My Neighbor Totoro & Grave Of The Fireflies: an appreciation

25 years ago, Studio Ghibli simultaneously released My Neighbor Totoro and Grave Of The Fireflies. Here's a timely appreciation...

When My Neighbor Totoro and Grave Of The Fireflies were released in 1988, their shared billing was born out of convenience. Studio Ghibli, the animation house set up by Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata in 1985, had already secured its first success with Laputa: Castle In The Sky (1986), while Miyazaki was well-known for his first animated feature, Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Wind (1984).

In spite of these successes, the films Miyazaki and Takahata wanted to make next were considered to be financially risky. Miyazaki wanted to create a personal story about two children meeting a woodland monster in the Japanese countryside, while Takahata wanted to adapt Akiyuki Nosaka’s Grave Of The Fireflies, a semi-autobiographical novel about two young children struggling for survival following the firebombing of Kobe in World War II.

Determined to secure funding from unconvinced investors, producer Toshio Suzuki proposed that the movies be released as a double-bill, with each bolstering the audience for the other. In fact, Grave Of The Fireflies was regarded as the safer of the two movies, since it was based on a well-known book, and its historical value would make school teachers more likely to take their students to see it. 

Tonally, the two films made curious bedfellows. Where My Neighbor Totoro was bright, tender and upbeat, Grave Of The Fireflies was bleak and harsh. Indeed, it’s a wonder what young audiences would have made of the two films when they sat down in Japanese cinemas in 1988. It’s said that, when Totoro was shown first, some cinemagoers were unable to sit through the distressing Grave, and left before the end. Exhibitors found that, if they switched the films around, the cheerier Totoro served as a welcome antidote to the stark realism of Grave.

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Although poles apart in their tone and style, the two films have more in common than is initially apparent. Both are told from the perspective of children, and both are about Japan’s turbulent history during and after the Second World War.

Grave Of The Fireflies introduces Seita, a 14-year-old boy, and his young sister, Setsuko. Separated from their mother as American bombers destroy their home city of Kobe, the siblings move from place to place, trying to find enough food for survival. The story is all the more powerful because of its simplicity; we see the devastating effects of war from the perspective of the vulnerable, and the elegance of the animation – so full of precious little details – makes it a truly special, unique film. 

Animation alters how we see otherwise familiar events, and through the filter of Studio Ghibli’s art, we see things we’ve seen time and again in war films – the rumble of planes overhead, the impact of bombs – in an entirely new light. Setsuko is an exquisitely animated character, whose innocence is brought to life in every expression and awkward little step.

My Neighbor Totoro tells a similarly minimal story with equal artistry. Like Grave Of The Fireflies, Miyazaki’s film is also partly based on childhood experiences; that of the animator’s upbringing in rural Japan.  Set in the 1950s, My Neighbor Totoro is about two Satsuki and Mei, two young sisters who’ve moved with their father to a small house in the country. Their mother is in hospital with tuberculosis, and their hope is that, when she’s discharged, the clean country air will help her recuperate.

As they explore their house and the surrounding woodland, Satsuki and Mei encounter all kinds of magical creatures, including the towering, benign Totoro, the spirit of the forest. A slight, gentle film, My Neighbor Totoro is about the indescribable wonder of childhood rather than high drama; Mei’s sudden disappearance is the story’s one hint of darkness. 

There’s so much beauty in My Neighbor Totoro‘s imagery – the huge camphor tree, the Catbus, soaring through the sky – that it’s easy to forget how close in time its events sit to the devastating Grave Of The Fireflies. But if the two films have anything in common, it’s the theme of fragility. Grave shows us, in the most uncompromising terms you’re likely to see in animation, how savage and desperately harmful war can be, particularly to the young and innocent. 

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In My Neighbor Totoro, we get a similar sense of the fleeting, fragile nature of childhood – that, like the summer in which the film’s set, the innocence of youth can’t last for long. My Neighbor Totoro taps into universal memories from our own childhoods – when summers seemed to last for an eternity, and the small spaces around us seemed huge and full of mystery.

Both Totoro and Grave also deal with Japan’s transformation in the 1940s and 50s. Following its crushing defeat at the end of World War II, Japan began to rebuild, and reinvent itself as a major industrial power. Taken together, Grave shows the path to that reinvention, with flashes back to the traditional beauty of pre-war Japan, while Totoro provides a glimpse of Tokyo’s rural areas which, in the expansion of the 50s and 60s, would soon vanish beneath concrete and steel.

It’s the fusion of the past, present and future, the effortless blending of the universal and the personal, that makes both My Neighbor Totoro and Grave Of The Fireflies so timeless and important. Taken individually, they’re both sublime pieces of animation; as a double-bill, they make for a contrasting yet utterly moving whole.

My Neighbor Totoro and Grave Of The Fireflies are out in UK cinemas now as a 25th anniversary double-bill.

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