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.Continue reading “There’s A Crocodile Under My Bed! by Ingrid and Dieter Schubert”
Monster Pet! is a 2005 picture book written by Angela McAllister and illustrated by Charlotte Middleton. The story is designed to get young readers thinking about the responsibility of caring for a sentient creature. A body swap plot is used to that end, though I suspect more empathy derives from the facial expressions on the poor little locked up mouse than from the body swap experience, which in a picture book, challenges the adult book-buyer’s ideas of what a picture book should do; This one is slightly creepy. The School Library Journal had this to say:
The theme of not caring for a pet, and then the reversal with Monster forgetting to feed Jackson, is disturbing, and the dream ending feels forced.
Is this story disturbing because the assumed audience is very young? Does the dream ending feel ‘forced’ because it doesn’t work, or because adults are sick of the ‘I woke up and it was all a dream‘ trope?Continue reading “Monster Pet! by McAllister and Middleton”
|1200s||‘Eyrbyggja Saga’ (‘Story of the People of Eyrr’) was written. This story is full of the walking dead, e.g. Thorodd and his men. In this story, the living aren’t especially worried about the walking dead. Thorodd and his men have been drowned, and the living believed that drowned people had been well received by the sea-goddess, Ran, if they attended their own funeral feast. It was only later that the walking dead became unwelcome. They loiter around the first every night and the living become unnerved. So the hero of the story sues them. They leave. These walking-dead stories are to do with the beliefs of pre-Northern Europeans — that the dead could still see, hear and feel.|
|1697||The word ‘zombi’ first appeared in Le Zombi du grand Perou by Corneille Blessebois. A woman is tricked into thinking she’s an invisible spirit called a zombi. Back then, zombis were spirits or ghosts, not the walking dead as we know them today.|
|1726||The word ‘zumbi’ appears with a meaning closer to how we use it today in A History of the Voyages and Travels of Capt. Nathaniel Uring. The word ‘zumbi’ refers to the apparition of the dead person, but they walk around and torment the living, much like contemporary zombies.|
|1819||Robert Southey publishes History of Brazil, in which ‘zombi’ refers to the elected chief of the maroons in Pernambuco. Southey means the guy behaves like he doesn’t have any free will.|
|1838||The word zombie first appeared in print in an American newspaper in a reprinted short story called “The Unknown Painter” in 1838.|
|1928||The word zombie became mainstream in English after W. B. Seabrook published The Magic Island.|
|28 Days Later||Danny Boyle’s modern version of Romero’s films. But these zombies are neither bewitched nor reanimated dead. Instead, they’re infected with a virus known as ‘rage’. Docile humans transform into terrifying red-eyed shells of their former selves. The virus has a magical quality.|
|Astral zombies||Astral zombies are individuals who still walk among the living but have either sold their souls or had them stolen by a houngan. Astral zombies derive from Haitian folklore. But as you can probaly see, they also share similarities with Deal With The Devil stories. Young adult novel The Boy Who Couldn’t Die by William Sleator (2004) is an astral zombie story.|
|Automaton||Similar to zombies in that they have no free will, but unlike zombies they didn’t start from a living being.|
|Apocalypse||There are many references in the Bible about the resurrection of saints and sinners in the end times. Zombies are thereby associated with apocalypse. Why We’re Obsessed With The Zombie Apocalypse from Live Science|
|Bokor||Many people who follow the voodoo religion today believe zombies are myths, but some believe zombies are people revived by a voodoo practitioner known as a bokor.|
|Cannibal||A cannibal eats other humans. Throughout human history, cannibalism has sometimes been acceptable practice, involving ceremonial consumption of flesh from diseased relatives or, more often, from captives of war.
Zombies are commonly cannibals and have a craving for human flesh.
|Brains||These days, zombies are commonly thought to eat brains. A lot of our modern conception of what zombies are like comes from George Romero’s film franchise, but Romero himself did not create zombies who ate brains (they ate living flesh in general).
The idea that zombies eat brains may come from an episode of The Simpsons Dial Z For Zombies. This is a spoof of Return of the Living Dead. A generation of kids saw this episode before they were old enough to see a real zombie film.
|Comics Code Authority||In the 1930s and 1940s plenty of zombie tales appeared in pulp magazines like Weird Tales and Strange Tales.
