Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Totoro and the culture of fear

The past week or so, I've been enjoying the recent American releases of two of anime master Hayao Miyazaki's earlier films, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and Porco Rosso.

Like all of his work, they're both wonders to watch. Nausicaa, his first film, is a worthy variation on Dune as a kind of biological fable, while Porco Rosso is an amazing piece of work for those (like me) who have a love of well-crafted flying sequences. It also has a line for the ages: "I'd rather be a pig than a fascist."

There is, unfortunately, a cloud over these releases -- one that speaks to the climate of fearfulness that is beginning to pervade our cultural climate. It's not a fear of terrorism or war, but a fear of ourselves.

These two films were originally scheduled to be part of a troika of Miyazaki masterpiece releases this spring. The third -- the one that didn't make it -- is probably the most anticipated of all: My Neighbor Totoro.

If you haven't seen it, you should, whether you have kids or not: It's not just one of the best children's films ever made, it is one of the finest Japanese films of any kind, anime or otherwise. (Kurosawa was a fan of this film, and stole some shots from it for Rhapsody in August.)

You can still get the Fox version of Totoro on DVD, at least while the stock lasts. It's a mediocre pan-and-scan version (with a pretty good vocal cast, actually). Fans have been awaiting a proper wide-screen release with a quality dubbing job (as well as Japanese w/subtitles as an option) for a long time.

But, inexplicably, Disney -- which is releasing all these films under its label and distribution network -- yanked Totoro from the announced releases and substituted for it The Cat Returns, a pleasant enough Studio Ghibli release that can't help being inferior.

Actually, it may not be all that inexplicable. Because, even though Totoro is globally a phenomenon -- it holds the title as the most popular children's film ever made outside of the U.S. -- it has one little problem when it comes to the guardians of our prurience in the good ol' USA.

Early in the film there's a brief scene where the two main characters -- 9-year-old Satsuki and her 5-year-old sister Mei -- take a traditional family bath with their father (a thirtysomething anthropologist named Kusukabe) at the end of their first day in their new home in the country. The wind is howling outside, and the girls are frightened by noises they hear, so their dad breaks up the tension by getting the three of them to laugh out loud boisterously, splashing in the tub as they do so.

Now, in a cultural context, the scene is harmless. But dirty minds see dirty things where they want to see them. And Disney, it's feared, is succumbing to the new torch-bearing moral purists who have been on the March since Janet Jackson bared her boob.

Daniel Thomas (who has reviews of the films as well) remarks on this:
Let's use the Janet Jackson fiasco as a starting point. The infamous Super Bowl Halftime Show incident sparked another one of those moralizing crusades from the Religious Right, who yell and bellow at the sight of a woman's breast as a sign of the Apocalypse. Before anyone could say, "where are the WMD's?," the Bush administration and the FCC have swarmed in and taken over.

Add in some threats, add in some fines, and then start looking for other targets. Howard Stern found himself under fire from the government. Some 30 ABC affiliates refused to broadcast Saving Private Ryan because of its profanity and violence (as opposed to the current war you never see). Recently, James Dobson turned his guns on Spongebob Squarepants, because the cartoon character appeared in a video promoting tolerance, and PBS was attacked by the Education Secretary for a cartoon that depicted two mommies.

The broadcasters are scared. Disney, we remember, owns ABC, which means they've been on the hot seat since the beginning. They're worried, and the last thing they need is another target painted on their backs.

What does this have to do with Totoro? Plenty. The movie is based in 1950's rural Japan, and includes a scene where the family - father and two daughers - are in the bathtub together. This is purely a cultural thing, but it's dynamite in the hands of the culture warriors.

The Michael Jackson trial is about to start, and then we'll hear Dobson, Fallwell, and Robertson, accusing Disney of peddling child pornography. Why, they'll screech, they have a cartoon that shows a grown man in a bathtub with two naked girls! Imagine that scenario playing out.

At this point, all this is still speculation. (I have a call in to the Disney publicists seeking comment, and will report back.) But in the current milieu, the suspicions that Disney got cold feet are well justified. However, they probably have not reckoned with the international backlash if they do hold back Totoro, because they will look incredibly blind and, frankly, stupid.

This is all occurring within a backdrop of Disney generally mishandling the release of all of Miyazaki's films in the United States. As Thomas notes:
We have to understand something important here: Studio Ghibli is a competitor. Ever since Nausicaa, Miyazaki and Takahata have created one masterpiece after another; they've managed to revolutionize animation as an art form, stretching it and growing it. Disney hasn't released anything in my lifetime, except for probably the Destino short, that even comes close. Even the early '90s string of box-office hits, Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King being their best, are stuck in a simple-minded rut of cutesy melodrama, banal sing-alongs, and good-versus-evil cliches.

My 3-year-old daughter loves the Disney films, some better than others. But Totoro is her cherry-on-top favorite. A stuffed Totoro and Catbus are perched on her bed. She thumbs through the manga version I bought her. Of course, it helps that Daddy prefers watching Totoro to any of the Disney dreck, especially the gawdawful Princess crapola laden with messages I don't really want her to be getting. Totoro's relative sanity -- it's nearly devoid of trauma and there are no villains -- is like breathing oxygen after being drowned in treacle.

The idea that there is anything wrong with exposing children to this piece of art is not just profoundly dumb. It's outrageous. And so far, no one has come out and said that.

But they don't have to. The examples have been made. Everyone else is on warning. Including, it seems, gigantic, fuzzy forest kings.

UPDATE: A couple of readers have directed me to the following at the Miyazaki Web site:
The DVD for My Neighbor Totoro was replaced by The Cat Returns, due to technical problems with the DVD transfer. BVHE wanted to make certain to put out the best quality product, so delaying Totoro made the most sense.

There's still no date set for release. This certainly alleviates the concern for now, but if the release keeps getting put back, look for these questions to be raised again.

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