In this series, Yu Kawa Shizuka and Ryunosuke Goji discuss the meaning of watching Ghibli works on screen in the age of streaming. Here is the first part.


Yu Kawa Shizuka
Musician. Photographer. Founder of music label cucuruss. Yu Kawa Shizuka’s music explores the possibility of a speech synthesizer, and de/reconstructs the sonic boundaries of text/speech/sound. His recent project is “Armadilllllllidium vulgare”.
Music: bandcamp, soundcloud
Photography: note, tumblr

Ryunosuke Goji
Artist (Oil Painting). Recent exhibitions include: “~” (Solo exhibition, Youkobo Art Space, Tokyo, 2018), “Pangea on the Screen” (Group exhibition, TAV Gallery, Tokyo, 2020).

Murderous Ink

Murderous Ink (MI) : First of all, please tell us what had motivated you to visit all the way to the theaters in Shanghai to see “My Neighbor Totoro”?

Yu Kawa Shizuka (YKS) : I think I came to know that “My Neighbor Totoro (1988)” was going to be in theaters across China around the end of November, 2018, via Twitter. I had been particularly fascinated by “Totoro” for a long time, and Mr. Goji and I together had published a book “My Neighbor Totoro at 40” [1] in 2016. Personally, I have been into researching in the field of animation, Studio Ghibli in particular, so I was pleasantly surprised at the news. Mr. Goji and I had a discussion on “Totoro” in “My Neighbor Totoro at 40”, and in that discussion, I have stated as follows.

Though this is from my personal experience, I have visited a gigantic department store, though rather ordinary one, located in the central Kuala Lumpur in late March in 2016, and there, in one mobile phones shop, I saw smartphone cases and stuffed animals featuring Totoro characters on display. Probably, images of “Totoro” are propagating not only through Asia, but also throughout the world. This activity or movement (transportation/motion), officially or otherwise, is enormous in size but taking place rather locally, and propagating concentrically. Productions and works by Hayao Miyazaki, which are both very private but public in character, are propagating through the world in such a way, and they are extension of something ideological (and revolutionary), so to speak. We need to observe and evaluate such propagation and furthermore, I would expect research will become more active, in the area of ideology and activity at his personal level, and furthermore, interconnected to the studio, and to history of Japanese animation through pre-WWII to post-WWII. … His works will continue to affect us throughout the world, and I have some reservations that we have not achieved sufficient discussions, or experiences. I would like to have discussions, experience, and contemplate together with people who have read our book, and with people, regardless of younger or older generations, who will experience “Totoro” in the future. “My Neighbor Totoro at 40”, CucurUss, 2016

YKS : When I was thinking about the work, “Totoro”, as I have said in the passage above, I was convinced that the appreciation of this work will propagate throughout the world, though the work itself was 30 years old at the time. Of course I assume it relates to the demand for the works by Miyazaki and Ghibli in global scale, but, in particular, I believe the popularity of imagery of “Totoro” is something special. I am convinced that the theatrical release of “Totoro” in China at this particular moment is positioned within this propagation. That’s why I decided to visit the actual location and experience the event by myself.

Ryunosuke Goji (RG) : Whenever I think about the theatrical presentation of “Totoro”, there is one thing I always have to revisit: I was born in the same year as the work’s original theatrical release, 1988. And I had never seen “Totoro” in a theater until I went to see it in Shanghai.

The most important purpose of this visit was ‘to watch “Totoro” in the theater’. There was also an aspect of ‘observing the demand for Ghibli works in Shanghai (China)’, but to tell you the truth, it is something of an afterthought. You might ask, “why do you go to see the work all the way to Shanghai, while you can watch it on DVD, Blu-Ray, or on TV?”, but the most important purpose was to watch it in the theater, so such an question is irrelevant.

MI : I believe “My Neighbor Totoro” is particularly dear to you two. What is the difference between the experience in Shanghai and those of VHS, TV or disk viewing? Is there any special aspect in watching such an intimate work in a foreign country?

YKS : “Totoro” is a very intimate work for me, but more so to Ghibli Studio itself as I said. The corporate logo of Ghibli Studio is actually Totoro itself.

But I must say, the most special and intimate Ghibli works for me are “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)” (though it was production of Topcraft, not Ghibli) and “Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)”, which I saw in the theater when it originally came out. This may be more important than I previously thought, because it related to “watching an animation film on a big screen in a theater or TV screen”.

