“Professor Walsh! Is that… A TOTORO?”
In the six weeks of wearing geeky t-shirts, none of my students had really seemed to find them interesting. Mostly, I was just another adult trying to be like them. Or just being weird. Or, whatever 18-year-olds think of their first semester instructors.
It was a Totoro t-shirt that brought us to a common place. A few students had liked a Whovian shirt here or a Walking Dead shirt there. For the most part, though, they didn’t seem to know the pop culture references.
It wasn’t just your general anime art kid, either, who knew my shirt. It was a whole variety of different types of students. For the first time that semester, I had some students who never spoke getting excited. There was no racial divide. There was no gender divide. Boys, girls, white, black, Latino. Close to half of my students had seen My Neighbor Totoro.
Then there were those that hadn’t seen Totoro but were well versed in some of Miyazaki’s other works. Almost every single one of my students exclaimed, “Professor Walsh! What? You haven’t seen Spirited Away?” I chuckled.
I know it’s a good movie. I mean, I do, I think. Everyone says so. I have to point out though that if I’m watching it with my 6-year-old, I’m really not sure I’m emotionally capable of separating out child sex trade and my kid watching a movie. I have to give my students credit; their righteously indignant cries subsided into wise, knowing nods.
That is the magic of Miyazaki’s work. His work reaches so many different groups in so many different ways through so many different avenues. If someone were to ask me what makes his movies so popular, I could wax poetic about the art. I could insist on his ability to discuss Big Topics like environmentalism in easy to digest ways. Or, I could just admit, his ability to find stories that touch so many different audiences through so many different ways just means his work is universal.
His work breaks down boundaries. My 6-year-old loves Totoro. I watched it for the first time as an adult. My students live in the space between my son and me. These generational differences are meaningless in the presence of pure art.
Despite our different life experiences and places, we all enjoy them. My son loves the kindness and magic in Totoro. He loves the free spirits of the children. He loves the cuddliness of Totoro. He relates to the familial relationships and the feelings of being an outsider. He relates to the human qualities of the movies.
My students live in that awkward space between childhood and adulthood. Not really children, they bring a sense of nostalgia to their love of Miyazaki. They remember the movies as being formative in their childhoods. They come to these memories in a way similar to adults. However, at this age, Their advancing education and what college is teaching them about thinking also means that they start to see the underlying meaning Miyazaki gives his work. Their changing relationship to Miyazaki’s movies reflects their changing relationship with their world and themselves.
I approach Miyazaki’s movies watching through the eyes of my child and watching him fall in love with them. These movies present my adult self with a way to meet my son in a magical fantasy world. I can experience the innocence of childhood through his reaction. However, I also see how I can use these movies to teach him the lessons that the artist is attempting to teach. I can help further discussions about the impact of people on their environment, the importance of respecting nature, the need to be kind to others.
It is rare in my classes, or even in life, to find art that is so approachable. Miyazaki’s works are not “just cartoons.” Lumping his movies in with things like South Park or The Simpsons (both of which I love for what they are but neither of which is truly animation art) dilutes his genius. The artistically academic side of his works would be a post for a whole different day.
I love that Miyazaki’s movies immerse and transport us to these fantastical worlds. In doing so, these magical places bring us together. My students very rarely have strong emotions about things. Combine that with their extremely differing backgrounds, both socially and economically. The ability of so many of them to see these movies as a meeting point becomes even more important. A simple Totoro shirt helped me engage with so many of these generally reluctant students (after all, I teach required general education courses)? That is the definition of beauty through art.
So, I guess, what I really want to do is thank you, Mr. Miyazaki. Your vision and your art bring people together. They help us overcome the divides that we often find in our every day lives. They bring together the young black woman planning to join the military and the white male hockey player. They bridge the gaps that we see in our disparate life experiences. By bridging these gaps, they give so many more people an ability to approach art and see the beauty in a world that is often cold and ugly.
Your movies remind us to dream and to believe in magic. Few people can say they attempted this. Even fewer people have accomplished this.
Happy Birthday, Mr. Miyazaki. I hope you have many more.