Bed! by Ingrid and Dieter Schubert Analysis

There's A Crocodile Under My Bed

There’s A Crocodile Under My Bed! is a picture book written and illustrated by Ingrid and Dieter Schubert. First published in 1980, that makes this classic forty years old. There are a large number of picture books about creatures lurking under beds, and many similar titles out there. The most widely known is Mercer Meyer’s There’s An Alligator Under My Bed (1987). The titles are similar but the plots are different.

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My Neighbour Totoro Storytelling

My Neighbour Totoro (1988), from Japan’s Studio Ghibli, is one of the few genuinely child centred films in existence. In contrast, most films out of DreamWorks and Pixar contain dual levels of meaning, including jokes only the adult co-viewer will understand, or emotional layers inaccessible to children.

For instance, in Toy Story 3 Andy says goodbye to his childhood when he says goodbye to his toys. This evokes the emotion of nostalgia and sadness in adults. Test audiences revealed that children under about 13 have a completely different reaction to this scene — they identify with the toys and feel happy, probably wondering why the adults are tearing up. Nostalgia is one of the few specifically adult emotions.

In contrast, The Good Dinosaur (2015) didn’t garner great reviews. Some critics suggested it’s a fine story for kids, but adult viewers expected a layer aimed specifically at them. But there is no ‘adult layer’ to The Good Dinosaur, which ranks as Pixar’s second-worst rated movie (above Cars 2). In the West adults have been trained to expect kids’ films with separate layers just for us.

My Neighbour Totoro is different altogether.

When My Neighbor Totoro , directed by Hayao Miyazaki, came out in 1988, the public treated it only as a “child pleaser”. Yet Japanese people soon realized that My Neighbor Totoro was something more; it is actually a thought-provoking film. It is now considered one of the most acclaimed films for children and adults.

Reiko Okuhara

Here’s my thesis: Studio Ghibli achieves what Pixar and DreamWorks have thus far not managed:

  1. A film which appeals to all ages
  2. without alienating the preschool viewer from any single part of it.
  3. Adults and children will be laughing at the same moments
  4. experiencing very similar emotions simultaneously.

I first watched Totoro in 1995 as a 17-year-old exchange student in Japan, where it was aired on national TV one wintry Sunday afternoon. The air time suggests family viewing — a film for all ages. I’d be surprised if I ever met a Japanese person who hadn’t seen this film, regardless of age or whether they have children of their own.

Fast forward a sociological generation, My Neighbour Totoro was one of the first films I showed my Australian daughter. As I expected, she was captivated as a toddler.

We rewatched it last night. When she first saw it she was the age of Mei; now she is the age of Satsuki. Although it had been years since last viewing, her delight showed me the imagery remains deeply etched in her memory. Revisiting the world of Totoro felt like revisiting a holiday destination from early childhood.

Ponyo is another Studio Ghibli film aimed squarely at a very young audience.

SETTING OF MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO

JAPAN

I much prefer the Studio Ghibli films set unambiguously in Japan. The European-inspired Japan as depicted in films like Kiki’s Delivery Service fall into uncanny valley for me. Totoro is set in Japan.

The story is meant to be set in Tokorozawa. If you’re using Chrome as your browser, here it is on Google Earth. This is where Miyazaki lives.

If you visit Japan you can explore a replica of Satsuki and Mei’s house.

If you would like to visit the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, make sure to book your tickets from outside Japan, because overseas bookings are given preference. Perhaps unfairly, Japanese people booking from within their own country must book many more months in advance.

ERA

It’s not easy to guess at the era of My Neighbour Totoro unless you watch it very closely and can read Japanese. (Bear in mind that the main audience — Japanese toddlers — also cannot read Japanese.) The story could be set anytime from Miyazaki’s own boyhood until the 1980s when it was released.