The first time I saw “Nausicaä” was when I was in elementary school. My school teacher showed it to the class on a small screen of a small TV set. I was so amazed at the big gulf between “Nausicaä” and the TV animation I watched every day. I still distinctly remember I was deeply moved by the way the world of “Nausicaä” is introduced using a series of tapestries, with the matching soundtrack by Joe Hisaishi during its opening sequence. At the time, I didn’t know who the director Miyazaki is, and it was much later when I come to know the animation TV programs I used to watch were also heavily influenced by him and Isao Takahata. Kids don’t search for such information, of course.

On the other hand, I saw “Kiki’s Delivery Service” in the movie theater during the first run. It was the movie theater near the railway station of the big town, two stops from where I lived back then. That movie theater is gone, by the way. The movie theaters in the urban area in 1989, the year “Kiki’s Delivery Service” was released, were different from the Multiplex of today. They had only one screen, and during the first run, the same movie was shown repeatedly all day.

For “Kiki’s Delivery Service”, Toshio Suzuki of Studio Ghibli asked Nippon TV (one of the major national TV networks in Japan) to produce an advertise campaign. It was the first time they did such a campaign, and I remember the movie was quite a talk of the town even before the release. The theater was packed to the roof, literally, and all the seats in the theater were filled, plus more audience standing in aisles and corridors and hallways. I remember I watched the movie sitting on the central corridor steps.

Today, in most of the large movie theaters, tickets are sold on reserve basis, and only for one showing. Back then, it was more relaxed. When the audience saw the movie in such a packed theater, they experienced some sort of comradery, so to speak, and if the movie was good, the excitement infects the whole audience through the theater, amplifying the appreciation of the good art. In such a sense, “Kiki’s Delivery Service” was the most precious experience of entertainment film for me.

During spring, summer and winter vacations, popular feature animation movies, such as “Doraemon”, usually produced by Shin-Ei Douga, came to theaters and we kids just went to watch these movies, just like some sort of a ritual. It is still the same for the kids today. I went to see “Kiki” with the same vibe, so to speak, but I felt there were something special in terms of drawing and sound production (“Doraemon” was also pretty good, mind you). Let’s get into nerdy details for a moment. Miyazaki and Takahata had been involved deeply with the A-production, the precursor of the Shin-Ei Douga of “Doraemon”. Many artists, such as Yohichi Kotabe, the key animator in “Nausicaä”, had involved with the A productions also. I might say, Hayao Miyazaki was a part of the mainstream commercial animation movie industry, which was evolving continuously after the World War II. There were box office issues, of course.

Let’s step back to “Totoro”. I had never seen “Totoro” on a big screen in a theater until I saw it in Shanghai. Actually I don’t recall the first time I saw it, like the two movies I talked about. I think I saw it on “Friday RoadShow”, the popular movie program on Nippon TV network. Perhaps. Maybe I borrowed it from a video rental shop which was pretty popular back then. I wasn’t particularly aware of “Totoro”, compared to “Nausicaä” or “Kiki”.

I did recognize that the Studio Ghibli was the excellent animation studio, but when I was a teenager, I was never motivated to analyze their works. My recollection and impression about “Totoro” was vague at best. Though Totoro itself was loved by people as an iconic character of the Ghibli Studio, I myself perceived the movie from some distance. I think I saw it on TV often, but I wasn’t particularly impressed.

But when I experienced watching “Totoro” on Blu-Ray, that impression has changed drastically. The release of the “Totoro” Blu-Ray was in 2012, so it had been 24 years since the original theatrical release. Watching “Totoro” on 40-inch LCD TV brought phenomenal impression on me for the first time. Especially, the artistic aspect of animation drawing was an eye-opener. I had never experienced such a revelation in the previous viewing.

Then, at last in 2018, I had an opportunity to experience “Totoro” in the theater in Shanghai. I hope I would like to discuss the details about our experiences in this dialogue, but I would like to point out one thing here. I finally experienced “Totoro” for the first time as people in China did for the first time. I think many Chinese audience had never experienced “Totoro” or other Ghibli works in the theatrical format, though they must have had some viewing experience in many other formats. And the experience in theater is totally different from the experience watching “Totoro” with Blu-Ray.

