Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
My Neighbor Totoro and Whale Rider


In college, vacations were always preceded by a sleepless rush to get all my final essays written. Late nights fueled by Dunkin' Donuts coffee and the melty, underbaked chocolate chip cookies from the snack bar ended, finally, with a 5 hour drive home, and then I'd collapse. For the first few days of vacation I'd lie in bed with a cold or flu. My mom was working full-time, so she couldn't stay home to take care of me (and besides I was, technically, an adult) but still, she'd visit my bed in the morning and leave me with a glass of ginger ale or a mug of milky Lapsang Souchong (depending on my illness). Sometimes my dad would come home for lunch, and I'd rouse myself for a round or two of double solitaire at the dining room table before heading back to bed with one of my mom's fat mystery novels. After a couple days of this routine, I'd recover from the semester and begin my vacation.

I still have the occasional post-deadline collapse, though now that I'm the mom, it's rare that anyone's leaving sweet tea by my bedside. Instead, I drag around in my bathrobe a while, making feeble attempts to participate in the family, until Tony convinces me to go back to bed and takes the kids out. That's when the phrase "enjoying ill health" springs to mind. Because although I really do hate to be sick, it's the only time I can lie in bed for hours reading, or lie on the couch and watch a whole movie, sometimes even two, back to back.

So when my book deadline led to the inevitable crash last week, Tony took the boys out to the zoo and I hunkered down on the couch with Eli's blanket, a cup of tea, and the remote control to see what Tivo had been watching for me. I went for comfort, first, with My Neighbor Totoro (Hayao Miyazaki, 1988), a film I've seen before, and then followed it up with one I'd missed when it first came out, Whale Rider (Niki Caro, 2002), creating an inadvertent and completely coincidental absent-mother double feature.

In the dreamy, animated Totoro, two young girls move with their father into a big country house while the mother is hospitalized with an unspecified illness. The house is haunted by lively dust bunnies (I wish the ones lurking under my bed were so cute) but the girls are intrigued rather than frightened, chasing them around the house as they flash through the shoji (sliding paper doors) and around the rafters. Mei, the younger, more adventurous of the two, finds more unearthly critters in the garden, and follows a pair of bunny-shaped creatures through the underbrush until she tumbles, Alice-like, down a hole beneath a spreading tree and meets the furry, amiable Totoro. Mei and Satsuki certainly miss their mother and worry that she'll never come home--the fear of her death shadows them throughout the film--but they are shadowed by happier things, too: Totoro's soft bulk, the camphor tree, the plants that sprout from magic seeds one night and reach to the stars. Mei and Satsuki's father is loving and attentive, but absent enough to let the children's imaginations--and bodies--run wild (as Libby Gruner has pointed out in Children's Lit Book Group, it's the kids with absent parents who embark on the best adventures). Their longing for their mother sets Mei and Satsuki off on their biggest journey--but you know that between Totoro, Catbus (another Lewis Carroll homage, a Cheshire-cat like creature that turns into a flying bus), and the rest of the spirit creatures, the girls will be ok.

Whale Rider, an ancient story set in contemporary times, features a slight and serious young New Zealander named Paikea who is searching for the spirit that will look over her community. According to legend, her tribal ancestor rode to the village on the back of a whale, and now the first born son of every generation will lead them. But Pai's mother and twin brother died at her birth, breaking the succession and leaving the community leaderless. Pai's father, an artist, won't assume the chief's role and moves away, leaving his daughter in the care of her grandparents. Her stern grandfather, Koro, refuses to acknowledge her at first, he is so bitter at the loss of his grandson, but although they come to develop a loving relationship, he still won't accept that a girl, despite her interest and facility in the Maori customs, could be the next chief. Instead, he tries to teach the leader's skills to a motley assortment of village boys, leaving Pai to peek in windows, mouthing the chants silently to herself and shadowing their lessons in the fighting stick.