Adult fans have looked really closely and realised it could be set in any number of years within the 1950s. Hayao Miyazaki has been pressed to divulge when, exactly, it’s meant to be set. He replied, “It’s supposed to be 1955, but we weren’t terribly thorough in our research. What came to mind was ‘a recent past’ that everyone can relate to.

Note that Miyazaki uses the word ‘everyone’. That includes children. He hasn’t created any part of this world that 1980s children would be unable to understand without explanation.

Apart from the minor calendar clues within the intratext of the film, My Neighbour Totoro could easily have been set when it was made, in the 1980s. We don’t get a glimpse of life in the cities because the story arena is contained to a very small part of Japan.

The second year I went to Japan (1999) I stayed in a dormitory attached to a university. This dorms were nestled under a mountain, which sounds lovely, except it hadn’t benefitted from a single bit of maintenance since it was constructed at the end of the second world war. If I hadn’t ever visited the city, I might as well have been living in post-wartime Japan. This was a hugely different experience from my high school exchange student year in Yokohama, one train ride from Tokyo, tech mecca setting of futuristic fantasy. I recognise the house from My Neighbour Totoro — the tiled sink, the wooden items, the country manners.

Country Japan has always been bifurcated from urban Japan — a point of pride and also a point of ridicule. The word ‘inaka’ might loosely translate as ‘rural/country’ in English, but it sounds pejorative and insulting as well. (Imagine ‘bumpkin’ on the end of it.)

However, this is not Miyazaki’s view of rural Japan. For Miyazaki, the natural parts of Japan contain ancient magic, and a visit into wilderness afford a trip into the deep subconscious. The forests which surround this old homestead of My Neighbour Totoro function as a forest functions in a fairytale.

Shrooms: the universal symbol for hallucination?
IS THIS A UTOPIA?

Does the setting of My Neighbour Totoro count as a genuine utopia? According to Maria Nikolajeva, there are seven requirements of a utopian setting and Totoro almost fits, except for number six: Absence of death or sexuality. The sick mother in hospital is a constant reminder that loved ones can die. Satsuki and Mei are terribly worried about their mother and this drives their actions.

Miyazaki adapted Mary Norton’s The Borrowers (released as The Secret World of Arrietty), which also includes the spectre of death with the child sick in bed. Perhaps Miyazaki wants to avoid sentimentality, which is a danger in creating genuine utopias. Genuine utopias are also quite difficult to set a film-length story in, because suspense must come from somewhere. Perhaps ‘unease’ is a better word than ‘suspense’.

Helen McCarthy is the author of Hayao Miyazaki: Master of Japanese Animation and has said that Death in Totoro is simply ‘there’. Death is presented as part of being alive.

Miyazaki does two very difficult things in this film with considerable delicacy and grace: he makes a film at a child’s pace and on a child’s level; and he allows death to assume a major role in the movie without demonising or personalising death.

Hayao Miyazaki: Master of Japanese Animation
https://twitter.com/factsonfiIm/status/1283479209503907840

The house itself might be considered a bit of a death trap. Our own pergola fell down a few years ago and it was a mission keeping everyone away from it for their own safety. But here, the girls come closer to calamity than they realise when they use the rotting post as a play thing:

This traditional old homestead also has a well — another common death trap, though it exists only as part of the background scenery.

The soot gremlins may or may not indicate the presence of evil. The girls no longer have a safe home. I believe young children will find this house as creepy as the characters do.

However, we might put forward the argument that any Hayao Miyazaki film is a moral utopia:

[T]hose who are familiar with Miyazaki can trace the film’s modern success to his stubborn moral mind. Reluctant to put his characters into straightforward ‘good’ and ‘evil’ boxes, the Ghibli stalwart nevertheless rewards the pure of heart and punishes greed and gluttony. It’s a trait that wasn’t missed by Roger Ebert, who described Totoro’s small kingdom as, “the world we should live in, not the one that we occupy.