RG : First of all, my viewing experience of “Totoro” started with numerous repetitive viewing of the VHS tape, recorded from TV broadcast. I was watching “Totoro” over and over again without getting tired of it, with this VHS tape, and I guess the visual quality of such a tape must have been substandard at best from our standard today. I think many other kids were like that and I hear even kids are doing the same kind of thing even today. In my case, I did this repetitive viewing of insane degree only for “Totoro”. I don’t know why, but I was watching “Totoro” over and over without getting sick of it.

This experience might be far removed from the opinion the director Hayao Miyazaki has once said; watching an animation film, once is enough. That is, he considers that you should experience a movie only once and that would be sufficient; you shouldn’t watch it or appreciate it repeatedly. If it means “treasured moment of encounter with the work”, yes, I can understand that. But we should be aware that different mode of viewing experience was happening at a place where the director had never thought of.

I think, for children, “repetition” may act as quite an essential tactility of the world or experience. And, inversely, the notion of ‘watching it only once is sufficient’ may be related to the mature (adult) way of justifying the world, in a sense that you come in terms with the ‘present’ in the continuous flow of time. I think you can see this split of “repetition/temporality” in case of “Totoro” also.

You may observe this kind of ‘repetition’ in the narrative of “Totoro”. Mei repeats what Satsuki has just said, phonetically rather than understanding the meaning of the words. For example, Satsuki says “Boro (meaning ‘shack’)” to describe the house they are moving into. This is followed by Mei repeating the same word “Boro” again. If you allow me to be a bit bold here, I would say, such a repetition may elicit pleasure in the child, involving to grasp the world around in that moment.

To an adult, you may say ‘repetition’ is an act of consuming the freshness of the world in each instance. But repetitive viewing of “Totoro” during childhood might have rendered excess of the freshness, which can not be consumed, even if you memorized all the lines.

And, if I may say so, Studio Ghibli’s works including “Totoro” may be driven by such an excess of freshness to exert an impact on the world in the future. It is not my intention to praise the works in an off-handed manner, but I think the excess is the impression of Ghibli works, the impression you really can’t analyze, that is, you can’t articulate, like entangled threads.

However, when I saw “Totoro” again when I was at University, my impression about this work drastically changed. As I stated before in “Totoro at 40”, which Yukawa, Kasuri and I have published, this work is not a “family-oriented feel-good fantasy” as a lot of people like to think. It is a work on the edge of the director’s intellectual activity, to challenge the limit.

I was amazed about the extent Miyazaki had experimented epistemically to bring the event of intimate encounter and parting between children and monsters into reality in the movie. Then, when I started working on “Totoro at 40”, I began another mode of “repetitive viewing” again, but from the different viewpoint of the childhood experience. That is, to disentangle the “entangled threads”.

That said, how many times you watch this work in Japan today, you would be watching it on VHS, TV broadcast, DVD or Blu-Ray. When you watch a film, which was meant to be appreciated in a theater, in such modes of viewing, it may be unavoidable to end up with ‘misinterpretation’ in a very fundamental way. And viewing and repetitive viewing in such modes of distribution are likely to accelerate or reinforce the “misinterpretation’.

For better or worse, this ‘misinterpretation’ may include something of ‘possibility’. Of course, sometimes you may discover or generate something the creator would have never thought of. These would influence the works to be made in the future.

However, I think, to a certain degree, it would be dangerous if you talk about the film solely on the basis of those “misinterpretation”. In fact, when I watched “Totoro” in the theater this time, the sound and visual I experienced made me realize the previous viewing experience was something washed out, and reduced in information.

Totoro’s Forest in Tokorozawa. Photography by Yu Kawa Shizuka.

MI : Which specific scenes in “Totoro” impressed you in the theater, compared to the previous visual experience of the film?

YKS : Compared to the viewing experience with Blu-Ray etc., the experience in the theater is characteristic in screen size, sound design, sound volume, and sound pressure. Miyazaki must have considered the expanse of the screen in the theaters, when he was designing the feature animation film. From this point of view, one of the most impressive scenes in the film was that with Catbus.

