Among the works involving Hayao Miyazaki, the one I’ve seen repeatedly is not “Spirited Away”, nor “Nausicaa”, nor “Princess Mononoke”, and actually not even “My Neighbor Totoro” in this book.
It is “Panda! Go! Panda!”.
When my second son was a toddler, the number one “silencing video” was “Panda! Go! Panda!”. Whether he was crying, complaining, or overly excited, showing him the video featuring Papa Panda would immediately fixate him onto the screen. He would stare as if devouring it and his expression would become as tranquil as if he was listening to a lullaby.
Probably more than a hundred times, “Panda! Go Panda!” was watched in our house. For the first few times, my second son was earnestly watching the actions of the characters like Panny, Papa Panda, and Mimiko. But soon, he remembered what lines would be spoken at what moments, and how each scene would unfold. It was as if he was repeatedly confirming a work he had created himself, simultaneously reciting lines like “I especially like the bamboo forest”, and carefully tracing the movements of Mimiko and Panny.
How long did “Panda! Go Panda!” continue to be my second son’s Linus’s blanket? It had been watched so many times that it was no longer enjoyed for its content, just like when a Kanji character written too many times loses its meaning and begins to fall apart. Yet, it remained a comforting presence when needed, like a blanket he couldn’t let go of.
Nearly twenty years have passed since then, and I can’t remember clearly, but there is something I wonder.
I think it was a little before my second son started to be afraid of “death”.
I don’t know whether a child, who is about to enter or has just entered elementary school, can accurately understand the concept of death. We’ve had several family funerals, but I don’t know whether they made my second son start to think about death.
But one day, my second son started to say something like this.
Hey, Mom. Will I become a grandfather someday? Will I die when I become a grandfather?
When I replied, “Probably, yes,” he frowned, thought for a long time, and then said, “Then, I won’t become a grandfather. Instead, I’ll become a robot.”
The idea of becoming a robot relieved my second son for a while. For him, “here and now” was the most comfortable. Not only did he dislike the idea of himself becoming a “grandfather,” but he also disliked the idea of his mother, father, and brother becoming “grandmother,” “grandfather,” and dying. He hated the idea of his friends moving away, and the idea of beautifully blooming flowers falling apart (he used to say flowers “break” and was scared of it). In short, maintaining the status quo was important.
But he already understood that this was impossible. Flowers fall, friends may suddenly move to a different school, and above all, he himself was growing rapidly and would enter elementary school in spring.
How troublesome. I, and everyone else, will die.
Is there some way, any way, to avoid changes and death? From this thought, my second son came up with the idea of everyone becoming a robot.
But that method is scary. I think there is nothing as scary as eternity.
However, I couldn’t say that.
It was too hard to explain to a toddler, and fearing something that lasts forever is just my personal view (There seem to be quite a few people who want to live forever, so they probably don’t find eternity terrifying). Above all, I didn’t want to make a child, who had just achieved emotional stability, cry out by adamantly talking about such things.
Time passed with my vague views on how to accept death and the fact that life changes and never stops. Occasionally, my second son would suddenly ask about “dying,” but he never said more than that. Both he and I were careful not to delve deeply into the topic.
Right. It was around that time that my second son began to watch the video of “My Neighbor Totoro” enthusiastically. The transition from “Panda! Go Panda!” to “My Neighbor Totoro”. There are significant similarities between the characters of Totoro and Papa Panda, and the atmosphere of the ending scenes is similar, so these are perfect works for children to grow into. Probably, there is no need to find deep meaning in that.
This story suddenly changes, but just the other day, I tried to write a scene in a novel where a person dies of illness.
The person dies in the Showa era (1926-1989), and they die at home, not in a hospital.
“Wait a second,” I thought. “Is it okay to set the scene with the person dying at home?”
Recently (as of the Heisei era), there are a few doctors and people in the community who suggest reconsidering the possibility of dying at home. As the explicit mentioning of home death suggests, at some point in Japan, it has become natural to be hospitalized in medical institutions when the illness becomes serious and to meet death there.
The Showa 61 (1987) year was 27 years ago (this article written in 2014). At that time, how many people were dying at home?
According to statistics from the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, in Showa 26 (1952), about 10 percent of people died in medical institutions and about 85 percent died at home. The proportions of people dying in medical institutions and at home became half-and-half in Showa 51 (1977). Currently, the proportions of home death and death in medical institutions are exactly the opposite of when the statistics started in Showa 26. That is, about 10 percent of people die at home, and about 85 percent die in medical institutions. The Showa year I was going to write about in the novel had a home death rate of about 25 percent.
The movie “My Neighbor Totoro” was being produced around that time. The proportion of people dying at home continued to follow a neat downward trend, and by the time the movie was released in Showa 63 (1989), it was already close to 20 percent.
Death was gradually moving away from the home.
People generally do not die suddenly. For example, they contract a disease, the disease progresses, they weaken, and eventually draw their last breath. Or, their body naturally weakens, they weaken, and eventually draw their last breath. Most of these processes and the resulting deaths took place in hospitals.
Sometimes I look back on the time when I lost a loved one. I visited the hospital where my relative was admitted. If they were close to me, I would go to the hospital every day. If they were a bit distant, I would visit a few times. When the situation becomes critical, I would stay at the hospital. The sense of unfairness, sadness, eventual resignation, and yet the inescapable grief that comes with repeated visits as the person weakens, these emotions are probably the same whether the person is at home or in a hospital. The shock of losing someone, I believe, cannot be lessened just because death has disappeared from our homes.
However, to be honest, I was able to set these feelings aside for a brief moment.
