Giri and Ninjo: The Roots of Hayao Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro in Animated Adaptations of Classic Children's Literature

By Greenberg, Raz | Literature/Film Quarterly, April 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Giri and Ninjo: The Roots of Hayao Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro in Animated Adaptations of Classic Children's Literature


Greenberg, Raz, Literature/Film Quarterly


In this essay I examine the literary roots of Hayao Miyazaki s 1988 feature JViJ/ Neighbor Totoro (originally titled Tonari no Totora], which is arguably the film that gained Miyazaki his international acclaim as Japans and one of the world s leading directors of animated features. The film was Miyazakis fourth animated feature, and while his previous features gained strong reaction from the animation community worldwide, My Neighbor Totoro attracted the attention of such figures as acclaimed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, who placed it on his personal list of 100 best films of all time (McCarthy 132-33), and influential film critic Roger Ebert, who widely praised the film upon its initial American release and later included it in his list of "Great Movies." This critical attention led the way to Miyazaki winning the Academy Award for his 2001 feature Spirited Away (originally titled Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakusht), but it also demonstrates his ability to appeal to both the authence in his native Japan and all over the world. As this essay will show, in the case of My Neighbor Totoro, part of this appeal can be attributed to the influence of western works of children's literature on the film.

The plot of My Neighbor Totoro follows two sisters, four-year-old Mei and nineyear-old Satsuki, who live in Japan during the 1950s. Along with their father, the two sisters move to a new house in the country's rural area, close to a hospital where their mother is being treated for an unspecified disease. Despite the great excitement of moving and exploring their new environment, both protagonists fear for their mother's health, especially Satsuki, who is old enough to understand that her mother might die as a result of her medical condition. They find solace in their friendship with Totoro, a strange creature that lives in the forest, whose appearance combines that of a tanuki (Japanese raccoon), a cat, and an owl.

Though it certainly carries many of the themes that Miyazaki explored in his previous features, My Neighbor Totoro also marks many changes in the narrative nature of the director's work, changes that may explain why it got so much attention outside the animation community. While Miyazakis three previous films consisted of action-oriented, fast-moving adventure plots, two of them featuring "men of action" protagonists who were accompanied by far more passive female characters,1 the protagonists My Neighbor Totoro are not only female, but the gradual development of their characters is the main theme of the film. And this development is presented not through an action-oriented plot, but through an episodic examination of their daily childhood life.

Above all, My Neighbor Totoro differs from Miyazakis three previous features in the director's choice of the film's location; this is Miyazaki 's first feature to take place in Japan and can in a sense be called his first truly Japanese film, as opposed to the cosmopolitan (pseudo-European or futuristic-post-apocalyptic) scenery of his previous films. It also remains his most personal film; Miyazaki himself grew up in Japan during the 1950s, and like the film's protagonists, his mother fell ill with tuberculosis and was hospitalized at the time.

But as noted above, classic works of western children's literature were an equally strong influence on the film. These works gained popularity with the Japanese authence during the 1970s through animated television adaptations that strongly corresponded with Japanese social concepts. Miyazaki was involved with the production of several such adaptations, and this involvement paved the road to the structure and themes of My Neighbor Totoro - moving back and forth between western and Japanese elements, seamlessly blending the two into what turned out to be a highly acclaimed film.

Giri and Ninjo

Miyazaki's involvement with animated adaptations of classic children's literature began in the 1970s, and as noted above, the roots of My Neighbor Totoro are strongly evident in these adaptations from their very basic premise; the shows follow young girls through their everyday life in a somewhat slow pace, which is very different from the fast-moving plots of the other projects that involved Miyazaki prior to his becoming a feature-film director.

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