My Neighbour Totoro and Whisper of the Heart

eks3afnmq3xk4wvpcrvkA few weeks back I put up a post about Howl’s Moving Castle – both the book by Diana Wynne Jones and the film by Hayao Miyazaki – using the notion of synchrony as an analytic tool. This post uses the same approach to consider two more films in which Miyazaki had a hand: My Neighbour Totoro and Whisper of the Heart. I shall therefore begin with a reminder of what I take synchrony to mean here, which you can skip if you remember it from the earlier post. If you choose to skip it, please begin at the asterisk!

Adults and children live in different time zones, their internal watches set to different rhythms, their days constructed around alternative timetables. The question of how to communicate across the temporal divide is confronted daily by parents and offspring, teachers and pupils, at school and in the home, and gets intensified in the strange encounter between child and adult that takes place in a work of art made for children. Such works are usually made by adults, whose principal challenge – how to imagine themselves into a frame of mind they inhabited years beforehand – is complicated by the problem of keeping track of the rapidly-shifting cultural reference points among young people. Living in a household with children may help the artist tune in to the latest developments in music, gadgetry and fashion, but it’s likely too to reinforce the unsettling conviction that adults can never really understand what makes youngsters tick. In the struggle to communicate despite this lack of understanding, artists may fall back on imaginative reconstructions of their own childhoods in the vain hope that the radical changes of the intervening decades haven’t rendered them totally redundant, or distorted beyond redemption by overlays of sentiment and cliché. Such reconstructions invariably emphasize the chronological gap even as they seek to bridge it. And they often take as their subject – as the driving motor of their narratives, so to speak – the complex interplay between time zones that constitutes the domestic environment in each successive generation.

One way of thinking about how the generations co-operate in a household is the concept of synchrony, which has been explored by psychologists and sociologists for several decades.[1] The idea that a mother and child can achieve physical synchrony with each other by spending time in close proximity – that the movements and even the heartbeats of mother and child fall into step with one another when they sleep together or engage in activities face to face – is widely accepted by psychologists.[2] So too is the notion that the synchronization of heartbeats, of rhythmic movements and even of emotions can be extended, in time, from the mother-child relationship to the wider community.[3] Researchers have investigated the effects of using rhythmic rituals of various kinds – marching, chanting and dancing, for instance – to achieve better co-operation between members of a group, such as an army unit, church, or children’s organization.[4] There have been sociological studies of the effects on families of spending time together, co-ordinating timetables and calendars to accommodate one another, and how this can improve both partnerships between adults and relationships between cohabiting generations.[5] Fictional explorations of how a family community can bond in spite of their chronological differences may be thought of as an effort to understand metaphorical and even literal synchrony – that is, how the movements of a household’s members may be combined to their mutual advantage.

But such a process of coordination is a highly complex one; largely, perhaps, because the differences between members of any given group may be considered to be as valuable as their capacity to fall into step with one another. How to work together, to fall in step to solve common problems, while valuing and nurturing the effects of the different experiences imparted to adults and children by virtue of the different times at which they happen to have been born – these are questions that fascinate specialists and householders alike. I’d like here to think about two art works that attempt to discover the means of preserving the chronologically-generated differences between cohabitants while enabling them to live in harmony, so to speak – that is, to get the most out of their cohabitation. Taken together with Howl’s Moving Castle – book and film – these films amount to an extraordinarily rich representation of the many time zones that have intersected in British and Japanese domestic space since the calamity of the Second World War.