In “Totoro”, Totoro itself is of course, but also Catbus is beyond our normal sense of size. In the narrative, Chibi and Chu Totoros appear first, and then we meet Big Totoro sleeping in the hollow of a large tree. In terms of art of direction, it is a superb way to introduce the characters – we meet first Totoros of a size similar to human, Mei and Satsuki, then we meet a larger one to the largest.

There is a scene of Satsuki and Mei meeting Big Totoro at bus stop in the rain. This is a pivotal scene in the film and they used this scene for the poster design during the original theatrical release. I think the scene is so well composed and if you go into the details, you really can’t stop describing it. But if you focus on the aspect of the physical feel of the scene, you realize Miyazaki put the Big Totoro next to Satsuki carrying Mei on the back so that the viewers can feel the size difference between them.

Satsuki gives her father’s black umbrella to Totoro: the size of the umbrella is ridiculously small in the hands of Big Totoro, then you feel a sort of out-of-place strangeness. Then, Big Totoro’s jump and subsequent landing make a huge tremor and sound, and his loud roar, all contribute to our perception of this creature’s enormous size.

Then, we see the Catbus running toward the bus stop from the depth of the darkness, shooting the beams of light. Simply put, it may be the metaphor of the light projected on the screen. Light are beaming all over the place, and this renders the wild action of the Catbus. When I was watching the movie in the theater, I was deeply impressed by sound of breaks when it arrived, the way this huge body swiftly moved and so on.

You see, the Catbus is more gigantic, because the Big Totoro can take a seat in it. I did not experience this proportion of the Catbus when I was watching the movie on 40 inch LCD TV at home .

In “Totoro”, Totoro is big, the Catbus is big, compared to size of the human being. The movie presents this mandane fact on the screen in a matter-of-fact manner. The contrast in size between the Totoro and the Catbus vs. Satsuki and Mei leads to the contrast between Satsuki and Mei vs. the camphor tree, which is literally the big stage where the narrative unfolds.

This obsession to the size is a characteristic aspect of Miyazaki’s works, I might say. For example, the Giant Warrior in “Nausicaä”, the Laputa robot in “Castle in the Sky (1986)”, the airship in “Kiki’s Delivery Service”, the moving castle in “Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)”, the planes in “Wind Rises (2013)” .. you can see the consistent trend in his filmography. It is a famous story that Hideaki Anno, the director of the “Evangelion” series (original TV series in 1995) was a key animator in the Giant Warrior scene in “Nausicaä”, and this must have some influence on designs in Eva.

When the story of the Giant Warrior was made into a special effects movie (“Tokusatsu Eiga” [2*]), it was written by Hideaki Anno, and directed by Shinji Hideguchi. In that sense, Totoro and Evangelion have things in common.

This is my hypothesis, but, in the Japanese anime scene during ’80s, these Tokusatsu Eiga, which had become quite popular after the war, and “Totoro” might have been considered in the same league, more so than today. Consumption of these genres two might have more in common than considered today.

We can continue to discuss this endlessly, so I would like to stop here, but I was so impressed by the enormous size of Totoro and Catbus on the theater screen, which suggested “Totoro”‘s ‘Tokusatsu’-like approach to concept of size.

And I believe that this concept of size is also explored fully in the new short film “Boro, the Caterpillar (2018)”. which is only shown in Ghibli Museum. I would like to talk about this later.

RG : As Mr. Yu Kawa says, the screen size, sound design, sound volume, and sound pressure in the theater are “big”, I was also impressed by very dynamic spatial expression in Mei and Satsuki clinging to Totoro’s body, flying through the night sky, or direction in the scene when the Catbus appears for the first time. These expressions are designed with the screen size of the theater in mind, and I think it is difficult to replicate this experience with a TV set of a moderate size or tablet screen, of course.

What I noticed and impressed me in the theater was the elaborate design of “sound”. I am not a professional in sound engineering or anything, so I feel frustrated when I try to make it in into words. Anyway, the scene where I noticed this elaborate approach in particular was when the ‘susuwatari’ migrate into the woods. This is during the night, after the Kusakabes moving into this house, when the whole family was enjoying the hot bath. The background music to the scene sounds a bit like generic elevator music, and I had paid little attention until I saw this in the theater. But when I actually saw this scene in the theater, I was amazed how far they had gone to create such an elaborate soundscape. In the scene, the Susuwataris are moving away into the forest afar, in the sound(scape) of a polyphonic nature, so to speak. The creators never compromised, and tried to express the “far-ness” in the scene.

