Recently, my family and I watched two movies deemed by their fans to be classic celebrations of the magic of childhood. The two take place in profoundly different cultures on opposite sides of the globe, but both—in their own ways—involve the magical bursting into the everyday, celebrate innocent wonder, and affirm the importance of family. One of them is, alas, much less well-known in the United States than the other. That one is Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro, and the other is Peter Pan (the Broadway version, starring Cathy Rigby). I had seen both many times before, but on these reviewings, I noticed some remarkable contrasts in their perspectives on childhood and growing up.
Peter Pan is, of course, explicitly preoccupied not only with the wonder of childhood, but with the loss sustained in growing up. (I’ll assume most of my readers know the story or at least the premise.) Peter is determined to live in fun and excitement, and to avoid anything that might be detrimental to those, including work, school, and any kind of “solemn things.” By living in Never Never Land, he can do just that, and he offers the three Darling children the chance to share his near-paradise. There, children never have to deal with any unpleasant realities (except the occasional pirate) and can frolic to their hearts’ content in a world of magic and adventure. The catch, of course, is that the price of this idyllic life is never to have a family. To live in a world of perpetual childhood, apart from adult society, is to live without a mother or father.
In the end, Peter Pan clearly shows that this doesn’t work long-term. Children do need parents, and they do need to grow up. The Darlings and Lost Boys all return to England, with Peter himself remaining the sole exception. However, the story almost seems to regret this, to regard growing up as a necessary evil. In the film’s concluding scene, set decades later, Peter prepares to whisk the now-grown Wendy’s daughter off to Never Land, at which the mother sighs, “If only I could go with you.” Peter replies simply, “You can’t—you see, Wendy, you are just too grown up.” It might sound odd to say that Peter Pan has an elegiac element, but I’m inclined to say it anyway.
What about My Neighbor Totoro? As this story is less familiar, I’d best give some summary. In the Japanese countryside, two young sisters and their father move into a rickety old house, while their mother is hospitalized for an unspecified ailment. The girls, about-ten-year-old Satsuki and four-year-old Mei Kusakabe (KOO-sa-KAH-be), soon discover various magical creatures in their new neighborhood, including tiny soot sprites, a cat that is also a bus, and the forest spirits called Totoros. The film is lightly plotted, not so much trying to tell a conventional story as to give the feel of characters’ lives. In the process, it both delights and rings true, feeling almost like someone’s real childhood memories. At least, it’s done that for me and my family for at least twelve years.
The theme of growing up is less prominent here, but it’s still present. The film indicates that the privilege of seeing the magical creatures is one the adults do not have, and one that the children will presumably lose as they mature. Their elderly neighbor, called simply Granny, says of the soot sprites, “I used to see them when I was your age.” When Mei first reports seeing the Totoros, their father remarks to Satsuki that maybe she too will see them, “if you’re lucky”—but he has no such expectation for himself.
However, the film approaches this not as an evil to be lamented, but simply as part of life. The Kusakabe sisters enjoy a very blessed childhood, but they show no reluctance to proceed to later life in due time. Satsuki especially, as her mother notes, “tries to act so adult.” Furthermore, unlike Peter, these children have no complaints about school or chores. Of course, children do sometimes have grounds to complain of these, if they have bad parents or bad teachers. But absent any of these—and there’s no sign that anyone in Peter Pan is subject to them—isn’t it better to be like Satsuki, who embraces chores and schoolwork with cheerful diligence? One might consider this contrast the result of a sterner Asian ethic, and in a different context it might be; but this theory doesn’t hold up in My Neighbor Totoro. There’s nothing stern or oppressive about the Kusakabe household. The whole family radiates a happy, warm mutual affection.
The difference in the presence of magic is also telling. In Peter Pan, tiny hints of the magical may now and then flash into the ordinary world—e.g. Mrs. Darling’s brief glimpse of Peter and Tinker Bell—but it properly belongs to a world far separated from the plain, everyday world of England (and ordinary life generally). My Neighbor Totoro doesn’t feel the need for such a divorce. Its magical world is present right amidst the scenes of everyday life: in the children’s house and backyard, in the streets and fields, even at a bus stop. Furthermore, magic isn’t confined to the appearances of Totoros or sprites; it’s everywhere, if in different ways. Before any extraordinary creatures have been spotted, the girls are thrilled simply at the beauty of their new neighborhood, the mystery of their “creepy” new house, the majesty of the nearby camphor tree. Stoking a fire, pressing a pump, harvesting vegetables, are no less worthy of careful attention than an attic full of soot sprites.