1449441476-24118fe1309c4fadc185ab7b3b43bb1c*Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro (1988) chooses to explore synchrony by retreating into the world of the artist’s childhood and youth. Set in 1950s Japan, the film recounts the adventures of two young girls and their father forced to relocate to an old house in the country, near a hospital where the children’s mother is being treated for a life-threatening illness.[6] The house turns out to be occupied by kami, spirits that can only be seen by children; yet it’s the father who explains the spirits’ identity, recalling his own encounters with the spirit world in his childhood – like Miyazaki’s avatar addressing the audience – despite the fact that he’s excluded from it now by the demands imposed on his time by his job as an academic.[7] Meanwhile the spirits provide a conduit between the children and the time-zone of the seasons, and of the beings that inhabit it: from the gigantic camphor tree where the titular troll-spirit, Totoro, hides himself in daytime, to the trees the children plant with Totoro at night in the house’s grounds, to the freshly-picked corncob they leave as a gift for their mother at the end of the movie, whose miraculous appearance on the hospital window-sill helps the sick woman understand she’s on the road to recovery. Social time, spirit time and the cyclical time of nature operate side by side throughout the narrative, sometimes at odds, sometimes coming together; and the necessity that drives the plot is to achieve synchrony between these different time zones – to find a way for them to combine productively, for the good of the human community and the ailing body of the girls’ mother.

[Doki] Tonari no Totoro (1920x1038 Hi10P BD FLAC) [9BB2B505].mkv_002835.670_1The encounter between the three principal time zones in the movie is enriched by smaller chronological differences between the characters. The little girl Mei, for instance, experiences the passage of time quite differently from her big sister or her father. Her first encounter with the spirits takes place while her sister is at school and her father working at his desk. Mei plays outside as her father works, and her detachment from the regulated schedule of work and education is indicated by her wish to eat lunch in the middle of the morning. At this point in the movie, only Mei occupies the imaginative and geographical vantage point that enables her to see the pair of tubby spirits which comes trundling through the grass as she is playing, drifting between visibility and invisibility like daydreams. Her lack of a timetable gives her leisure to follow the spirits to their home, just as her lack of prejudice concerning the possible threat they pose enables her to embrace their companionship, to occupy their space as if it were her own. The problem in the rest of the film is for the other people who share Mei’s home – in particular her elder sister Satsuki, who is growing out of the sorts of fantasies that dominate early childhood – to learn how to synchronize themselves with her time zone for a while, unlearning the sense of urgency that has been instilled in them by work and education for long enough to share her vision.

totblu07Satsuki learns to do this as a result of a disruption to her regimented daily schedule. One evening she finds that her father forgot his umbrella when he went to work; it is raining, so she decides to go and meet him with it at the bus stop. She and Mei wait at the stop till dark, growing increasingly uneasy as the shadows lengthen and their father doesn’t arrive. Rain falls, night falls, and Mei falls asleep on Satsuki’s back. The uneven dripping of water replaces the ticking of human clocks, signalling the girls’ entry into an alternative time zone. Abruptly Satsuki notices Totoro standing beside her, sheltering from the rain under the inadequate protection of a leaf. She lends him her umbrella, which he accepts – though less for its intended function than for the pleasure of the sound of the rain drumming on the fabric, as on the skin of a drum. Soon afterwards a bus arrives; but it’s not the petrol-driven machine the girls expect. Instead it’s the celebrated cat-bus which furnishes one of the film’s most famous images: a tabby twelve-legged vehicle whose ribcage opens to admit passengers into its fur-lined interior, and whose journeys display a cat’s contempt for conventional roads and pathways, a preference for telegraph wires over carriageways, for fields and hedges over tarmac.[8] The cat-bus veers away into the night carrying Totoro; and soon an ordinary bus looms out of the darkness, with the father safely on board.

The fusion of cat and bus in this scene seems specifically calculated to conjure up the notion of what I have called synchrony: the fruitful combining of different time-zones – different ways of measuring or experiencing time – in the household or elsewhere, to enable successful dialogue or other forms of social interaction. Cats are domestic pets which notoriously ignore the rigid spatial and temporal structures of the human household. Buses knit the family home to the socially sanctioned destinations of work and school, operating to a structured timetable and unchanging routes; they are inextricably linked with the notion of accurate timekeeping, even when they’re late. Combining cats with buses gives you a form of public transport that ignores timetables, turning up when it’s least expected and cutting across the regulated rural geography to reach, not a place of work or education, but the object of its passengers’ desire. And there’s another fusion here too. Cats make a great show of being solitary, yet inhabit human communities, while buses serve those communities unambiguously. The cat-bus, with its slightly menacing Cheshire-cat smile, is clearly singular – nothing like it has existed or been drawn before; yet it also supplies a collective need, in this case both transporting Totoro to his unknown destination and heralding the restoration of the father to his children, a return to the safe routine of family life, a timetable that has been under threat since the beginning of the film because of the mother’s absence through illness. The individual and the collective, human, animal and spirit, all are embodied in this heterogeneous creature, whose impeccably timed appearances draw them all together in the face of fear.