In the 1950s, zombie tales alarmed child development experts. In America, their activism led to the formation of the Comics Code Authority. For the two decades after 1953, this authority prohibited ‘scenes dealing with, or instruments associated with walking dead, torture vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism, and werewolfism’ and this put some horror comics out of business. However, some comic publishers refused to abide by the rules and zombie stories continued to find an audience.
|Crypt||A crypt is a stone chamber beneath the floor of a church or other building. It typically contains coffins, sarcophagi (coffins) or religious relics.|
|Decay||Zombie bodies are often decaying. This emphasises the horror of death itself.|
|Dread||Dread is anticipatory anxiety. The fear of encroaching zombies is as bad as actually facing them head on, if not worse. Hence, they often walk slowly, allowing more time for audience (and character) dread.|
|Draugar||Malevolent corpses from the Norse sagas. These creatures take the offensive by attacking and eating anyone who invades their burial barrows. The wonderful gothic subject matter of these sagas became popular outside Scandinavia in the second half of the 1700s. Draug Asuidus and Thorolf Baegifot are examples.|
|Exhume||to dig out (something buried, especially a corpse) from the ground|
|Ezekiel||There aren’t exactly any zombies in the Bible, but there are many references to bodies being reanimated or resurrected. The book of Ezekiel describes a vision where Ezekiel is dropped in a boneyard and prophesies to the bones. The bones start to shake and become covered with muscle and flesh until they’re reanimated yet “there was no breath in them.”|
|Féile na Marbh||Irish Feast of the Dead. On this night, spirits of the departed rise up, seeking the warmth of the fireside and communion with their living kind. Irish families are supposed to light a candle and leave it in the window, or leave an empty chair by the fire to guide wandering wraiths back home, where the wraiths will receive their blessing for the coming year.|
|Flat character||Zombies in stories will always be flat characters because of their lack of free will. Their desires are basic (not tiered), they can’t make plans and they are indistinguishable from one another, or from any number of other horror monster creations which simply won’t quit. They don’t understand the wretchedness of their condition.|
|Frankenstein||Frankenstein’s monster is a bit like a zombie because he has no free will but he is not made from a reanimated human or animal and therefore does not qualify as a zombie.|
|Free will||To qualify as a zombie, a creature must have no free will. Mummies and vampires are also renanimated corpses but are not zombies because they have free will. Zombies must be completely subordinate to the will of someone else or to some monomaniacal drive. The drive might be for human flesh, violence, revenge or perhaps resistance of the tyranny of entropy itself. Zombies are therefore a parody of slavery. (The other critieria is that a zombie must be reanimated from a human or animal.)|
|Golem||in Jewish folklore, a golem is an image (typically made from clay or mud) brought to life by magic. Golem in the Bible and in Talmudic literature refers to an embryonic or incomplete substance. Golems are not zombies but instead corporeal beings created from other forms of matter. Zombies have to come from humans or animals to qualify as zombies.|
|Gothic||Modern zombie stories are commonly set in the 1700s especially if they’re comic e.g. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. This was the century that invented the gothic novel. We think of Enlightenment and Regency England as a time of rigid, stable and elaborate social codes. Whether this is true or not, this era makes a good setting, ripe for disruption. Also, characters in powdered wigs contrast comically with decayed bodies wearing them.
I Walked with a Zombie (1943) owes a lot to Gothic stories from the 1800s, and is very loosely based on Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bornte. The story is set in the Caribbean. Also typically, the dark-skinned natives use voodoo for good (improved health and well-being) but the whites appropriate native practices for their own evil ends.
|Grendel||Grendel is a character in the poem Beowulf. HE and his mother exhibit some qualities of the modern zombie — they can’t speak, eat human flesh and just keep coming after the Danes for no reason. They are also strangely human. Metaphorically, they represent the Danes’ failings: pillaging vengeance and pride.|
|Grotesque||comically or repulsively ugly or distorted|
|Haitian Revolution||Important to understand: In the late 1700s, enslaved Haitians successfully threw off their oppressors. There was a massive bloody struggle. The number of British and French soldiers was far higher but slaves still managed a revolution.
It was two decades after this revolution that the word ‘zombie’ first appeared in English. In 1819 a poet called Robert Southey used it as a metaphor for imperialism in the Americas, meaning that colonised people had been robbed of their free will.
|Hamlet||Shakespeare may have made reference to zombies in Hamlet:
A mote it is to trouble the mind’s eye.
|Houngan||Zombies have Haitian roots. A houngan is a type of voodoo priest. If you want to take revenge on someone, you can pay this houngan to give your victim a deadly neurotoxin out of a pufferfish. This toxin convincingly simulates death. The victims’s family thinks they’re dead and buries them. However, the houngan digs them back up and revives them, sort of. This newly minted ‘zombie’ is kept ‘in thrall’ and used as a slave. The zombie is not properly fed – they must be kept in a malnourished state. In fact, feeding zombies salt or meat may be enough to rouse them from their stupor. At this point they’ll either kill their master, kill themselves or go running back to their grave.
