Isao Takahata passed away in April. His obituary at the Guardian reminds us of his seminal role in founding Studio Ghibli:
Takahata returned to feature directing with Chie the Brat (1981) and an adaptation of Kenji Miyazawa’s Gauche the Cellist (1982), while working as a producer on Miyazaki’s breakthrough animated version of his own manga, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984).
The film’s huge success led to the establishment of Studio Ghibli, the name, due to Miyazaki’s love of aviation, taken from an Italian second world war plane, with Takahata producing Miyazaki’s first work for the new enterprise, Castle in the Sky (1986).
Of course, his masterpiece was the partly autobiographical (!!!) Grave of the Fireflies, which was released as a double feature with Totoro, a sentence that still amazes me when I type it out. TOR recently had a must-read historical look at the intertwined history of Totoro and Fireflies, and the Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster effect combining them must have had on audiences. Bonus, it intriduces a great theory that I am instantly adopting as headcanon:
So about that Camphor tree…In Grave, Seita lies to Setsuko about their mother’s death for a while, hoping to give her the news in a gentle way. She finds out anyway, and he tries to soften the blow by lying again, this time telling her that their mother is buried beneath a lovely Camphor tree, and that they’ll visit her after the war. (In reality, their mother’s ashes are in a box that Seita carries with him, and seems to lose, before the film ends.) Guess what kind of tree Totoro lives in? Yeah, it’s a Camphor. And Totoro just happens to be accompanied by a middle-sized Totoro, and a small Totoro. And the small Totoro just happens to be the one that attracts Mei’s attention in the first place.
So I’ve just decided that the Grave of the Fireflies characters were all reincarnated as Totoros. Big Totoro is Mother, the Middle Totoro, always the caretaker, forever collecting acorns for Baby, is clearly Seita, and Baby Totoro is Setsuko—the one who first befriends a little girl who’s the same age she was when she died.
And if I’ve just ruined My Neighbor Totoro for you I’m sorry, but how much better is Grave of the Fireflies now? If you watch the movie believing that they all get to be Totoros in the end, you might just get through it.