CatbusIt’s not surprising, then, that the cat-bus should show up again when the little family and its routine come under threat for a second time. On this occasion it’s the girls’ sick mother who fails to come home on a scheduled visit. She catches cold and is told to stay in hospital, an incident that conjures up the spectre of a permanent dissolution of the family unit by death. Fear for her mother makes Satsuki lose her temper with Mei, who then sets out on an unscheduled cross-country journey of her own to take the sick woman what she thinks of as a healing corncob. Mei’s disappearance sparks off a frantic search by the whole of the local community, and sends Satsuki to ask for Totoro’s help at his tree. The troll’s response is to summon the cat-bus, which first takes Satsuki to Mei, then transports both girls to the hospital, where they leave the corncob on their mother’s sill. More even than in the bus-stop incident, this journey binds together all the time-zones of the story: adult and child, human and spirit, urban and rural, much as a cat binds together the human and natural worlds in its comings and goings, or a bus binds place to place within a city, and city to country within a nation. The cat-bus itself is part public transport vehicle, part spirit, part maternal womb, and its successful marriage of these elements anticipates the eventual reunion of parents with children, and of Satsuki’s family with the rural community, both of which are celebrated in the evocative stills that accompany the film’s end credits, where they are watched over by Totoro and his benevolent fellow spirits.

f7da0360969a06d2fe5567d51bef6232Part of the power of My Neighbour Totoro springs from its recognition that the ability to occupy any particular time zone – above all, that of childhood, with its ready recognition of the interaction between seen and unseen, humans and spirits – will necessarily be a temporary one, and that this transitoriness need not be perceived as frightening or repugnant. At the end of the movie Satsuki’s parents still cannot see the spirits, even though they have received material confirmation of their presence in the form of the corncob, which appears where it could not possibly be, inscribed with a message from Mei. It’s clear, too, that Satsuki will soon move on to occupy her parents’ time-zone. Her awkward but friendly relationship with the boy next door predicts her approaching puberty, just as the boy’s grandmother, who seems to remember her childhood vividly, anticipates the girls’ old age. Even the stills of the final credits, which recall snapshots from a family album, remind an adult audience, at least, that they have been watching a historical reconstruction, a cartoon representation of the film-maker’s past, no longer accessible except through photographs, films and drawings. Owing to the pressures of twentieth-century life – above all its mobility, as exemplified in the luggage-laden car that opened the film – moments of synchrony are fleeting, though their impact on those who experience them may be lifelong, as the very existence of My Neighbour Totoro testifies.

Whisper-of-the-Heart-耳をすませば-BD_14A few years after Totoro, Miyazaki explored the concept of synchrony from a new angle in his script for Yoshifumi Kondo’s movie Whisper of the Heart (1995), based on the manga by Aoi Hiiragi. Here the young protagonist Shizuku is a few years older than Satsuki, and where Satsuki needed to achieve synchrony with her neighbours – her sister, the boy next door, the spirit Totoro – Shizuku’s problem is that of finding a neighbourhood at all, in a world where urban sprawl has broken up long-standing communities.