How did I manage that?
By leaving the hospital and going home.
Of course, I couldn’t put it off for a long time. It was in the brief moments between housework. A few minutes lost in watching TV. The five minutes spent chatting when I went next door to pass around the neighborhood bulletin board. The ten or so minutes when I was truly focused on work. It was such fleeting moments.
Even while setting aside these feelings, sorrow constantly welled up from the depths of my heart. I never felt truly refreshed. But it was clear, the hospital and home were different. The absence of the person in front of me. The absence of physical death. The absence of a closeness that can be touched.
Somehow, it felt like there were many lights burning brightly in the house. These lights did not cast much of a shadow. Hence, the shadow of death was faint, and the various fears naturally evoked by death also felt somewhat diminished.
What is in “Totoro” but not in “Panda Go! Panda” is darkness. Both have night scenes, but the quality of the night is different. The night in “Panda Kopanda” is the night viewed from inside a house. On the other hand, the night in “Totoro” is the natural night under a starry sky. It’s a night in the open air. Satsuki and Mei play with Totoro, medium Totoro, and little Totoro in the dark. The midnight forest. The rustling trees. The moonlit sky.
The night sky where they fly with Totoro, the world of the night, is not frightening at all. That’s because Totoro, the guardian, is in that otherworldly place.
Guardian Totoro. As long as this guardian is there, the darkness is simply a world where you can just play freely. But what about the darkness without Totoro?
The fear of the darkness where the light of the lamp doesn’t reach, when Satsuki, carrying Mei who has fallen asleep on her back, waits for the bus her father is on.
The dread of the loft in Kanta’s main house, when Satsuki is making a phone call about her mother’s possibly worsening condition.
And the helplessness of the dusk that looms as evening falls, a harbinger of the coming night, when they can’t find Mei who has gone missing.
The kind of darkness that frightens young children seems to be absent in “Totoro” at first glance. But if you look carefully, you can see the darkness, which seems to be connected to bottomless places, appears many, many times in the movie.
All of these dark places are, in fact, never far from death.
Even though it seems that the darkness is disappearing from our homes, darkness is still an intrinsic part of our world. “Totoro” is not a film made with the lofty intention of communicating such truths, it is a far more layered work. It’s a fun, thrilling piece that somehow makes you want to cry and laugh, makes you want to talk to someone about all sorts of things, and afterwards makes you want to be alone.
But if it were merely a ‘fun’ film, it would never have been watched over and over by so many people.
When Satsuki and Mei arrive at the Shichikokuyama Hospital on the Catbus, it’s completely dusk. The sun has fully set, and the night, the darkness, has arrived. The movie ends with the suggestion of a happy future. But to me, the darkness in this scene feels the closest to home. “Ah, this is the real darkness of the present world for me,” I think.
From here on, the mother’s illness will probably get better. The family will probably return to being a family of four. Satsuki will grow up, and Mei will likely transform into a mature woman.
But in this ‘present world’, the mother, the father, Satsuki, and Mei will all certainly die someday. After all, death is part of the course of human life.
In the scene, there is the Catbus. But there is no Guardian Totoro. And the darkness there is not the wild, life-filled darkness centered on Satsuki and Mei thus far, but a ‘civilized’ atmosphere of darkness where the father and mother are quietly talking. The darkness in the movie until now was very close to death. It was a vibrant, primal, and barbaric death (despite the linguistic contradiction), a naked death in the company of Totoro, who is nature itself. However, the darkness outside the window where the father and mother are talking at the hospital, to me, feels quite close to the darkness present in our cities today.
If you walk into that darkness, eventually many electric lights will probably start to shine brightly. The light of the electric lamps is unlikely to cast many shadows. Therefore, the shadow of death can only be faint, and the fear that death naturally invokes is probably only slightly present. Yet, inevitably, even that darkness will eventually lead to death.
The horror of primitive darkness and the fleeting nature of the dimness in modern cities, these are always recalled to me through “Totoro”. But here’s the interesting thing, “Totoro” never confronts you with a choice of, “Now, which will you choose?” Rather,
“We are told that we are in a fleeting and fake place now, but is that really true? Can it really be divided in such a way? And, if the wild darkness comes, can you endure it?”
Every time I watch “Totoro”, I feel as if someone is whispering these words in my ear.
Just before I wrote this manuscript, I asked my son. “Do you remember when you said you wanted to be a robot when you were small?”
“I remember”, my son replied.
“And do you still want to be a robot now?”
“Well then, putting aside becoming a robot, what about living forever?”
“No, I’ll pass on that too. But, I really hate the idea of dying.”
We didn’t talk about the darkness or the intensity of death’s shadow. My son left, looking busy, and I stayed in the room, thinking about death and such for a little longer.
Even if I can’t meet Totoro, that’s okay. But I really want to ride the Catbus at least once. The moment I concluded this, the wind blew fiercely.
This spring, strong winds have been blowing unusually frequently. Then, after the wind, the cold snaps back. I’ve heard this kind of wind is called Nirvana’s West Wind. Maybe right now, about ten Catbuses are flying outside my window, riding this Nirvana’s West Wind. Unfortunately, I couldn’t see them.
Kawakami Hiromi. Born in Tokyo in 1958. Graduated from the Department of Biology, Faculty of Science, Ochanomizu University. Won the first Pascal Short Story Newcomer Award in 1994 with “God”. Won the 115th Akutagawa Prize in 1996 with “Stepping on Snakes”. Her works include “The Briefcase”, “Manazuru”, “God”, “Seven Nights Story”, “Smooth, Hot, and Bittersweet”, and many others.