School and Family in Hayao Miyazaki’s ‘My Neighbour Totoro’

My Neighbour Totoro is the story of ten-year-old Satsuki and her four-year-old sister Mei moving to the country with their father. The girl’s mother is dreadfully ill and hospitalized. The story tells of how the sisters cope with such events by creating an imaginary creature named Totoro to keep them company.

Mei, Satsuki and Children in Japan

Satsuki Kusakabe is left responsible for her younger sister when their father has to go and teach during the day and she helps with domestic tasks such as the laundry and cooking. McCarthy notes that she is ‘cheerful and makes friends easily only occasionally do we see her shyness that tells us that she’s growing up and beginning to experience all the uncertainties of the teenage years’. Mei Kusakabe is only 4-years-old and ‘is inquisitive and boisterous … who is often naughty but never means harm. Like most small children, she doesn’t have much sense of direction or memory, and isn’t really aware of danger yet’. McDonald observes that My Neighbour Totoro explains the childhood strategy of dealing with hardship and fear by imagining and entering into a world of fantasy; as Miyazaki says: “Undaunted by strange creatures, Mei opens up her heart to them. This shows that her world is not yet contaminated by the commonsense cautions of grownup life. Yet it speaks of her loneliness as well… A mother’s absence is no small matter for a four-year-old.”

Miyazaki’s own mother suffered a long illness, commencing at the time he started school in 1947. Despite her absence from home, McCarthy maintains that ‘the legacy of her powerful personality lives on in his work.’ Mothers’ in Japan are thought of as the foundation of a family and key in raising a child as an old song illustrates. Created to ease the mind of mother’s who sons’ were off to war, it depicts how much people looked up to their mother’s: “You are the suicide pilot’s mother, So please don’t cry, Laugh as you send us off, We’ll show you how to die, Mother, Oh Mother!”

In Japanese society, it is the wives, not the husbands who are expected to manage the household and raise the children and elderly, children are rarely left alone, day or night which in Buruma’s opinion can lead to a clinging relationship stifling any individual independence as highlighted by a Japanese verb: ‘amaeru, translated in the dictionary as ‘to presume upon another’s love; to play the baby’’. Allinson argues that children are rarely left alone because ‘children require constant attention, owing to anxieties about educational success and social mobility.’

Satsuke and Mei are quite the opposite to children in Japanese society in some ways. For instance, despite missing their mother, Mei is left alone throughout much of the day to play by herself and both characters manage to meet and overcome one obstacle after another with the verve and enterprise of innocents who turn out to be quite capable of managing this new life on their own terms, as Napier notes; ‘Mei and her older sister Satsuki face bravely such major disturbances as a move and a parent’s illness, epitomizing the dynamic spirit typical of the Miyazaki heroine.’ This is exemplified approximately half-way through the film when the sisters are caught in a heavy downpour and the sisters take refuge in a wayside temple; in McDonald’s view, Satsuke has shown herself to be a kindly older sister anxious to look after Mei all she can during their mother’s absence :

She has her mother’s slight build but her behaviour is that of a girl endowed with courage and strong will. We see this in the way she faces up to hardship. She suffers, but shoulders responsibility with patient endurance. We see this clearly as the sisters wait for their father at the bus stop. The bus arrives without him. Rainy darkness falls as they wait for the next…  Satsuke stands bravely with sleepy Mei on her back.

Japanese Education System

School provides a multitude of focal points for storytelling in anime. A school presents an environment of children’s everyday lives, whereby they experience friendship, rivalry, love and so forth and thus anime can offer us a window into Japanese children’s lives. All children in Japan have to attend six years of elementary school and three years of senior school. Today’s figures show that 97.5% of girls go on to High school and nearly one half of women (48.5%), attend university or junior. This is, of course, a major change from the 1960’s when only 11.3% of women continued their education after high school. Dr. Mio Bryce argues that the ‘Japanese educational system has been in serious crisis for some time.’ He argues that today’s children are under systematic pressure to study and participate in school activities and therefore, they have no free time or stress relief; although it can be said that they have more free time compared to children in the past who were taxed with menial chores.

Miyazaki moved house in 1950 and after a year changed schools again at the age of ten years, ‘moving to one of Japan’s brand-new, American-influenced schools.’ Perhaps the loneliness Mei feels was a reflection of Miyazaki’s childhood feelings, highlighted by Miyazaki stating in an interview that ‘Totoro is where my consciousness begins’, therefore, the central figure of Totoro would have been a figment of his imagination, inspired by his childish imaginings of fearsome creatures living in the forest.

The imaginary Totoro with Mei and Satsuki

In Bryce’s opinion the present day primary schools ‘class teacher often embodies unconditional authority. Without the ability to resist and/or criticize their teachers and school rules, many primary school children experience daily authority as a form of oppressive regime of control.’ An example of an idealized school is My Neighbour Totoro. The classroom atmosphere is consistently positive and encouraging and the ‘children enjoy their lives under the supervision of caring, friendly and respected class teachers’. To reflect this in Japanese society, the Ministry of Education implemented a new curriculum in 2002 aimed at making schools more nurturing and less regimented.