pompoko_porch_970The same theme was developed by Miyazaki’s colleague Isao Takahata in his immensely successful film of the previous year, Pom Poko (1994), which is set in the suburb of Tokyo where Shizuku lives, Tama New Town. In Pom Poko, raccoon dogs or tanuki fight against the incursions of suburban development on their territory; but their resistance is ineffectual, and the tanuki end the film by using their traditional powers of metamorphosis to merge themselves with the city’s population, walking among men and women in human form. For Takahata, then, Tama New Town consists of two time zones superimposed on one another: that of the old land and its cultures, for which the tanuki fought, and that of the new suburbs, where human beings dwell unknowingly side by side with the region’s original inhabitants. This is not synchrony but colonization, even at the poignant moment towards the end of the film when the tanuki use their powers to give the audience a fleeting glimpse of the rural landscape that underlies the urban. Reconciliation between the time zones of people and animals may be possible in the twentieth century, but the movie doesn’t offer a clear indication of how it might be achieved.

In Whisper of the Heart Shizuku’s neighbours, too, turn out to be separated from her by time, much as the tanuki are forever separated from their human neighbours, culturally and emotionally speaking, despite cohabiting with them. Shizuku has to look for these neighbours in the spaces and times that open up in her official timetable. She is abetted in this – for much of the time without her being aware – by her eccentric family, whose tiny apartment, squeezed into a hillside block in the new suburb, resembles a book-crammed annexe of the library where her father works. Shizuku’s parents give her elbowroom to dream and write and read, while around her throughout the summer vacation her schoolmates, such as her best friend Yuko, are sent to the notorious Japanese cram schools to get the grades they need to attend the best high schools. Shizuku, meanwhile, explores her neighbourhood, hurrying up hidden alleyways and over locked gates marked ‘no entry’ in pursuit of stories and ideas. Her wanderings are accompanied by the ceaseless buzzing of the summer cicadas, playing music from a hidden insect world ignored by the city’s residents but full of emotional resonance for lovers of Miyazaki’s earlier movie, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984), whose protagonist communicates with the insects shunned by the rest of her community.

mimi_totoroIn Whisper of the Heart, the first clue to the existence of other neighbours besides the insects – neighbours of the heart, as the English title suggests[9] – occurs when Shizuku discovers, from library stamps, that someone in her school has been borrowing the same books as her, though at different times. The mysterious reader turns out to be a boy called Seiji, who is in another class and therefore separated from her geographically as well as chronologically, occupying a different section of the school building. She finds him with the help of a cat: another of those independent occupants of human space represented by the cat-bus in Totoro. In Whisper, too, the cat is linked with public transport; indeed, it’s in a sense a public cat, ownerless and known by different names to different people, so that it plays a role in a range of different stories throughout the city, connecting disconnected lives, as it were, with its amiable presence. Shizuku first meets the cat on a commuter train, following it at a whim when it alights at her station. It leads her to an old shop full of bric-a-brac from different periods and places, mostly European, though the shop is called the ‘World Emporium’: a cheerful jumble of clocks and statues and furniture assembled at random, which makes it the architectural embodiment of synchrony. Here she runs into two figures who might equally be said to embody synchrony: an old man called Nishi, who she later learns is Seiji’s grandfather; and a small statue of a cat with coat-tails and a walking stick, which Nishi calls the Baron. And it’s in this shop, not surprisingly, that Shizuku learns about the importance of synchrony in the late twentieth century.

whisper-of-the-heart-baron-2The story behind the cat figurine is the story of the arbitrary fracturing of relationships by history in the century’s turbulent middle years. There was once a female counterpart for the Baron, a statue known as Louisa; and Shizuku learns that the woman Nishi loved, also called Louisa, bought the Louisa statue in Vienna at the same time as he bought the Baron. The lovers were then separated by the outbreak of the Second World War – an event as calamitous for Louisa’s people, the Europeans, as for Nishi’s, the Japanese. The lovers Nishi and Louisa swore to reunite the statues – and each other – after the war; but the opportunity never arose, and the couple never met again. From then on the statue has stood for a moment of serendipity that brought two people of different cultures together, a moment that may never be repeated.

