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My Neighbour's Totoro

Down the street from Studio Ghibli

Housekeeping

"Lol remember when you had a blog?"

When I started writing my first blog post this is essentially how I imagined my foray into this medium would end up. This format isn't something I'm especially passionate about, so when I'm not doing the writing that I'm supposed to, it's unsurprising that my blog would be horribly neglected. Which it has after only three posts. It's incredible how quickly one week of procrastination turns into months. I have a hard time believing I've been in Japan for nearly ten months now, and yet when I look back on my first few months here, it's like looking through a foggy window. As though it were years ago.

I want to say that I'll be on the ball about posting new content, but anyone who knows me well understands that I live my life one procrastinated task at a time when it comes to my own personal goals. So all I can say for now is that I'll do my best, or at least somewhere in the 60% range. For me, that's pretty much the best you're going to get.

On Ghibli

I imagine anyone reading this is expecting some sort of silly story or travel tale now. I know I never got to the other 2/3rds of my Golden Week trip with Aronne or my summer holiday. I'm planning my Christmas holiday now, so I'll probably be in the mood to write about them soon.

Instead, I want to talk about Studio Ghibli. For some this is going to draw a huge blank, and to be honest, I didn't really know much about their films until I moved to the very city where they're based. For others, Studio Ghibli will prompt flashbacks of a big fuzzy grey creature named Totoro, or a strange fantasy bathhouse, a flying castle, or any of the dozen other imaginative tales that became animated films thanks to Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki.

Lucky me, I will be going to the Ghibli museum this Sunday. Tickets don't last long here, and because I live in the city where they're based, I get first dibs.

I know that when most people think of Japan they think of it as an ultramodern place where strange innovations pop up everywhere. Millions of odd flavours, strange robots, love hotels. There are certainly elements of that, particularly in Tokyo, but most of the country is vastly different.

If someone asked me what most of Japan is really like, I would tell them to watch a Studio Ghibli film.

That's not to say that every day I get up and see dozens of people turned into pigs, but the films with Japanese settings feel incredibly authentic. There is an air of thoroughness that you just don't find too often in animated films. Characters sound real. Insects sound real. Footsteps, the scrape of a lock turning in an old door, it all lends to the feel of the films. What you see isn't flashy and it's not stereotypical. No crazy purple anime hair or shiny robots with samurai swords. The colours are pale, almost washed out. Things looks old and worn, but full of charm and character, even if its an ugly concrete apartment building.

The reality of the country is much like this. It's not sensational, or loud, or glamourous.

I live twenty minutes away from one of the busiest train stations in the world, but you wouldn't know it. There are more bicycles than cars on the main road, and most of the streets are too narrow for two cars to pass each other. Men wear suits, and women wear long, billowy skirts that make you feel like you've traveled back to the 50's. Kids run around in uniforms or little yellow caps.

Small bakeries, old bike shops, little pubs.

Everything has a slow, country feel to it. Travel a little further north, west, or south and you'll find rice paddies with old wooden shrine gates nestled into overgrown copses of trees, or produce stands selling seasonal fruit. And mountains. Always mountains.

If you watch My Neighbor Totoro, or Spirited Away, or Whisper of the Heart, what you get isn't what western audiences have come to expect from Japan, but something deeper and ultimately more rich.

One Final Note on Ghibli

Generally, I like kids movies because they're digestible with happy tones, something you can put on while you finally get to that big project you've put off for weeks. That's not why I like Ghibli movies.

They're challenging. They don't hold your hand or shove their values down your throat with the delicate touch of a rhinoceros. This is surprising, because we've come to expect it from western films in general, not just kids movies.

One other thing that Ghibli does extremely well is to write nuanced female characters and protagonists for their films. Social trends that I have seen here in Japan, and the circus that is the US election have made me think a lot about gender equality in my own life. It made me think about all of the irrational, unlikable female characters I used to see on TV or in movies. And it made me realize that as a kid, my understanding of the female gender was influenced by bad writing.

This is why it's so important for film studios like Ghibli and other writers in other industries to keep producing content at such a high standard, even if it is aimed at children. Ghibli films don't need to justify having a female protagonist, or outright discuss gender in the films to be empowering to women. The female characters are interesting and there is no need to discuss that within the film because there is nothing abnormal about interesting women.

Instead of telling women that they are capable, Ghibli films simply suggest that there was never any reason to think otherwise.

I will do my best to do this for the women in my life, and I hope everyone will do likewise.

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