When the houngan dies, the zombie person is meant to be free. But sometimes that just means jumping to their death.
|Italian zombie film||Zombie (1979) by Lucio Fulci is a typical example of the Italian zombie film – a category in its own right. Similar to serial killers in American slasher films, Italian zombie films are shot from the heterosexual male gaze, and the audience is expected to become complicit in feasting upon naked women, or preying on couples having sex. Laura Mulvey has said that the image of a naked young woman often juxtaposes against an image of a disgusting, decaying zombie. In the Italian zombie films this takes on a more literal layer – the zombie is shown to eat the naked woman’s body. These are women who receive abuse from both humans and zombies. The women exist to absorb violence.|
|Lunacy||the state of being a lunatic; insanity (not in technical use). The word comes from ‘moonstruck’. It used to be thought that the moon causes madness.|
|Macabre||This word describes something disturbing because of its connection with death.|
|Male gaze||In early 20th century zombie films, time and again villains learn that to possess the woman’s mindless body is unsatisfying. (A guy called Dendle said that.) White Zombie is a classic example, and so is Plague.|
|Malevolent||having or showing a wish to do evil to others. This is the zombie’s only desire.|
|Maraud||to go about in search of things to steal or people to attack.|
|Marbh bheo||Irish night walkers|
|Memento Mori||The zombie is quite literally a memento mori, and serves to remind us that if we think we can cheat death, we are only fooling ourselves.
Night of the Living Dead
|Misogyny||Zombie stories are typically about keeping women in traditional subordinate position.
Does The Walking Dead Still Have A Woman Problem? (Season 3 update from Pajiba) See also: Walking Dead Writers — Don’t Ruin Carol, from Persephone Magazine. See also Thoughts On Andrea from My Friend Amy.
|Mummy||Mummies share the shambling gait of the zombie but are generally covered in bandages. Generally mummies aren’t considered zombies because they not entirely without their own will, or completely controlled by one basic drive.|
|Night of the Living Dead||Night of the Living Dead by Romero (1968) is a watershed zombie film series. Romero took various aspects of earlier zombies and crystalised them into an iconic creature we recognise today — the slow, inarticulate, shambling, undead thing motivated only by a desire to eat human flesh. They have no master and are horribly persistent.
George Romero’s zombies are created by a vague technology run amok. We are never told what brings the recently dead back to life, but it’s thought to be radiation leaking to earth from a satellite. This was a typically Cold War fear, reminiscent of a whole lot of 1950s films in which radiation causes men to shrink and women to grow massive. In this film there is an indistinct boundary between monster and victim, and the audience questions how monsters are essentially different from humans. (Maybe not so different after all.)
|Ogre||Unlike giants (more generally), ogres have a massive appetite. Zombies and ogres are therefore related.|
|Outcast||On the island of Haiti, it’s not unheard of for family members to actually see their dead alive, walking in a state of zombification. But no one wants to reclaim them. They are seen as irredeemably unclean and are now outcasts forever. They’re not figures of terror, though. They’re not capable of harming anyone. Instead, they are a creature hovering between life and death – it has no will to kill, or any will at all – and is simply a scary symbol of human bondage.|
|Outbreak||In stories, zombies often come about due to some sort of outbreak.
Robert Kirkman, creator of the immensely popular Walking Dead series, has said he will never reveal how the original zombie outbreak started or how the zombies infect through biting because that detail is “unimportant” to the story.
|Powders||Bokors have a tradition of using herbs, shells, fish, animal parts, bones and other objects to create concoctions including “zombie powders,” which contain tetrodotoxin, a deadly neurotoxin found in pufferfish and some other marine species.|
|Racism||White film makers of the 20th century tended to appropriate from other cultures and centre white people and white people’s fears. The white male nature of zombie stories itself is a zombie that just won’t die.
The Walking Dead Has Become A White Patriarchy, so I have been going elsewhere for my zombie stories.
|Reanimation||Zombies have two basic criteria: It must be the reanimated corpse or possessed living body of one person (or animal). (The other is it must have no free will.)|
|Ring of Salt|
|Robert Southey||In the early 1800s poet Robert Southey used the term ‘zombie’ as a metaphor for someone who has no will. This is how we tend to use zombie today.|
|Samhain||n Irish culture, Samhain is a major Druidic festival marking the boundary between the living and the spirit world. This is the last festival of the harvest year, so pagan Ireland decreed that fruit and nuts (especially apples) would be eaten on the night of Samhain.|
|Slaves||In a Haitian community Zombies make excellent slaves because their memory and intellect is disabled by the toxin but the lower brain functions still work, allowing the body to move. Obviously, keeping someone as a zombie slave requires complicity from an entire community. Generally, no one in the community likes the victim so they don’t bother checking they’re actually properly dead before burying them. (Means of checking might include cutting off their head or driving a dagger through the heart.) Some people might want to intervene, but they’re afraid the same thing will happen to them.|
|Soul||Zombies don’t have souls.|
|Spirits||Zombies appeared in literature as far back as 1697 and were described as spirits or ghosts, not cannibalistic fiends.|
|Survival of the Fittest||This is a Darwinian term meaning harsh conditions weed out weaker members of a species. Survival of the Fittest a common theme among zombie narratives. Zombie narratives tend to have a resurgence after a big, scary world event such as the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War 2.|
|Symbol||The zombie is a malleable symbol. Storytellers can use zombies as they see fit. Zombies have been used to represent the horrors of slavery, white xenophobia, Cold War angst, the fear of death, apprehensions about consumer culture.