Little White Lies

THE MEANING OF TONARI

Despite the English translation of the title, ‘tonari’ does not just mean ‘neighbour’ as in ‘those who live in the place next door’. Tonari is a wider word than English ‘neighbour’ suggests, and can mean ‘next to’, or ‘alongside’. Imaginary creature Totoro is ‘alongside’ the girls at every step of their journey (as well as dwelling ‘nearby’.)

PORTAL FANTASY

One rule of portal fantasy — there is a transition between the ‘real world’ and the ‘fantasy world’. The audience must be allowed to linger in this transitional space for a little while. Ideally, a scene or two will be set inside the transition, or right beside it. In this case, it’s the tunnel made of branches. The father even joins the girls there, blurring for them the sensible, rational adult world and the fantasy play world they have created.

It appears as if someone—probably Big Totoro himself—has invited Mei into the fantasy world. Awakened by the little girl, he appears to be startled not by her presence but by her audacity. Mei’s seclusion has led to Totoro’s invitation to his world; the child archetype acquires the protection of nature, alone and away from motherly care. Mei’s entrance into the fantasy world reminds the audience of the beauty and splendor of nature, which the present generation seems to have forgotten.

Reiko Okuhara

MYTHOLOGY AND INTERTEXTUALITY

One of the first games we see the Kusakabe girls playing is a Cowboys and Indians fantasy. I haven’t seen modern children mimic the war cries of Native Americans — Westerns have evolved into anti-Westerns, we are a little more enlightened. There is no longer the romance of American expansionism — we no longer buy toy cowboy costumes for our boys as par for the course. This childhood game does plant the story quite firmly in the 1950s when, even in Japan, American culture was having a big influence on children’s fantasy lives (as well as in every other way).

Later the girls are disappointed to find their acorns won’t sprout. But in a fantasy scene quite clearly inspired by English tales such as “Jack and the Beanstalk”, they use arm movements to create a magical force. The trees grow huge in an instant.

MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO: THE JAPANESE WIZARD OF OZ?

We Westerners like to view non-Western art through the lens of Western art. It has been suggested that My Neighbour Totoro is ‘The Japanese Wizard of Oz’. This may be useful as a hook for a Western viewer otherwise disinclined to watch anime on its own terms.

Perhaps one of the biggest reasons for Totoro’s success is that everyone has their own interpretation of what it means. While the physical appearance of the title character has been compared to everything from an owl to a seal to a giant mouse troll, on a metaphysical level the theories run even deeper. In Miyazaki’s book of essays ‘Starting Point: 1979-1996’, Totoro is described as a creation of Mei and Satsuki’s imagination, a gentle giant who guides them through their mother’s illness.

Some believe Totoro to be a Kami (a spirit tied to nature) belonging to the camphor tree which Mei falls into the belly of while she’s out playing. The tagline on the original Japanese poster translates as, “These strange creatures still exist in Japan. Supposedly,” which summons thoughts of old souls and endless wisdom. Ultimately, you can project whatever you want onto Totoro.

Little White Lies
THE THREE BILLY GOATS GRUFF

If you grew up in non-Scandinavian country, what was your first introduction to trolls?

Near the end of the film, Satsuki and Mae are shown reading The Three Billy Goats Gruff on a futon with their mother. The creature on the book looks like the creature Totoro, which suggests Mei imagines him up, inspired by the Norwegian folktale.

When Mei ‘meets’ him, she knows exactly who he is. “You’re Totoro!”

In Japanese Three Billy Goats Gruff translates to 三びきのやぎのがらがらどん (Sanbiki no yagi no gara gara don) in which the ‘gara gara don’ is onomatopoeia for the tripp trapp, tripp trapp of the first written Norwegian version (modified only slightly for English, without the double ‘t’s.)

But maybe Mei read a European version — the ‘trot trot’ of the goats sounds a little like Totoro. It’s significant that Japanese is a heavily onomatopoeic language. Children are excellent at making up their own, original onomatopoeia and I put it to you that Japanese children are excellent at i. Is Totoro Mei’s phonetic rendition of trotting?

