East Meets West #11: My Neighbor Totoro .vs. The Wind In The Willows

This week I continue my next batch of posts for the East Meets West series, dedicated to comparing/contrasting anime and Western media of similar premises, and, based on a specific set of criteria, decide which of the two is, in my fallible opinion, the superior version. This week’s topic consists of two stories with some very interesting observations to them. My Neighbor Totoro, the 1988 film of Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli lore, features a world where humans and animal spirits interact with each other, and focuses on adventures in the idyllic plains of rural Japan. Going up against it is The Wind In The Willows, a 1908 novel by Kenneth Grahame considered by many as a staple of literature from early 20th-century England, featuring anthropomorphic animals and their simple livings. Despite the 80-year gap between the two works (and a 50-year in-story difference in timeline), the two stories’ natural-centric backgrounds rein similar to one another, and thus are a fitting series to go over on a cold November night.

EASTERN COMPETITOR #11: MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO

An early version of Satsuki is near a bus stop on a rainy day holding her umbrella. Standing next to her is Totoro. Text above them reveals the film's title and below them is the film's credits.
“nyehhhh… *nibble nibble* what’s up, doc?” but it’s Japanese

My Neighbor Totoro centers around the story of two girls, the younger Mei and the older Satsuki, who recently moved into a rural Japanese house with their father, a college professor, to be closer with their sickly mother. Taking place during Pope Pius XII’s final summer (July 1958), the story goes from typical to fantastical soon as one day, Mei stumbles upon a creature known as Totoro – a giant, but gentle rabbit-like creature who provides her as a source of comfort, though she is not believed by the others; the next day, Satsuki, while waiting for her father to return home, meets the eponymous character and one of his other pals, the Almighty Cat Bus™, and becomes convinced of Mei’s encounter with them as real. Aside from chronicling the quiet lives of our two characters, we also see them play with Totoro and his friends, doing activities such as growing trees, and flying across the sky in the Almighty Cat Bus™.

If there’s one thing this film is renowned for, that would be for star-dusting Studio Ghibli to international fame, and the beginning of Hayao Miyazaki’s legendary animation directing career, also making Totoro into a frontliner as the franchise’s symbol. It has received acclaim from Japanese and American film critics (such as Roger Ebert), its light-hearted tone was recognized by various film societies and garnered it several awards, and was one of the first anime films to receive an American dub and release; Totoro’s become as familiar to Japanese children as Mickey Mouse is to Western audiences.

WESTERN COMPETITOR #11: THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
“When the cold of Winter comes. Starless night will cover day. In the veiling of the sun. We will walk in bitter rain.

In 1908, a time of great national unrest across Europe (the Balkan and First World Wars on the horizon and one year into Pope St. Pius X’s war against the Modernist heresy), a British banker, Kenneth Grahame decided to retire early from his job, and move with his wife Elspeth and son Alistair to a country estate. For many nights, he would tell his son bedtime stories involving the adventures of a frog, badger, mole and rat which would later serve as the inspiration for what would become The Wind In The Willows. Taking place in an alternate version of post-Victorian England, it features the various shenanigans of two friends, simply named Mole and Rat. Along the way they are joined by Toad, an eccentric, wealthy frog with an obsession for speed racing and his de facto caretaker Badger, a wise old curmudgeon with a good heart. Stories found in The Wind In The Willows include Mole and Rat’s rowboat trip, a road trip with Toad gone wrong, a nightly visit to Badger, Toad’s run-in with the law and his triumphant return to society amongst others. Like My Neighbor Totoro we see the animals interact with humans not just as pen pals of sorts, but as full-fledged members of society.

Published by Methuen and Company, despite the initial criticism by literary writers, public recognition turned out positive, and became one of the early 20th-century highlights of British literature, loved by all ages. A.A Milne, who adapted part of Toad’s story into a BBC play, and U.S President Theodore Roosevelt, who penned two letters to the author praising his works, were some individuals who have enjoyed it; and the story has been adapted into multiple radio, dramatic, comic and film versions, of which the 1995 adaptation I will be using to illustrate this post.

THE SHOWDOWN

Although I will be using stills from the 1995 version of The Wind In The Willows, I will NOT be focusing on the film or its visual, musical, acting or other film-specific aspects to maintain a neutral balance of the two works. My Neighbor Totoro and The Wind In The Willows will be ranked under five categories, which are:

  • Best World-Building
  • Best Characters
  • Best Inter-Species Relationships
  • Best Climax
  • Best Overall Narrative

CATEGORY #1: BEST WORLD-BUILDING

The Wind In The Willows handles its world-building component very well, basing it off the English countryside that Grahame lived in. You have the river bank which serves as home to Rat and Mole; the Wild Wood, a dark, frightening forest which is home to untrustworthy creatures save for the kind Badger; Toad Hall, the luxurious home of its eponymous possessor, and the rest, called by Rat as the Wide World – a place which he has no intention of visiting. In addition to the four main characters, there’s also the townsfolk and a few other creatures – weasels,, ferrets, ermines, rabbits, and otters – which serve as either the antagonist or spaced out side characters. Given this information one can imagine how vast the setting is. Not only that, but through several sections the characters actually explore the worlds in different seasons, and get to know them better, whether it’s for their own good or to their utter misfortune. The book doesn’t do the imagination justice as to how splendid the worlds can be.