In this scene of migration, the ‘spirits’ were delegated to background, and as a consequence, the life of humans is pushed into foreground. In the bath, the family was making noises as if to cover up the uneasiness of the night. These are humans who intruded this “Haunted House”, did cleaning, brought in household goods, and are now taking a hot bath. These acts of ritual purification were repeated and the creatures were pushed away from this house, making the house habitable to humans. In the next scene, the washing under the refreshing sun completed the cycle of ritual purification.

I believe making such a scene, – the spirits going ‘away’ – considerably realistic would be difficult, however simple it may be. For example, if the creators put more focus on “human” in this film, they may just get away with showing this ‘far-ness’ by making it ambiguous. They could make this migration scene work if they use some fitting sound to the background, say, like a simple elevator music.

However, because the film has its theme on both ‘human’ and ‘spirits’ – or more precisely, on the distance between the two, the process of spirits’ going away needs to be lucid. It is well known that the sound/voice of the Susuwatari was created using sampling of the Pigmy voices. The creators searched for a sound which exists just for the sake of the atmosphere of the scene. I realized the fruit of their complex and ambitious effort for the first time when I experienced it in the sonic environment of the theater.

The sonic environment of the theater may help to express the ‘far-ness’ elaborately. I don’t know how much sound processing during digital remastering affected the sonic lucidity. But it was one of my discoveries that the theatrical presentation can help express “far-ness” or “depth” as well as “near-ness” or “power”.

In this scene, I felt the vastness of the space in the theater itself overlapping “depth” of the expression. I believe such possibility of senses, or expressions is somewhat different from “being there” experience, overstated and oversold quite often in commercial visual enterprises.

Real-life ‘reproduction’ of Satsuki and Mei’s house (in Morikoro Park, Aichi). Photography by Yu Kawa Shizuka

MI : Hayao Miyazaki once said “We are making films in a 3-meter radius”. Kouji Hoshino, CEO of Studio Ghibli also said “what is happening in Koganei, can happen in anywhere in Tokyo, or in Japan and, maybe anywhere in the world”, and pointed out their method is completely opposite of marketing driven Hollywood method. China is the foremost and crucial market in the Hollywood’s eyes. Did you notice anything, how people react to Ghibli’s approach to their works?

YKS : What Ghibli’s works have in common is that they were not produced from the viewpoint of marketing, such as public tastes or popularity. But it is not synonymous as not providing a good entertainment to the viewers.

In particular, Miyazaki pays meticulous attention to create the work not to bore the viewers. Maybe I’m bit exaggerating, but Miyazaki is an animation author who can create something interesting, something fascinating, common to all the humankind, even if he is making it “in a 3-meter radius”.

In Shanghai, “Totoro” was shown in cineplex, but you also see they were running Hollywood blockbusters like “Bumblebee” in the same cineplex. It is astonishing that this 30-year old animation movie can compete with the newest product from Hollywood, without being dated, and its boxoffice taking was almost $30M. “Totoro” makes you feel like watching over and over, and it has something in it that doesn’t make it dated.

RG : I am not quite sure but, the claim that “we are making films in a 3-meter radius” may be an antithesis to some attitude you find in the films like “Space Battleship Yamato”. Objectively, the ideas born from microcosm of individuals or from macroscopic view of the world are no different from each other, and the more abstract the issue is, the more so. Even when you employ “market-driven Hollywood method to make a hit in global scale”, you sure are paying attention to the details of the world around you. From the comments made by Suzuki, the producer of Studio Ghibli , you can feel the desire to observe this age in the greater scale based on very intimate relationship.

I don’t know, as a personal feeling, how the Ghibli work was appreciated in Shanghai, in the light of this attitude. But as Yu Kawa said earlier, “Totoro” was shown in the same cineplex as the Hollywood blockbusters. At least in Shanghai, I didn’t feel it odd.

(continued to part II)

[1] The book (Japanese) was published privately in 2016. “40” refers to the fact the concept of “Totoro” goes back to 1975. There were two sketches by Miyazaki, dated 1975, which have transformed into the most pivotal scene in the movie. ^

The header image: Photography by Yu Kawa Shizuka.
All the images are courtesy of Yu Kawa Shizuka. Unauthorized use of the images in this post is prohibited.