On the other hand, My Neighbor Totoro agrees with Peter Pan that childhood in the real world isn’t all sunshine. Satsuki and Mei do have to face unpleasant realities, notably their mother’s illness, which challenges the family throughout the film and takes center stage in a third-act emotional crisis. While honestly acknowledging these, the movie gently suggests that these are not things for children to run away from, but for them and their parents to face together with patience and love, encouraging each other to persevere. Some cloud may stretch across the family’s sunny atmosphere, but when they stand fast and support each other, their love becomes more powerful than any tribulation.
As for the sorrow of growing up, My Neighbor Totoro laughs in the face of those who would make out adulthood to be an essentially gloomy, boring time. The most important adult character, the girls’ father, is as full of life and merriment as one could wish. Mr. Kusakabe is not only a warm, affectionate parent, but takes obvious joy in his family. He enthusiastically spends time with his daughters, making even chores fun and not shying away from dadly silliness; he has a happy, cherished relationship with his wife as well, though she understandably has less screen time. He also seems to enjoy his work as a university professor, from the way it absorbs his attention at his desk, though not so much that Satsuki and Mei can’t come and talk to him. Mrs. Kusakabe, too, is a serene and smiling character, despite the hardship of her hospitalization; she “can’t wait” to rejoin her husband and children at home. Her life is hardly drained of color or zest. Then there’s Granny, the old lady in the next house, whose cheerfulness adds so much to her constantly caring presence. She mentions that she used to see soot sprites as a child, but shows no regret that she cannot see them now. She no longer has those joys, but she has others—her children and grandchildren (at least one of each), her friends and neighbors, decades of memories to treasure and share.
By now I can hear the protests of Peter Pan fans, and I should be fair. I understand that that story was never intended to be quite serious in its approach to, well, almost anything, as evidenced—among other things—by the silliness of the grown-up characters. (Just listen to Mr. Darling’s dramatic speech about his tie, or Captain Hook raving about being the greatest villain of all time.) Still, aren’t there too many adults who live quite seriously in the mindset that Peter Pan, probably not seriously, puts forth? Too many who wish they need never have moved on from such and such a time, or who believe that their life now must be devoid of wonder and passion?
This, I think, is why the simple wisdom of My Neighbor Totoro is so valuable, for adults as well as children—perhaps especially for adults. It’s as if the Japanese film takes the English one gently by the shoulder and says, “Here now, what are you fretting about? Come, this isn’t what you think. We must leave beautiful things behind, but look, there are others to follow.”
At least, there may be, if we are open to receive them. We can choose to cling blindly to our past, thereby losing the blessings we might have had as well as those that have gone; but there’s no need to do that. There’s nothing wrong with missing the old joys when the time comes to leave them; perhaps the young-adult Satsuki and Mei will, for a while, miss seeing the Totoros. But if we are willing to let go of what has been and embrace what will be—to move from Satsuki’s stage in life, to her parents’, to Granny’s, whatever those may involve for us—we can be sure that we will find the joys of each phase, waiting for us and more than sufficing to make life beautiful. C. S. Lewis makes this point in Mere Christianity:
“It is simply no good trying to keep any thrill: that is the very worst thing you can do. Let the thrill go—let it die away—go on through that period of death into the quieter interest and happiness that follow—and you will find you are living in a world of new thrills all the time. But if you decide to make thrills your regular diet and try to prolong them artificially, they will all get weaker and weaker, and fewer and fewer, and you will be a bored, disillusioned old man for the rest of your life. It is because so few people understand this that you find many middle-aged men and women maundering about their lost youth, at the very age when new horizons ought to be appearing and new doors opening all round them. It is much better fun to learn to swim than to go on endlessly (and hopelessly) trying to get back the feeling you had when you first went paddling as a small boy.”
Between philosophy, theology, and plain experience, Lewis understood the matter well. As long as we live, we are in a process of becoming; “it does not yet appear what we shall be” (1 John 3:2). If we grow up in decent circumstances, we encounter all sorts of precious joys from the start of our lives, and we should relish them and thank God for them. We also need to remember, though, that a happy life is not to be found in trying to make these blessings last forever, but in receiving whatever good they have given us and striving to make the present and future as beautiful as we can.
For those who faithfully pursue the truest beauty and joy, seeking not them but their Source, there comes at last a happiness that they never need relinquish, a completion of all the becoming, when they have finally become what they were always meant to be—the climax of what Christians call Salvation. Meanwhile, “let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1) and trust that what lies ahead is better than anything we have left behind.