SCARVES AND CELERY – “When I was a Child”: “In the Forest of the Night” and “My Neighbour Totoro”

Ghibli movies are generally good to compare to “In the Forest of the Night”, a favourite story of ours here at DoWntime, because like “In the Forest”, they really push their ecological and environmental themes, and usually structure these themes around coming of age stories. So once again, I’m diving into the back catalogue of Ghibli movies, and comparing the delightful “My Neighbour Totoro” to Frank Cottrell Boyce’s season eight story. Today, let’s look at these stories through their approach to the theme of childhood, with a brief look at the way the environmentalist thread in both stories supports that theme.

What makes “Totoro” stand out is how authentically (to me) it characterizes young children. Protagonists Mei and Satsuki are 4 and 7, in contrast to the preteen year eight class from “In the Forest of the Night” (a markedly different phase of childhood), and they’re never written like clichés: they squabble, but they also have genuine fun together. Their conflicts aren’t clichéd conflicts either: Mei, the younger sibling, is the first to discover Totoro, but we don’t get a stereotypical plotline where Satsuki doesn’t believe Mei when Mei tells her older sister about Totoro, instead asking her Dad if she’ll get to meet Totoro too. There is very little conflict at all here, something that is typical of the movie as a whole: any conflict is light, an undercurrent, mostly lost beneath an idyllic image of childhood innocence.

The authentic, realist portrayal of childhood in “My Neighbour Totoro” is especially intriguing to me because of the contrast to the way the children are portrayed in “In the Forest of the Night”. “In the Forest” is deliberately stylized in the way it writes the children. See the “find x” scene from “In the Forest” for one excellent example of this stylised approach: it’s not a scene your likely to see in a real classroom, with heightened, slightly off-kilter dialogue, but that doesn’t mean the scene isn’t worthwhile. The way our normative ideas about media values Ghibli’s approach because of it’s realism frustrates me slightly, as if “realism” is an inherently superior form of storytelling to non-realism, and as if that’s what makes Ghibli great. Ghibli are great for a number of reasons, even if they are a group of filmmakers who deploy realism well when they need to. For me, they’re great for their ability to capture things that are truthful about life, something I differentiate from realism.

So let’s look at the undeniably stylized, non realist, “find x” scene in more detail, and see if it has anything useful or interesting to say. Taken from a popular internet meme/ famous teacher’s joke, it’s played from Danny’s POV, not the child’s: a rare switch of focus for the episode, which usually plays these moments from the child’s POV (see the various low angle shots from Maebh’s POV used to emphasize the vastness of the TARDIS, and Capaldi’s Doctor towering over her). It emphasises the communication issues between Danny and Ruby – his approach as the adult teacher is in marked contrast to the way she approaches the problem as a child, and Danny’s student – they approach the maths problem from completely different perspectives, his one that understands the nature of an abstract mathematical problem, hers one that understands a direct question about the position of a letter on a page – both are unable to bridge the gap in communication that comes from these two differing perspectives. That is an aspect of life that doesn’t need a “realist” approach to storytelling to be represented in an honest, truthful way.

Anyway, getting back on track, after that slight tangent about my ideas as to how fiction works, and frustrations with the limited way western norms claim it works. “Totoro” has lots of “In the Forest”-esque themes and imagery: stuff like the forest and nature being a place of exploration and discovery, of the kind that is very comparable to adolescence. I’ve talked before about literary representations of the forest showing it as a liminal space outside of civilisation that disrupts traditional boundaries, and we see that here in the way the forest becomes a place for the children to negotiate the hard to define space between childhood and adulthood. Mei discovers Totoro at the heart of the forest, falling underground into his lair in a blatant parallel to “Alice in Wonderland”  (which Miyazaki is clearly deliberately invoking – another example being Catbus, who grins constantly and can disappear seemingly at will – a clear parallel to the Cheshire Cat). This encounter can be read as an analogue for Mei uncovering her subconscious inner world of fantasy and imagination: she stumbles under group into a world that’s bigger and stranger than anything she’s previously known, but is also simpler than the emotional complications of her fears for her sick mother. Setsuki has a similar encounter with Totoro later on: again by chance, she stumbles into his lair while searching for Mei. This is Satsuki’s underground journey into her own subconscious, revealing the differences in her priorities to Mei. Mei finds Totoro’s lair while playing and pursuing an adventure, while Satsuki discovers it in her desperate search for the sister she feels responsible for. Mei’s subconscious seeks out Totoro as an escape from her fears for her mother, while Satsuki’s subconscious seeks out Totoro as a way of taking responsibility, and finding Mei. And it’s important that these encounters come by chance: when Mei tries to show her father and Satsuki the way to Totoro’s lair by recreating her previous route, she is unable to do so, instead following a path through the underbrush that loops straight around and leads back to her garden, a few feet away from her father and sister, who wait for her: when she makes a deliberate attempt to access the space of fantasy and escape that is Totoro’s lair, she fails. Forcing an encounter with the subconscious is not an option that can be taken: we can only encounter the things that live beneath the surface of our mind by chance.