Alternatively, ‘troll’ is transcribed as ‘tororu’ in Japanese. A small Japanese speaking child could easily pronounce the word wrongly and come up with Totoro, because Totoro is easier to say than Tororu.

This Chinese film poster by Huang Hai is my favourite.
This Chinese film poster by Huang Hai is my favourite.

STORY STRUCTURE OF MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO

At first glance, My Neighbour Totoro does not follow The Rules Of Story as described by numerous (Western) story gurus. It just feels… different, somehow.

The story [of Totoro] is made up of a series of incidents or episodes, almost none of which I’d classify as a plot point, per se. The only truly tense moment comes late in the film, when Mei runs off to the hospital by herself, worried her mother is in danger. This turns out to have been a false alarm, and everyone is soon reunited. The whole thing is resolutely low-stakes and gentle, its narrative lumpy and relaxed.

Bright Wall, Dark Room

I’ve been thinking about how much Western storytelling trains us to expect that writers show the audience where they’re going right up front. Main characters have to be introduced right away. Twists have to be foreshadowed. Inciting incident in the first 10% etc. BUT Many of my favorite stories, especially Asian ones, don’t adhere to these “rules.” In My Neighbor Totoro, Totoro doesn’t appear until 30 mins into a 90 min film. The slow sense of discovery makes the film enchanting. Can you imagine any American film waiting until the 33% mark?

@FondaJLee

But look a little deeper and My Neighbour Totoro is a tightly plotted fantasy with a classic mythic structure.

A mythic journey will generally involve a road, a river, a train.

I have no trouble doing my usual breakdown of it, but here’s the thing we need to understand about My Neighbour Totoro: It is much more like a picture book plot than a Pixar plot, and it’s important to understand the concept of the Carnivalesque. (This is why My Neighbour Totoro has been compared to Where The Wild Things Are — the stand out Western example of carnivalesque children’s literature.)

SHORTCOMING

Satsuki and Mei are enduring an upheaval — in common with the beginning of many children’s stories, they are at the tail end of having been moved from some unknown prior location to a creepy big house in the country.

Before they can feel at home here they must face their fears of the unknown.

There’s a much bigger unknown which the girls are initially able to put to the back of their minds, distracted by the newness of the creepy house: Their mother is ill. Like Satsuki and Mei, the audience doesn’t know the nature of this illness. We are kept in a state of ignorance, which may be worse than actually knowing. This is the common experience of childhood — even when children are told things, we don’t know what it means. Not really. This makes childhood scary.

Miyazaki also gets rid of the mother by making her too sick to care for them — a very common plot device in children’s literature, especially in America.

But Mei in particular is the Divine Child archetype, both vulnerable and invincible at once. (Jungian.) The audience understands this contract from the beginning, even if we don’t know Jung’s word for it — nothing really bad will happen to Mei.

The sibling duo in which the younger child is at one with fantasy and imagination while the older child is on the cusp of adulthood, is common in storytelling:

Unlike Mei, who fully enjoys her childhood, her elder sister is about to enter womanhood. Satsuki resembles Wendy in Peter Pan, who must work to believe in Peter, while her younger brothers have no problem believing in Neverland.

Rieko Okuhara

DESIRE

At the deepest level, Satsuki and Mei want their mother to get better and to join them in their new house. But this doesn’t make for a story. There needs to be a more specific desire, one that the characters might actually achieve.

This is where the story turns carnivalesque. Started by the younger and therefore more imaginative Mei (in a sequence reminiscent of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe), they invent (or discover) a magical world as proxy for their subconscious. By entering into this world they will:

  1. Have heaps of fun (carnivalesque)
  2. Face their deepest fears (mythic)

OPPONENT

In a carnivalesque children’s story, supernatural/mythic creatures appear and they may appear scary. In this case, it is the large Totoro’s size. Notice how Mei at first encounters small, rabbit-sized Totoros — this correlates to how her fears intensify over the course of the story. In Japan, these totoros are known as Big Totoro, Medium-sized Totoro and Little Totoro. (This reminds me of The Three Bears.)