Screen Shot 2013-11-07 at 11.05.52 AMAnother object in the shop that catches Shizuku’s eye is a clock Nishi has been working on, with the figure of an armoured prince on it gazing soulfully up at a window. The person he longs to see at the window is his lover, a fairy princess; but the clock is so constructed that the lovers only glimpse each other twice a day, when the clock strikes twelve. In fact, when Shizuku sees the clock they haven’t seen each other for several years. The clock’s mechanism was broken, and Nishi has mended it so that the two figures can again become a symbol for the complex workings of life and love, showing that lovers, like neighbours in a modern suburb, only coincide at certain moments, when the pressures of work and history permit (the prince in the clock is a working man, the prince of the miner-dwarves who inhabit its belly). Nishi’s labour on the clock confirms something else: that such intersections can themselves be achieved through hard work, and that waiting for synchrony to occur without labouring to fulfil one’s desires may well be futile.

whisper-of-the-heart-shizuku-and-seijiAs the film goes on, Shizuku and Seiji – the girl and boy who read the same books from the library – are transformed into the working prince and princess, as it were, of Tama New Town, victims of the common twentieth-century condition of being out of sync, despite their mutual attraction. Seiji’s ambition is to work as a violin maker, for which he must serve a long apprenticeship in far-away Italy. Shizuku’s dream is to work as a writer. The young pair’s aspirations are incompatible both with the budding relationship between them and with the rigorous demands of the Japanese school system. Seiji cannot become an apprentice if he stays at school; Shizuku cannot write her stories if she works hard enough to get good grades. The solution, it would seem, is for them to pursue their careers simultaneously, apart from school and apart from each other, labouring to achieve their artistic dreams in different locations. When they meet in Nishi’s shop, Seiji is about to leave for a three-month trial period of violin-making in Italy, which if successful will be followed by a much longer apprenticeship. On hearing his plans, Shizuku is inspired to write her first novel while he is away, regardless of her studies and grades, aiming to complete the novel by the day of Seiji’s return. By this means the period of Seiji’s absence is transformed into a clockwork mechanism, a fragile chronometric device that counts out the hours till the moment when the young people can get together to compare their experiences. Separated in time and space, the boy and girl will be united imaginatively through their work – in Shizuku’s case, strenuous and exhausting – and through their consciousness of the approaching moment when the cogs of the world’s inner workings will reunite them.

whisperThis moment, when it comes, is marked both by further hard work and careful timing. Shizuku wakes before dawn one morning to find Seiji waiting below her bedroom window – the most perfect example of synchrony in the film. He invites her to mount his bike behind him, then cycles up a hill to a nearby viewpoint, from which their neighbourhood can be seen spread out below. The pair arrive at the moment just as dawn is breaking, transforming Tama New Town into a magic world a little like the surreal landscape Shizuku created in her novel. Here, then, perfect timing brings beauty, just as it did in the earlier sequence when Shizuku sang a song to Seiji’s accompaniment, and they were joined unexpectedly by Nishi and two elderly friends, who provided additional accompaniment on the antique instruments they happened to have with them. The transformation of Tama New Town by dawn recalls the transformation of John Denver’s song, ‘Country Roads Take Me Home’, both by Shizuku and Seiji’s performance and by the two sets of new lyrics Shizuku gives it. One of these lyrics, ‘Concrete Roads’, describes the transformation of countryside into suburb, as recorded in Pom Poko. Country roads get overlaid by tarmac, but with the ghost of the countryside peering through it, so to speak, much as the new words for John Denver’s song both obscure and recall the original.