Just as Mei discovers Totoro in the heart of the forest next to their garden, the Coal Hill gifted and talented children discover Here at the heart of their forest. But where “My Neighbour Totoro” looks inwards, Totoro’s lair being an underground representation of the children’s inner world, “In the Forest” looks outwards, with Here being presented as something Angelic, bigger than the children, awe-spiring. When the Doctor assumes that Here was calling out to him for help, Here rejects the notion: “We did not send […] Did not send for you. We don’t know you. We were here before you and will be here after you.” It’s a nice moment of subversion, that develops a common thread in the Moffat era, in which the show carefully deconstructs the Doctor’s messianic status. The Doctor assumes, as is often the case in New Who, that he is at the centre of the universe, that Here knows his reputation and needs his help, only for Here to have no idea who he is, and to have concerns that are beyond even above his own. This grounding of the Doctor’s character simultaneously makes the children’s encounter with Here an encounter with ascended, angelic beings, a meeting with the divine that helps them see something beyond themselves and the world they know. Samson’s reaction of “That was actually quite cool” best captures how this is a transformative encounter for the children: his phrasing is that of a twelve year old boy trying to remain detached to seem mature, but really being sincerely impressed, and honestly acknowledging that. The children encounter something that makes them realise sincere joy and wonder isn’t solely the province of children, and that the things that our culture calls “childish” aren’t inherently bad, a realisation that marks a crucial step towards maturity. Where the children’s transformative encounter at the heart of the forest in “Totoro” sees them meet an external manifestation of their internal worlds, the transformative encounter in “In the Forest” sees the children meet something external to them that changes their internal perspective on the world.

A discussion of the parallels between the forest and childhood identity also leads us to the Doctor and Maebh’s exchange about “Tree Facebook”. The exchange marks a return to the theme of communication discussed earlier in relation to the “find x” scene: the Doctor dismisses the idea that trees could talk to each other, sarcastically suggesting they communicate via “Tree Facebook”, and Maebh responds by pointing out that “You don’t need a phone to communicate, do you? I haven’t phoned home, and I know my mum is worried about me.” It’s an intriguing proposition: communication isn’t just an exchange of language, but is also about knowing someone well enough to know what they’re feeling in a given situation. In this framework, empathy is the key to true communication.

In their own way, both texts are ultimately stories about two sisters: Maebe and Annabel in “In the Forest”, Satsuki and Mei in “My Neighbour Totoro”. This is best demonstrated in the parallels between Mei going missing trying to walk to the hospital and being feared to have drowned, and Abigail’s disappearance, which happens prior to the story, and informs most of Maebe’s characterisation throughout the story. Where “Totoro” focuses on its central sisterly bond by showing us their relationship and dynamic, “In the Forest” foregrounds Annabel’s relationship with Maebh through her absence from the text. Also significant are the age gaps between the siblings: “Totoro” is about a big sister’s fear for her younger sibling, and her feeling of responsibility for someone she feels she should have protected. “In the Forest”, meanwhile, is about the younger sister missing her older sister, the gap that leaves in her life, of safety and security that Abigail gave her, beautifully captured in the sad, quiet way Maebe says “Annabel Arden, please come home”.

There are also other parallels worth making between Annabel’s disappearance in “In the Forest” and “Totoro”, specifically the sickness of Satsuki and Mei’s mother, who like Annabel is present through her absence for most of the story. Both stories focus on the pain of fearing for a loved family member, and both have similar, deliberately anticlimactic resolutions, posing an interesting question: why is Mei and Satsuki’s mother’s sickness anticlimactically turning out to be nothing to worry about not controversial, but Annabel coming home at the end of “In the Forest” hugely criticized by Doctor Who fandom (and one of the few things I criticize the episode for)? It’s largely because “Totoro” is never presented as being about loss, whereas “In the Forest” is. “Totoro” is presented as being about children fearing for their parents for the first time, realising that the adults they care for aren’t invulnerable: in a way, the mother not being that sick is a better fit for this theme than for her having a more serious illness: the knowledge that she can get sick, and is as vulnerable as any person, is knowledge the girls will have to live with throughout their lives, something we all realise about our parents at some point. “In the Forest” presents us with a story of a mother and daughter coming to terms with losing a loved one, but then finds an easy out for that story. As a result, while the structure of both plot threads is broadly the same, the implications of the respective resolutions are markedly different. But the deliberate anticlimax to the family drama in both stories reflects something important about their nature. Both the episode and the film are very conflict averse stories, with no real villain, and arguably no real danger. There are hints of peril in the climax, with the children having to stop the humans burning down the trees that will save the planet, and Mei going missing, but even here there’s a low scale sense of danger. The trees, after all, were never the threat the Doctor initially thought they were, and instead were always going to save the planet: all the children have to do is encourage the people of earth to do nothing, to let nature run its course. Similarly, Satsuki stumbles across Totoro’s lair, and he and Catbus help her find Mei with ease. As a result, both stories very much resist being pigeonholed into the traditional three act structure, something Miyazaki and Boyce have both spoken against writers being held to in interviews. As a result, both stories resist a general sense of rising action, and when a big climax rears its head, they sidestep it with a deliberate anticlimax. They are trying to push past received wisdoms about storytelling, and normative ideas about life in general.

One of the most famous passages of the bible comes from Chapter 13 of St Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians:

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

It is a sentiment we see repeatedly stressed throughout our culture, one that frames growing up and coming of age as a rejection of childhood. I think a large part of my love for “My Neighbour Totoro” and “In the Forest of the Night” comes from the way the two texts reject this vision of maturity, instead encouraging viewers to embrace the joy of discovery and wonder that comes with childhood. Don’t set aside childish things. Embrace all parts of your life, childhood and adulthood, and integrate them into your whole self. That, I think, is an image of mature adulthood I can support.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I1RhMA5NpsM

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