My Neighbor Totoro‘s world is also explored slightly – Mei and Satsuki’s home, which is littered with black sprites known as susuwatari, their school and neighboring attractions, Totoro’s nest are given some light shed upon them. The picturesque Ghibli style gives the world a cheerful, colorful feel which carefully expresses the tone of the show perfectly: relaxing, fearless and vast without expectations. While the character list is not as expansive beyond the main cast and their families, with only Totoro, the Almighty Cat Bus™ on the non-human side and Kanta on the human side, the world-building is not as deeply explored compared to the former tale. On one hand, the appearance of figures like the susuwatari or even Totoro are not carefully explained other than they’re the forest spirits, leaving fans to come up with inconspicuous theories as to what their true purpose is.

The Wind In The Willows‘ world was more interesting to be introduced to, with its civilization and hierarchy making for some complex observations that one can admire. Despite the lack of things like a giant cat bus, it makes up for it with a rather diverse set of locations to explore, which makes for a good change in pace for different stories – unlike My Neighbor Totoro where everything is set in one place spread out across different locations like a school, neighborhood, and farmlands, and stunts its further exposure afterwards.

THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS 1, MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO 0

CATEGORY #2: BEST CHARACTERS

My Neighbor Totoro‘s cast emits a very childlike air – unsurprisingly considering that the main characters, Mei and Satsuki, are children themselves, and the film’s intended targeted audience. Totoro, his miniature cohorts and the Almighty Cat Bus™ also share hints of these through their nonchalant, gentle and friendly demeanors towards those who acknowledge them, and are all smiles with no sign of distaste towards anyone. For the viewer, a common theme of the characters is that they’re representative of the ideal human, which wills no harm in anything, and seeks harmony in all things at all times. Even the adults, who have presumably seen and experienced more than they did, also inhibit this childlike persona; such as Mei and Satsuki’s parents, who are always happy, kind, and considerate to all.

On the other hand, things are a lot more detailed in personality for the lead animal quartet of The Wind In The Willows. Mole is adventurous, optimistic and jovial yet lacks patience; Rat is a brave soul with a short temper; and Badger is an introverted individual with upright morals and an invitational spirit. Perhaps the most developed character of them all is Toad, who gets three segments dedicated to him, and is easily the closest thing to complex this tale has – starting from a glutton for reckless driving to a self-respecting, humbled aristocrat at the end. He’s fabulously rich, extroverted and well-tempered; but lacks discipline ten times worse than Mole – reminiscent of someone who has ADHD.

The characters really reflect the innocent stature of the shows’ atmosphere. No matter the moment all the characters prove themselves likeable and hardly a smidge of insufferability exists on-screen. In addition, given the original target audience the source writers made sure to keep all of them from entering either the Mary Sue or “too complex to understand” territory. But there’s one element where The Wind In The Willows stands out, and it’s in the form of how human, and therefore relatable they are despite appearances, in contrast to the carefree counterparts in Miyazaki’s film. To clarify: I like to think of these characters as the complete version of the My Neighbor Totoro cast.

Each of them manage to pinpoint a certain human trait that we see in others around us, even if it be ourselves. Think of someone who is as lively as Mole, crazy like Toad, firm-grounded like Badger, or friendly as Rat; I’m sure we can find someone who is much like them at times. What’s more, the story doesn’t hesitate to point out not only their strengths, but their flaws as well; for all their good points there’s always going to be something that is off about them. For example, Badger’s first appearance, where he’s gruff and stern, or the side story where Rat and Mole clean up the latter’s home, which has become dusty due to lack of care. That’s what make them not just more believable, but also respected for generations. For this reason Roosevelt wrote that he recognized them as “old friends” – and it makes sense, for when you put them together the grouping really begins to resemble our friend circles.

THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS 2, MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO 0

CATEGORY #3: BEST INTER-SPECIES RELATIONSHIPS

But The Wind In The Willows is not just a story about anthropomorphic animals congregating with and only with each other. Most notably, Toad engages with this the most, through his time and escape from prison, where he gets the sympathy of a warden’s daughter and a train conductor, as well as the ire of a local washerwoman, law enforcement, and those people whose automobiles he robs. In another instance, Mole and Rat come face-to-face with their own nature spirit, like Mei and Satsuki do with Totoro, who leads them to the location of the lost child of their friend Otter. The relationship between the two species comes down to mainly give-and-take; no sign of mutual respect among them.

Whereas, My Neighbor Totoro also sees the human characters as equal to the animal counterparts, and instead of looking at the characters from the lens of Totoro, shifts the focus towards the human characters. Mei and Satsuki live amongst the gang of mystical creatures, with a relationship that’s more platonic and less intrusive on either of the two’s lives. Each time the two visit one another it’s always through a chance encounter, but always ends in a whimsical account of pastime that reinforces the characters’ relationship with each other. However, when it comes to communication, the dialogue between them is missing due to Totoro and the gang’s silent nature, so actions tend to serve to replace this missing gap.