Because of the discrimination forced upon women in the workplace and the subsequent wage gap between the sexes, families recognize that the return on their daughters education is less than for their sons’ as Tachibanaki notes: ‘Women’s education produces lower returns in terms of employment opportunities and career earnings’ and so families are more inclined to invest into their sons’ schooling. Miyamoto notes that many private Japanese high schools are in actuality ‘single-sex institutions, and even at mixed high schools there is considerable segregation of boys and girls.’ This is similarly reflected for adults who typically socialize in single-sex groups in the workplace. McDonald argues that in modern Japan success in university entrance examinations is the key to future success, so much so that a family’s fortunes can decline after a generation or two if the men fail in this fierce competition. Henceforth, because it is the men who are expected to succeed, it is consequently the women who are not only expected to have the spiritual strength necessary to endure their insecurities of life but also the nobility and grace appropriate to their station.

Family Life, Endurance and Conclusion

It is because of this demanding education system that children were, in effect, held hostage at home as well as at school to ensure success. Subsequently, ‘mothers, forced to take charge at home, became overachievers of another, dreadful kind. Social anthropologists dubbed her the “kyoiku mama,” the mother obsessed with her children’s education to the exclusion of almost everything else.’ This view is in stark contrast to Mrs. Kusakabe, the girl’s mother, who is in McCarthy’s point of view ‘A serene, elegant woman.’ The pleasure she takes in doing small things, such as brushing Satsuki’s hair, helps to build a picture of the strong family bond between the Kusakabes’. Osmond also notes this particular scene, stating that the interaction of the film’s protagonists, the four-year-old Mei and her big sister Satsuki, is built from countless subtle observations, such as ‘an exquisite instance of sibling jealousy as the girl’s mother brushes Satsuki’s hair.’

It is notable that Miyazaki’s families are reflective of Japanese society, for instance, Chihiro, Nausicaa, Kiki and Sheeta in their respective films are all the only children in their families and Satsuki and Mei are only the pair. Japan does have an extremely low birth rate (1.34 children per woman) which most social scientists ascribe to the expense and difficulty of raising children. The decline in Japan’s birth rate can be attributed to a number of factors. For instance, over the years women have been entering further education past senior school, meaning that they are getting more opportunities to find a job and are thus staying in work for longer. This translates to a gradual rise in the age of marriage. Likewise, postponing marriage reduces the likelihood of having more children. Furthermore, the high cost of raising a child in Japan, because of housing and education fees, contributes significantly. Finally, once married, women can reduce the risk of pregnancy with improved knowledge of contraceptives or those who become pregnant can more easily have abortions.

Miyazaki wants Japanese audiences to relish in their traditions and community and invites the viewer to share his nostalgia for a lovely human harmony engrained in rural communities now rapidly disappearing in his films. For instance, Chihiro’s family are captivated by the theme park they discover during Spirited Away’s opening as is Kiki by the coastal town she discovers in Kiki’s Delivery Service or during My Neighbour Totoro’s opening sequence when the family move to their new home and everyone in the community comes out to welcome the girls and their father. Furthermore, they are offered food and any help they need to settle in. Miyazaki uses the conventions of animation and the idyllic setting to address issues deeply ingrained in the social fabric of contemporary Japan.  For instance, Kingston argues that ‘Critics point out that the loss of community bonds in large anonymous cities and suburbs creates a breeding ground for trouble’, yet My Neighbour Totoro may well be dubbed an idyll, after all, ‘it takes a longing look back at the 1950s, when some rural and suburban communities still offered refuge from the throes of transformation run amok in the name of postwar recovery’.

Japanese children are often compared to carp. This is because the carp symbolises courage in adversity as they battle, swimming upstream against waterfalls and fast currents. This is a quality Japanese children are thought to posses as Hendry argues: ‘Children of both sexes in Japan are expected to work hard throughout their childhood years and strive for goals which may prove to be quite beyond their reach.’ This is reflected in later life, particularly for females who are consistently praised for their qualities of endurance and persistence, even in the face of failure.

Works Cited

Allinson, G. (1997) Japan’s Postwar History, London; UCL Press.

Buruma, I. (1984) A Japanese Mirror: Heroes and Villains of Japanese Culture, London; Jonathon Cape.

Dr Mio Bryce – School In Japanese Children’s Lives as Depicted in Manga

Hendry, J. (1998) Understanding Japanese Society, London and New York; Rotledge.

Kingston, J. (2001) Japan in Transformation, 1952-2000, Edinburgh; Pearson

McCarthy, H. (1999) Hayao Miyazaki: Master of Japanese Animation, Berkley; Stone Bridge Press

McDonald, K. (2006) Reading a Japanese Film: Cinema in Context, Honolulu; University of Hawai’i Press.

Napier, S. (2005) Anime from Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle, New York; Palgrave Macmillan

Osmond, A. (2008) BFI Film Classics: Spirited Away, London; Palgrave Macmillan.


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