In this way, both the song and the journey to the viewpoint testify to the possibility of finding time and space to discover creativity in the pressurized context of suburban Japan – or of the world, given the presence of Italy, Austria, and the World Emporium in the equation. The possibility of being creative depends on a synchronic co-operation between generations, as exemplified in the instrumental support given by Nishi and his friends to Shizuku’s singing, and by Nishi’s and her parents’ moral support for Shizuku while she is working on her novel. The synchrony between generations also brings together the stories of the Baron and the figurine Louisa – who become characters in Shizuku’s novel – and of Nishi’s love affair with the European girl who was lost to him in the War. At the point when Shizuku finishes her novel, just before Seiji’s return, she takes it to Nishi’s shop for him to read. The old man is dozing in a chair beside the fire, dreaming of Louisa; and as he wakes, Louisa’s face merges with Shizuku’s. In the process, his support for the girl’s artistic efforts effectively completes the unfinished narrative of Nishi and his first love, bringing past and present together in a satisfying resolution, like the precisely-timed resolution of harmonies in a piece of music. And the transformation of Tama New Town at the viewpoint – its fusion with the fantastic landscape Shizuku invented for her novel, a novel she could only write with the support of Nishi, Seiji, and her parents – extends the possibility of creativity throughout the community she’s part of. The notion of synchrony between generations, and between the imagined and the real, has never been more richly imagined on the screen than in this brief closing sequence.


[1] One psychologist’s definition of the term is as ‘The carefully coordinated interaction between the parent and the child or adolescent in which, often unknowingly, they are attuned to each other’s behavior’, John W. Santrock, Adolescence, twelfth edition (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2009), Key Terms: Synchrony. Some psychologists prefer the term ‘alignment’ to synchrony, since it implies the establishment of links between interlocutors in several domains simultaneously: timing in dialogue (e.g., speech rate), word choice, planning, memory, even posture. See e.g. Simon Garrod and Martin J. Pickering, ‘Joint Action, Interactive Alignment, and Dialog’, Topics in Cognitive Science 1 (2009), pp. 292-304. I am grateful to Dr Kerry W. Kilborn, School of Psychology, University of Glasgow, for a discussion of this topic.

[2] See e.g. Ruth Feldman, ‘Parent-Infant Synchrony and the Construction of Shared Timing; Physiological precursors, Developmental Outcomes, and Risk Conditions’, The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, vol. 48 nos. 3-4 (March/April 2007), pp. 329-354.

[3] See e.g. Daniel B. Klein and Michael J. Clark, ‘The Music of Social Intercourse: Synchrony in Adam Smith’, The Independent Review, vol. 15 no. 3 (Winter 2011), pp. 413–420, where the notion of ‘sympathy as coordinated sentiment’ is applied, among other things, to a complex commercial society.

[4] See e.g. Scott S. Wildermuth and Chip Heath, ‘Synchrony and Co-operation’, Psychological Science, vol. 20, no. 1 (January 2009), pp. 1-5. In an economic context

[5] See e.g. Michelle Thomas and Nicholas Bailey, ‘Out of Time: Work, Temporal Synchrony and Families’, Sociology, vol. 43 (2009), p. 613ff.

[6] For Totoro as a representation of Miyazaki’s childhood, see Colin Odell and Michelle le Blanc, Studio Ghibli: The Films of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata (Harpenden: Kamera Books, 2009), p. 79; and more expansively, Phillip E. Wegner, ‘“An Unfinished Project that was Also a Missed Opportunity”: Utopia and Alternate History in Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro, ImageText, Vol. 5, no. 4, http//, consulted 24.9.12.

[7] For an explanation of the complex term ‘kami’, see Michael Ashkenazi, Handbook of Japanese Mythology (Oxford etc.: Oxford University Press, 2003), pp. 29-36. Miyazaki’s term for Totoro and the soot-spirits is translated as ‘goblins’ in Beth Cary and Frederik L. Schodt’s translation of Hayao Miyazaki, Starting Point 1979-1996 (San Francisco: Viz, 2009), pp. 255-6.

[8] Miyazaki calls it a ‘mountain-lion bus’, which makes it less domestic than ‘cat-bus’, but the vehicle’s resemblance to a tabby is unmistakable. See Starting Point, p. 257.

[9] The Japanese title is If You Listen Closely. This is also the title of Aoi Hiiragi’s manga, on which the film is based (Mimi wo Sumaseba, Shuueisha, Ribon Mascot Comics, 1992).

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