But Totoro is also furry like a welcoming great bed.

Despite this, Totoro has an element of danger. I’m thinking, if the creature rolls over, Mei could easily be squashed. The scene with Mei and Totoro contains a minor ‘Battle’ of a big sneeze, as Mei fiddles with Totoro’s whiskers. Many children’s picture books feature an outsized bodily function as the climax, most notably in fairytales such as The Three Little Pigs, but also in Yertle The Turtle and Julia Donaldson’s Wake Up Do, Lydia Lou!

In a cosy story like My Neighbour Totoro, the main characters will meet allies (helpers) along their mythic journey.

First there’s the father.

The father—almost like a Wise Old Man, another archetype figure—seems to understand the rules of the gods’ world and explains them to his children.

Rieko Okuhara

Then there is Granny. Mei is scared of her at first, perhaps because she is new, perhaps because she is old, perhaps because she is associated with a scary house. The Granny, like many elderly characters in children’s stories, lives in her own version of a fantasy world. She tells the girls quite confidently that if their mother ate her fresh homegrown vegetables, her illness will clear right up. This is not an especially responsible thing to tell a child, and it is what sets Mei off on her journey to deliver the corn cob to her mother. (This has been foreshadowed by Mei telling her father that she is a big girl now and is off to do ‘errands’. The father thinks nothing of this at the time.)

The boy next door (Granny’s real grandson) is positioned as a natural opponent because he is a boy. Satsuki declares that she does not like boys. However, Kanta reveals his kindness by offering the girls his umbrella — a well-known trope in Japan, where people will indeed share their umbrellas with you if you are caught in a downpour. (Downpours are common during rainy season — when Kanta is chastised by his mother for failing to take an umbrella, there was a surefire bet it would rain heavily.)

Totoro turns up at the bus stop at night — a scary prospect for the girls, whose deeper fear is: “What has happened to Dad?” Dad hasn’t turned up when expected. Without their father, the girls would be utterly alone in the world. So once again, Totoro turns up as a proxy for their fear, and the girls transform him (or her — where did those mini Totoros come from?) into a non-threatening, childlike creature who is so unassuming he is startled by heavy raindrops falling onto the umbrella lent to him by the girls.

PLAN

Satsuki and Mei first explore their new house. If they explore every nook and cranny they will understand its mysteries. Ergo, they will not feel scared. Exploration of the scary house occupies a good chunk of the beginning. They find ‘soot gremlins’ — very much in line with the sort of creature found throughout traditional Japanese folklore, but actually invented by Miyazaki himself. In the West we have dust bunnies, which are more hairy than sooty.

In a suspenseful story for adults (say, anything from the thriller/detective genres), there will be a chase sequence. Here, too, there is a chase: Mei chases after the intriguing little creatures. In other words, it is Mei who drives the action, not the other way round. The utopian, cosy atmosphere would have been punctured had the Totoros been chasing Mei instead.

Mei also drives the action by visiting Satsuki at school.

Finally, she takes off on a one-girl mission to save her mother. Notice that before she does so, the sisters have an argument.

BIG STRUGGLE

The Battle sequence, in which the village searches for Mei, is similar to cross-genre ‘lost child’ sequences. We wonder if Mei is dead when a child’s sandal is found. (I wonder who it belonged to?)

Satsuki finds Mei by visiting Totoro. Totoro is able to fly, and can also summon the cat bus. Satsuki saves Mei by making use of forest magic. At least, that’s the fantasy layer of the story.

More literally, Satsuki may summon the courage to find Mei of her own accord, imagining that she has the protection of mysterious, fantasy companions that she and Mei both conjured up, thereby leading her to Mei. By entering Mei’s imaginary Totoro world, Satsuki is also able to deduce that Mei has gone to the hospital with a ‘magic’ vegetable.

