Kid stuff

My chronological march through film history continues—I’m currently immersed in late ’80s cinema and starting to feel a bit burned out, but determined to try to finish the project by the end of August.  (It’s providing me with endless hours of procrastination as I attempt to make progress on my dissertation.)  The ’80s have never really been seen as much of a golden age in film history, even if they did see the emergence of the American independent scene, new queer cinema, and the birth of such indie auteurs as Gus van Sant and Jim Jarmusch.  They also, of course, ushered in the age of the mega-blockbuster (see Ghostbusters).  So coming after the gleaming chrome and techno-violence of Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop and the spare art-house tableaux of Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio (which I watched but didn’t write about, mainly because I was barely awake by the time I finished it), Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro (1988) comes as something of a palate cleanser. 

This is the third of Miyazaki’s films I’ve seen, the others being his more epic Princess Mononoke (1999) and Spirited Away (2002), and I have to say that I prefer his style here to those later films, which seem to me unnecessarily complicated.  By contrast, My Neighbor Totoro is a remarkably gentle and benign film—so gentle and benign, in fact, that it’s likely to strike American audiences as slow.  In its attempt to record the behavior of children—their secret games, their fantasies, their terrors—it has more in common with the great live-action films about childhood (Pather Panchali, The Secret of the Beehive) than with, say, the Disney canon.  Totoro is content to follow the daily goings-on of two pre-adolescent girls, Satsuki and Mei, as they settle into life in the country with their father, an archaeology professor.  They explore their new house and the countryside that surrounds it; they occasionally encounter strange but kindly magical beings, like Totoro, an enormous bear/cat who lives in a tree; they worry about their mother, who is undergoing treatment at the nearby hospital.  Miyazaki’s observational details seem finer here than in his later, more fantastical adventure tales, because they’re more rooted in the familiar; the younger sister, four-year-old Mei, is particularly well-rendered.  Under other circumstances, I may have found this film tiresome, but it has turned up at a time when I needed to see something utterly straightforward and non-aggressive and child-friendly.  (The days of Score and Flesh Gordon and Blood for Dracula seem like another lifetime at this point.)  Tomorrow I head into Jarmusch territory…   

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