Zombie films are quite often about the specific anxieties of white men, and the perceived threat to the white male ability to control the sexuality of white women. Zombies Are All About The Heteronormative Power Struggle from Science 2.0
When zombies were about slavery, stories were concerned about how slavery transplanted to the USA something malignant, but for the masters more than the slaves. These stories were for white audiences terrified of voodoo. The House In The Magnolias (1932) and Song of the Slaves (1940) are two examples of that.
|Tetrodotoxin||Used carefully at sub-lethal doses, the tetrodotoxin combination may cause zombie-like symptoms such as difficulty walking, mental confusion and respiratory problems.
High doses of tetrodotoxin can lead to paralysis and coma. This could cause someone to appear dead and be buried alive – then later revived.
|Undead||The Ancient Greeks may have been the first civilisation terrorised by a fear of the undead. Archaeologists have unearthed many ancient graves which contained skeletons pinned down by rocks and other heavy objects, assumedly to prevent the dead bodies from reanimating.|
|Virus||Zombie outbreaks can be caused by a virus, which makes the story an allegory for our human fear of viruses. The Bestial Virus: The Infectious Origins of Werewolves, Zombies & Vampires from Discover Magazine|
|Voodoo||Voodoo (sometimes spelled vodou or vodun) is a religion based in West Africa and practiced throughout Haiti and the Caribbean, Brazil, the American South and other places with an African heritage.|
|Walking Corpse||In earlier English, corpse referred simply to ‘the body’. Only later did it refer to ‘the dead body’. Romeo’s zombies walk slowly, but Danny Boyle’s Zombies in 28 Days Later are really fast.|
|Shortcoming||In any good zombie story, the zombies represent the Shortcoming of a society or community of people they come after. Zombie films are therefore allegories. In Night of the Living Dead, the zombies tape into anxieties of the late 1960s — the dehumanising violence of the Vietnam War, uneasy reactions to the Civil Rights movement and a human tendency to become as monstrous as any monster who attacks us. With each subsequent film, the allegory gets updated. The next film is about brain-dead consumerism and after that the sexism turns into feminism.|
|White Zombie||The first zombie film. Frankenstein and Dracula also appeared on film at this time (1932).
In early zombie films, villains learn that to possess a woman’s mindless body is unsatisfying. White Zombie started that.
|W. B. Seabrook||The word zombie was used intermittently throughout the 1800s but wasn’t a well-known word until 1929, when W. B. Seabrook published a travelogue called The Magic Island. Seabrook was an American journalist and adventurer who traveled to Haiti and lived there with his family. (Um, he was also a cannibal.) Seabrook collected stories about zombies and voodoo and he even thought he saw a dead man resurrected once. Readers in the West were intrigued by these stories, especially Protestant readers, perhaps, because free will is held very dear to the Protestant’s heart – thought to be humanity’s main virtue.|
|Zeitgeist||In 28 Days Later, the virus called ‘rage’ is the Zeitgeist of the modern era, where everything is so impersonalised and moves so rapidly that everyone is consumed by fury and can do nothing about it.|
|Zombie||An Enlightenment zombie meant someone who has no free will, and could refer to a high-level administator.
Zombie can now mean that, but also a supernatural creature who has been renanimated from the dead and walks (or runs) around trying to eat the living, or infect them with a virus.
More recently, zombie describes a computer that’s been taken over by a remote host.
Zombies are generally stupid but recent zombies are able to learn quickly, sort of like artificial intelligence. This says something about our collective fear of computers taking over.
For years zombi was spelt without an ‘e’ at the end.
|Zombie lit||A whole literary subgenre featuring zombies|
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.
Here’s my thesis: Studio Ghibli achieves what Pixar and DreamWorks have thus far not managed:
- A film which appeals to all ages
- without alienating the preschool viewer from any single part of it.
- Adults and children will be laughing at the same moments
- 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.
STORYWORLD OF MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO
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.
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.
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
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.”
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’.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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:
- Have heaps of fun (carnivalesque)
- Face their deepest fears (mythic)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.