ANAGNORISIS

Ultimately, this is a story about two children who overcome their fears. They do this with the discovery that they are an integral part of the natural world. This discovery is proxy for the more mature insight they will develop later: That in order to be alive, we must also die. For now, though, their mother is not facing imminent death.

When Satsuki and Mei see their parents through the hospital window, they get the feeling everything with their mother is going to be all right. Often in visual storytelling, when characters come to some sort of realisation they are positioned at an elevated altitude. In this case they are up a tree — ostensibly so they can see through the window — symbolically because they now have a broader view on the situation and can put their mother’s illness in perspective.

This variety of Anagnorisis combines well with a Child Archetype such as Mei:

The child comes in the very beginning of life. Yet the child also symbolizes the rebirth of a new child; before the rebirth, death must come. The child archetype is an initial and a terminal creature, and represents the process of death and rebirth. When Mei sets out to the hospital to heal her mother, her family loses her for a period of time. The finding of the lost child symbolizes the rebirth of Mei. For Satsuki, finding Mei also means the rediscovery of her childhood. In the embrace of Satsuki and Mei, one witnesses the outcome of Mei’s death and rebirth. The child has combined the opposites, and the spirits are the witnesses to the event. The film ends with the happy smiles of people holding and hugging Mei and the spirits of nature looking over the cheerful scene from the top of the big camphor tree. Mei’s coming home completes a stage in the progression of human beings.

Reiko Okuhara

NEW SITUATION

No matter what happens to the mother, Mei and Satsuki are now emotionally equipped to handle whatever cards they are dealt. They have learnt resilience by means of the power of imagination.

Worth mentioning: The original tagline was “We brought what you left behind.” Clearly this refers to Mei’s delivery of the corn cob, but also works at the symbolic level — Mei reunites her family and village with the wonder of nature around them.

THE ART OF MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO

There is much to be said on this topic — I’ll focus on just a few things.

COLOURS

Taking a condense snapshot of main colours (depicted in the poster below), it’s clear how much of this film is set in the rural outdoors (green). The blue band takes the Kusakabe girls into the sky on a flight fantasy in the cat bus. Another green band takes them further into nature. Disregarding the light orange (which indicates the credits) notice the film is bookended by browns — the brown is the home, at first new and scary, by the end a true home.

Kathleen Hale. Orlando; a Seaside Holiday. First published in 1938. The cat vehicle is an old trope.
PERSPECTIVE

More recently I’ve been following a discussion about how scenes in Totoro break the rules of perspective, as it is traditionally taught. At first glance scenes look like cartoonified versions of photographs, but that’s not the case. People have whipped their rulers out and discovered that the animators/background artists have broken traditional ‘rules’ (made in the West) to include more information in a single scene.

This, too, is more in line with the off-kilter perspective found in children’s picture books than in animation aimed at older audiences, in which case scenes tend to be beautiful for their technical prowess.

CHARACTER DESIGN

In a film aimed squarely at children, it is perhaps unusual that Miyazaki’s characters don’t have that big-eyed, anime look.   On the other hand, the character designs are very much in line with picture books — an art form which has so far rejected the ‘anime look’. In fact, I’ve heard agents and publishers advise illustrators to steer well clear of manga-esque characterisation if the aim is to illustrate picture books.   The movements of Totoro’s characters are beautifully accurate impressions of how children actually move — in common with how the best children’s book illustrators are able to depict realistic movement in their picture books. The scene in which Mei scoots forward on Totoro’s belly could not have been achieved without close observation of young children. Hayao Miyazaki is well-known for his attention to detail. If he needs to depict water flowing over rocks in a stream, he will go and watch water flowing over rocks in a stream.

FOR FURTHER INVESTIGATION

Verbal Diorama podcast discuss My Neighbour Totoro.

Lemon girl young adult novella

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