Studio Ghibli on Netflix: An animated legacy

The scene used in My Neighbour Totoro’s original Japanese theatrical release poster.
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Netflix Australia offers its viewers many escapes from the trials of 2020 – and this library of Japanese animation is one of the best, writes Adam Virgona.

In this strangest of years, travel’s been just a dream for most of us. Because of COVID-19, we can’t leave the country – or even the state! – but now, thankfully, Netflix is offering us an alternative and we can journey into the beautifully hand-drawn animated films of Japan’s Studio Ghibli. Twenty-one of them, to be exact. 

Studio Ghibli has been crafting incredible animated films since 1985. For many years it was relatively difficult to find their films outside of Japan, although in Australia the DVD distributor Madman and national broadcaster SBS provided access for local audiences.

But in 2020, the Ghibli’s international presence has grown expansively. Netflix Australia has picked up the streaming rights to almost their entire library of films, putting access to the diverse world of animation at our fingertips.

The films will reportedly be subtitled in 28 languages and dubbed in up to 20, opening up the film to new audiences – including those who are new to Ghibli and to anime. Younger audiences can start to embrace international content, to a world where cultural barriers are being broken, and access to these different cultures’ creations is opening.

My first exposure to Studio Ghibli came in 2013, when I was in Year 7 and took Japanese as an elective. Their films were my real introduction to the world of Japanese animation. Though I had seen an occasional episode of Pokémon or One Piece on Cartoon Network, they never really grabbed my attention. This all changed the first time I saw Studio Ghibli’s universally acclaimed 1988 film, My Neighbour Totoro.

Studio Ghibli’s logo, with Totoro as the company’s mascot.

We were shown the 2006 Disney version in class, which had been dubbed into English with an all-new cast. Twelve-year-old me had never seen a film quite like My Neighbour Totoro. I loved it so much that after coming home, I told my parents and younger sister all about it and a few nights later, we all watched it together.

Even now in 2020, I still enjoy the film as a 19-year-old. Despite its young protagonists and a family-friendly story, the film can be treasured by both children and adults, much like many of Disney’s, Pixar’s or DreamWorks’ libraries of animated films. 

My Neighbour Totoro is set in 1958 Japan and follows the lives of sisters Satsuki and Mei Kusakabe, as their family moves into an old house. Living with their father Tatsuo, they have moved so that they can be closer to the hospital where their ill mother, Yasuko, is being treated.

Satsuki is the older sister and she is afraid of losing her mother, so she tries to keep her mind on adapting to her new environment, which includes school, new friends and the forest around their house. Her younger sister, Mei, who is also fascinated by the forest, encounters a friendly group of spirits living there, and grows close to a large one named Totoro. 

From the opening credits, a cheery song invites us to journey into this animated world. The lyrics “hey let’s go, hey let’s go, I’m happy as can be” are incredibly catchy and along with the bouncy melody, this song perfectly sets us up for the adventure that protagonists Satsuki and Mei go on. The music is wonderfully whimsical and serves as a great backdrop to the fun visuals of unusual forest beings we meet. 

Once the credits are over though, we can see just how beautiful the film looks. Studio Ghibli is known for its use of traditional hand-drawn 2D cel animation, which is still often used today in Japan, particularly in anime. In this sense, My Neighbour Totoro pays tribute to Japan’s traditional style of animation, which is a defining part of their national cinema and television. The rich and vibrant colours are outstanding, featuring the stunning rural landscapes of Japan and encapsulating the country’s natural beauty. 

Protagonists Mei and Satsuki having fun with their new friend Totoro.

The titular Totoro also highlights another defining aspect of Japan’s cultural identity, which is its religion and traditional folklore. The Shinto religion originated in Japan and is seen as a “nature religion”, meaning its followers have a spiritual connection to the natural environment, believing it to be home to spirits. These Shinto spirits are known as Kami and they are said to remain hidden from our world, living in another plane of existence that shares connection to ours. 

Totoro and his forest friends share similarities with these Kami as they too are connected to the environment, having the ability to help trees and plants grow. They too remain hidden from the world, despite Mei managing to find Totoro’s resting place, which is within a large tree that has a Shinto shrine at its base.

An alternative origin for Totoro and the other forest creatures can be found in Japanese folklore, where there are stories of two different tree spirits, Kodama and Kijimuna. Though forest spirit folklore can be around the world and is not unique to Japan, My Neighbour Totoro embraces its cultural roots in a fascinating way. 

About a third of the way into the film, we follow Mei as she chases a little forest creature, and then we are finally introduced to the enormous but friendly Totoro. Totoro shares characteristics with lots of different kinds of animals such as cats, owls, as well as tanukis, which are a unique species of Japanese racoon. Along with his family of unnamed but similar looking totoro-type creatures, there is also the strange but always memorable Catbus. As its name might give away, it is a large cat, as big as a bus, with 12 legs. It even serves as a real bus for Totoro, as well as Mei and Satsuki. Mei and Satsuki’s relationships with these forest spirits/creatures are the heart of the film. 

Ultimately, My Neighbour Totoro serves as an exciting gateway into the delightful work of Studio Ghibli. It has a unique and intriguing story that can appeal to both children and adults, set against outstanding hand-drawn environments, and doesn’t shy away from showcasing the culture and traditions of Japan.

I know that after seeing the film, the uplifting ending leaves me with the joy of thinking that in some way, we can all have our own personal Totoro watching over us.