The two films share so many similarities, from their unquestioning belief in a spirit world guiding us on earth, to their hushed tone and richly animated natural world. Both movies tell their stories quietly, preferring long action sequences over a lot of dialogue (the subtitled Totoro is easy for a pre-reader to understand; it's also available in a dubbed version). The landscape of both films is vibrantly alive; Pai's thoughts often drift to scenes of the whales she longs for, cutting almost noiselessly through the shadowy sea, while in Mei and Satsuki's enchanted countryside every breath of wind, every leaf, shivers with life (Miyazaki's artistry upended my preconceptions of flat anime style). Both are those rare films appropriate and enjoyable for young children to watch with their parents.

But of course what really struck me, lying feverish on the couch while my boys carried on around and without me, is just how well these girls do without their mothers. All three have reliable grandparent figures and, to different extents, fathers; all three have neighbors and friends who look after them. And while the girls are necessarily more mature than your average pre-adolescent, they're still little girls, laughing at goofy jokes and delighting in fantasy. Most gratifyingly, the girls engage in no poignant reflection or agonizing over what might have been. Mei and Satsuki long for their mother but insistently expect her return; Pai, slightly older and never having known a mother, moves through her life with graceful self-sufficiency, wanting her grandfather's respect and setting about quietly to earn it. As one given to occasionally indulging morbid visions of my family's life without me (they'd do quite well, I'm sure, though they might never think to raise the blinds or vacuum the floors), it was refreshing to see two films about kids that could have veered off into sentimentality manage to keep the stories solidly in the present lives and thoughts of their child protagonists. These girls all achieve happy endings without their mothers, and although that's a narrative I don't much like to think about, it's one I want my children to see.

Caroline M. Grant served on the editorial board of Literary Mama for over ten years, including five as Editor-in-Chief. She is currently Associate Director of the Sustainable Arts Foundation, which provides grants to writers and artists with children.

She is the co-editor of two anthologies: The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage: True Tales of Food, Family, and How We Learn to Eat (Roost Books, 2013) and Mama, PhD: Women Write about Motherhood and Academic Life (Rutgers University Press, 2008). Her column, Mama at the Movies, ran on Literary Mama for six years; she has published essays in a number of other journals and anthologies.

She lives in San Francisco with her husband and two sons; she writes about food and family on her blog and at Learning to Eat. Visit her website for more information, including clips from her radio and television events.

Caroline is former editor-in-chief for Literary Mama.

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My favorite thing about Totoro is how alive the landscape is--it's so unlike American animation, but typical of Miyazaki. If you liked Totoro you might like Kiki's Delivery Service (also younger-kid friendly) or Spirited Away (perhaps still a little scary for kids under about 7). Howl's Moving Castle, adapted very loosely from the wonderful Diana Wynne Jones novel, is also fun.
I'm so sorry about the crash...but then again, a book deadline is worth it, isn't it? :) I'm glad you got to watch such wonderful movies while you were crashing! I saw Whale Rider in grad school, and loved it.
Lovely Caroline, what an interesting twist on the absent mother theme-- I usually think of it as sexist, but I loved seeing it through your eyes as a wish for your child to be okay, no matter what. My perspective has been officially nudged over :-) xo
I never saw Totoro in quite that light before...the absent mother theme. My daughter absolutely LOVES that movie. She's just nuts about it! Have you seen any of Miyazaki's other movies? Really quite good. Howl's Moving Castle is one we watch pretty regularly. Kiki's Delivery Service also a favorite as well as Spirited Away.
Caroline... A late comment, but I just wanted to tell you that your review of "...Totoro" got me to add it to my Netflix queue. The DVD arrived and on a recent Friday night, the girls and I popped it in. I think I saw about half of the movie, but then, as often happens when I sit still, I fell asleep. I awoke to the girls in the midst of their THIRD viewing of this movie!!! Needless to say, it's one of their new favorite flicks. Thanks!
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