After working on My Neighbour Totoro, animator Akemi Miyazaki steps out from her husband’s shadow to show us Totoro’s real-world birthplace.
Studio Ghibli’s acclaimed director Hayao Miyazaki gets a lot of attention from fans around the world for his animated movies, but for every film he makes there’s a team of creatives there to help him achieve his vision, and one who’s been by his side the longest is his wife, Akemi Miyazaki.
What many people might not know is that Akemi is a talented animator, having met her husband when they were both working on the 1965 Japanese animated feature Gulliver’s Travels Beyond the Moon. After working on two of her husband’s Ghibli films, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and My Neighbour Totoro, Akemi retired from the world of animation to raise the couple’s two sons, Goro and Keisuke, in a move that wasn’t entirely voluntary, as her husband has admitted himself that he wanted her to stay at home.
Now, in their later years, 77-year-old Miyazaki has been praising his 80-year-old wife for her creativity and knowledge, crediting her for prompting him to use the noborogiku groundsel flower in Boro the Caterpillar, and featuring her sketches in a new book produced by his animation studio.
The new book is called “Totoro no Umareta Tokoro“, which translates to “The Place Where Totoro Was Born“.
Akemi is currently on the Board of Trustees for the Totoro no Furusato Foundation, which works to preserve the natural habitat and cultural assets of Sayama Hills in Saitama Prefecture, close to the city of Tokorozawa where she and her husband live. Sayama Hills, also known as Totoro’s Forest, is the fabled real-world birthplace of Totoro, where Miyazaki came up with the idea for the forest-dwelling character from My Neighbour Totoro, and this book showcases the area, with a focus on nature throughout the changing seasons.
More than 40 pages of the 80-page book are dedicated to Akemi’s sketches of nature in Totoro’s Forest, and her eye for detail is truly impressive. Her drawings illustrate the growth of plants like summer’s Ardisia japonica, commonly known as marlberry (above) and winter’s carpet of fallen leaves, with information about the trees they came from.
Also making an appearance on several pages is Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki, who takes a stroll through Hachikokuyama, an area near Sayama Hills that inspired parts of My Neighbour Totoro. Camera in hand, Suzuki introduces us to some interesting sites in the area, including nearby Shin-yamanote Hospital, which served as the model for the hospital where Mei and Satsuki’s mother stayed in the film.
One of the most charming sections of the book, however, is the 20-page section featuring “image board” illustrations by Hayao Miyazaki, showing the initial development of the now-famous characters from the film.
These pictures of Totoro, Mei and the Catbus were drawn in 1975, 13 years before the film was officially released in Japan.
The image board section comes with an interview with Miyazaki, who talks about the profound influence of the natural areas in and around Tokorozawa, which gave birth to Totoro and the cast of charming forest creatures that appear in the film.
The area had such an influence on him that he says, “If we didn’t live in Tokorozawa, Totoro would never have been born.”
We don’t want to imagine a world where Totoro doesn’t exist, and thanks to Tokorozawa and the Miyazakis, we don’t have to.
Totoro no Umareta Tokoro is currently available from the bookstore at the Ghibli Museum and other book retailers for 1,296 yen (US$11.48). Despite being written in Japanese, the photos and pictures make it enjoyable for everyone, including non-Japanese speaking Ghibli fans.
From 12 September, the book will be featured in a limited-time exhibition at the second-floor gallery space inside the Ghibli Museum, so visitors from around the world can get a taste of the beauty of the four seasons in the place where Totoro was born.