April 16, 1988, was a banner day for animation, and film as a whole. After launching Studio Ghibli with 1986’s Castle in the Sky, co-founders Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata each began work on their own new films. Both movies would feature children as the central characters, and tackle themes of loneliness, the hardships of growing up, and the melancholy of childhood. Both films were set in realistic, nostalgic versions of Japan, but with magical and fantastical elements used for different effects. My Neighbor Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies were released 30 years ago today as a double bill, and they remain their respective creator’s high water mark.
The irony of the two films coming out when they did is that they were the first big “Here, look what we can do” movies by Studio Ghibli, and they’re the most similar movies Miyazaki and Takahata would ever make. But neither represent the direction either director and the studio would go on a microcosmic level. Yes, Totoro features cuddly, magical creatures and children having adventures, but it was the most wistful movie he’d ever make. Fireflies, conversely, is about the land and history of Japan, which are certainly passions of Takahata’s cinema, but he’d never be so tragic again. If someone saw this double feature thinking they knew exactly what a Studio Ghibli was, they’d be wrong any way they sliced it.
My Neighbor Totoro is the story of two young girls–one a toddler, the other, importantly, on her way to adolescence–who move with their father to a small house in the country. Their mother, we learn later in the movie, is in a nearby hospital with a long-term illness. The elder daughter, Satsuki, often has to take care of her sister, Mei, and together they explore the nearby woods. Mei comes across a nature spirit called Totoro, which resembles a giant, furry bunny-cat, and as much as she tries, she can’t convince her sister or father of Totoro’s existence. However, one evening, while waiting for the bus in the rain, and Mei asleep on Satsuki’s back, Totoro appears next to them and they all take a trip in a bus that is also a cat. Totoro, and his smaller spirit acolytes, help the girls plant trees and generally enjoy their time in their new home.
Totoro and the other spirits and sprites in the movie represent both childhood imagination and a child’s tendency to interact with the natural world more intimately than adults. It’s important that Mei finds Totoro right away but it takes Satsuki a little while before she sees him. She is right at the age when she probably should still be out having fun and playing, but she’s forced to grow up faster due to new circumstances. She makes wrong choices and eventually has to be the one to find her sister when she gets lost.
Though Totoro became the mascot for Studio Ghibli going forward, and there are some wonderful and fantastical sequences in the movie that spark the imagination, My Neighbor Totorois firmly set in a realistic version of Japan. The movie is set in 1958, when Miyazaki himself was 17, and much care was taken to replicate how that part of the country looked at that time. The movie doesn’t have a traditional plot structure and instead spends its relatively brief running time in the day-to-day lives of the two girls. They engage with the fantasy of Totoro in the same manner and withthe same level of acceptance as school, chores, and dealing with their mother’s illness.. Things don’t always go well, but there isn’t an antagonist, nor is Totoro a benevolent mentor figure. He’s there to help Satsuki and Mei, but he’s ethereal and impermanent.
Set in 1945, at the very end of World War II, Grave of the Fireflies depicts a very different Japan, one torn apart by the ravages of war, and one which Takahata encountered when he was nine-years-old. It’s nostalgic about childhood and its innocence, and the reality of the world, but without the benefit of a friendly nature spirit, and without the notion that everything might be okay. It focuses on a teenage boy named Seita and his much younger sister, Setsuko. The film opens with Seita dying of starvation in a train station, clutching a candy tin that belonged to his sister, who also died. We then flashback to several months earlier, when Seita tried to give his sister a childhood of fun amid air raids, food rations, and transience. It’s incredibly important to him that Setsuko not feel the horrors of the war, while not making light of it.
Takahata’s work was much more up front about Japan and the plight of its people and its history. The symbolism of the title comes from when the characters move in to an abandoned bomb shelter and release fireflies into the cave for light. Setsuko loves them, but is horrified the next day when she discovers all of them have died. “Why do fireflies have to die so soon?” she asks, and they bury the insects outside the next morning. This is Takahata’s melancholic assertion that innocence can’t last forever, while also making clear that, in any war, the innocents are the ones who suffer worst. At the end of the movie, the spirits of Seita and Setsuko are surrounded by fireflies as they float over a modern-day Japan, with all of its prosperity. Cities and populations can survive horrible adversity, you just might lose a few fireflies along the way.
In both cases, the films were deeply personal to the specific upbringings of their creators. Even if Fireflies was based on someone else’s short story, both of the films offer a nostalgia for childhood while acknowledging that era is hard and doesn’t last forever. Both men were looking back to a youth that wasn’t misspent so much as taken away too soon, in a country that had overcome so much following a defeat in a war. Both movies end with cautious hope, for the future of not just the country but for children in general.
Miyazaki’s output after My Neighbor Totoro would go back to out-and-out fantasy, though most would deal with childhood’s end. Perhaps his two most lauded films would deal with the desecration of the wonder of nature (1997’s Princess Mononoke) and the corruption and exploitation of children (2001’s Oscar-winning Spirited Away), but both were much harder edged and lacked the lilting wistfulness of My Neighbor Totoro.
Takahata’s subsequent movies, on the other hand, stayed in the same arena, all about life in Japan, growing up, and family. Only Yesterday dealt directly with returning to your hometown and remembering childhood, while the beautiful oddity Pom Poko was about the ill effects of human growth on nature, specifically through the eyes of the revered Japanese animal, the tanuki.
With their one-two punch, Miyazaki and Takahata made the world–not just Japan–take notice. Both films ended up in Roger Ebert’s book of Great Films, both won many awards, and both cemented Studio Ghibli’s place as the top storytellers in their field. 30 years on, both movies pack indelible punches and will certainly last 30 more years, and probably until the end of time.