Thursday, September 24, 2009

The most Positive Representation of Fatherhood in the Movies

First there was Atticus Finch (okay, he was first from a book) who showed the strength and difficulty of a single father. Now there's Tatsuo Kusakabe.

Well who the hell is that?

Tatsuo Kusakabe is the name of the father in the animated Japanese movie "My Neighbor Totoro," written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki in 1988. It reached these shores shortly thereafter in VHS format, and most recently (with a new dub and voice cast) DVD through Studio Ghibli's partnership with Disney in 2006. It reached my house sometime in 2008 via Netflix and it has remained there, not being sent back ever since.

"My Neighbor Totoro" shows us a Japanese family in the late 50s struggling with many difficulties. The mother is stuck in a hospital room, her health going back and forth (with, presumably, tuberculosis), while the father and their two daughters move to a new house in the country that will be much better for the mother's health, should she get to come home.

The girls are excited about their new surroundings and always talk about what their mother and how she will like the new house so much. They are adventurous and imaginative and encounter some strange things going on in the new house.

It is how the father embraces the imagination of the daughters that I find so positive. For a long time now, the Ward Cleaver dad has been gone from popular media and we've seen more of a Al Bundy/Homer Simpson father figure. While this isn't all negative (at least these families have fathers who didn't run out on them, despite the many problems with their respective families), I don't think that we've ever seen a father as strong and supportive as Tatsuo Kusakabe. When the daughters tell him about the strange happenings in the house, where Ward Cleaver would dash their silly superstitions and Homer Simpson would run away, he says, "Great! I've always wanted to live in a haunted house!" he doesn't even bat an eye, he goes with it, enthusiastically and positively.

Tatsuo struggles to keep his daughters positive despite their distance from the ailing mother and his busy university job. He takes the bus to work and the kids walk to school with a kind neighbor, Granny. Somewhere in the mix, the youngest daughter, Mei, stumbles into a forest and finds a gigantic furry rabbit-looking thing called a Totoro. When she excitedly returns to tell the family about it, her father believes her instantly. He's excited that she has met a "forest spirit" and says that if he or the older daughter cannot see him, it's because he doesn't want to be seen, not that he doesn't exist.

There's no overarching plot to the movie. It's a character-based story, and while that might seem like it would be boring for kids, it's anything but. My daughters (one of whom looks an awful lot like Mei and the other like her sister Sastsuki) can watch it over and over without every wanting anything else. And the thing is, I can, too.

While the story touches on hardships and transitions in life, there's never any of that tension that makes a story too plot heavy. Everything is treated matter-of-factly, leaving the audience to understand that this is their life and that while our problems and circumstances may differ, they're a lot like us.

I'm a big fan of Pixar films, but they almost always follow a male protagonist. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But Miyazaki films almost always follow a strong female protagonist. I like this because I think it shows a positive picture of girlhood to my daughters--one not filled with princesses and ponies, of but climbing, exploring, and curiosity. If you've never seen a Studio Ghibli film, you really are missing out on quite a spectacle. Miyazaki movies are hand-drawn and often call for different media for their animation--water colors, charcoal, black ink, and colored pencil are all used in his films. There is a sensitivity for the art and soundtrack that rings through kids and adults. And the Disney dubs are cast perfectly and with an almost divine respect for the way the lips move. The actors and actresses speak in a rhythmic, almost snare-drum style to match the original speaking roles.

In all honesty, I recommend this movie not just to parents but to anyone who has a respect for film making. While Miyazaki certainly has more exciting flicks out there, "My Neighbor Totoro" is a pleasant, heartfelt story that is really, really hard to beat.


Melia said...

We love Totoro in our house, too. We stumbled across a copy of the pre-Disney dub and I'm not sure we could do the Disney now. We had the opportunity to go to the Ghibli museum while we were in Japan and it's awe inspiring. Like many Japanese attractions, though, there are things for even the youngest kids and 2yo Ryanne was just as taken in as we were. I love the Japanese culture, in general, for the amount of thought they put into making things truly kid friendly. We could learn a thing or two from them.

Rex said...

I stumbled upon Miyazaki through Wikipedia- and I'm proud to say I have every single movie he's made so far - (I prefer the subtitled to the dubbed versions, listening to japanese sounds more natural. Though if you're showing 'em to kids the English version would make more sense).
Just a nitpick- the forest spirits are a regular feature of Shintoism and are called 'kami'. So it's not improbable that their father would believe their stories, even though he doesn't get to see Totoro himself.
In fact, he himself offers a prayer to the great tree when Mei takes him there to look for Totoro.

Rex said...

btw- you must also watch Miyazaki's latest - Ponyo. It is a sweet, kiddish take on 'The Little Mermaid' and I'm sure your daughters will enjoy it!