In this case though, Studio Ghibli‘s story wins out with a better representation of the inter-species relationship because, although the dialogue between Mei, Satsuki, Totoro and the Almighty Cat Bus™ is one-sided and less intricate in dimensions, the relationship fancies through mutual respect and admiration of one another, rather than having it forced by way of situation. Totoro chooses to appear to Mei and Satsuki because of their kind demeanor towards him at the bus stop, when they give him their father’s umbrella during a heavy rainfall – and later that night, Totoro repays them by performing a ceremonial dance that helps grow their trees, and culminates through the finale of the search for Mei. There isn’t anything close to that in Toad, Mole or Rat’s inter-human interactions, outside of secondary consequences. Actions, therefore, here speak louder than words, and is proof that sometimes, small acts can lead to bigger results in the end.

MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO 1, THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS 2

CATEGORY #4: BEST CLIMAX

If there’s one thing I have to give credit for in The Wind In The Willows, it’s the presence of a climax, even amidst the disjointed set of stories. This comes in the form of the third major act and beyond, which chronicles Toad’s capture, confinement, escape and his reunion with his friends and estate. At the start, Badger, Mole and Rat attempt to descend upon Toad to rebuke his poor driving habits, and swear never to set his sights on an automobile again. However, through trickery, he escapes and manages to jack one anyways, leading to another accident, and a sentence of 20 years in prison. He manages to escape however, through the help of a prison warden’s daughter and an unwitting train conductor, and by chance meets Rat at his riverside home. There he gets the company of his friends back, but becomes disheartened to learn that his once rich manor has become a den of thieving weasels from the Wild Wood. With the help of his friends he takes it back and holds a banquet to honor them.

In My Neighbor Totoro the climax comes when Mei and Satsuki get news of a precarious situation involving their mother, which sends Mei into a tantrum and running off, while Satsuki and their friend Kanta take her to a telephone to inform their father, who is at work. A search party is instituted to find the missing Mei, but to no avail – including a false lead where slippers are found in a nearby lake. Satsuki calls upon Totoro for help, who springs into her aid along with the Almighty Cat Bus™, reuniting the sisters together at an abandoned shrine. Thankful for their assistance, the Cat Bus™ takes them to the hospital where their mother resides, and they watch as they know she will be doing fine.

The Wind In The Willows has some good character development to go alongside its raucous ending, with Toad going through a sort of mid-life crisis, alternating from a sad sack to self-indulgent until the end. It features a thrilling chase where Toad has to evade lawmen and make use of unsuspecting souls by disguising himself as a washerwoman, and backfire at keeping his ruse, which leads to some hilarious encounters. He manages to redeem himself at the end of the charade, however, by returning to Toad Hall and presenting himself as humble, stout and reserved as opposed to the arrogant and cocky display he showed earlier – completing his character circle. That being said, the battle to retake Toad Hall was not that impressive, and ended quickly with the ferrets retreating without barely a fight; almost as if they were made out of glass and fragile to touch.

On another note, the search for Mei in My Neighbor Totoro is a shift from the previously light-hearted tone, and becomes dark and dramatic as Satsuki attempts to save her sister from an unspecified impending doom. What the film lacks in character development, it makes up for by taking you on an emotional rollercoaster journey. Starting from frantic, when the human characters realize the grim reality of mortality, then going to defeated when Mei is nowhere to be found, but then comes a glimmer of hope and a recovery of joy when our beloved nature spirits reunite Mei and Satsuki, and finish that with seeing their family reunited and in good shape. In true Ghibli fashion, anyone who sees how things play out can’t help but remain satisfied, hoping for more only to have things stop here.

Therefore, it’s no doubt that My Neighbor Totoro. Add to it Joe Hisashi’s great score and the charming involvement of Totoro and the gang, plus the bittersweet ending song, it’s worth being sentimental over. Were it not for the lackluster handling of the battle of Toad Hall, I would probably have given The Wind In The Willows a chance, but the sad truth is that they parlayed too much on Toad’s misadventures and mischief, it’s kind of hard to sympathize with that.

MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO 2, THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS 2

CATEGORY #5: BEST OVERALL NARRATIVE

It’s tough not to appreciate both films. Without resorting to complex settings or lores that require wiki pages upon wiki pages to extract, they make for masterpieces from two different perspectives. The worlds are beautiful and descriptive to behold; you could overlay the soundtrack from Peter Jackson’s The Lord Of The Rings trilogy with the landscape and it would honestly make sense. The stories are uniquely built and offer plenty of good things for both of them. In the case of The Wind In The Willows the part that got me the best were the characters. I honestly did not think they would be as deep as the story presented them, but it managed to do so. They’re not only cute but also just fun to read about – whether it’s Mole’s stalwart, curious search for the world, or Toad’s personal indulgences. My Neighbor Totoro amazed me in part because of its marvelous setting, Totoro and friends’ majestic depiction and the comfy feeling they leave behind.

My Neighbor Totoro had me going in with the persona that it was going to be a kid-oriented film, and that’s exactly what it did with its job. It’s a story about two kids meeting two fluffy spirits, playing games with them, without any real impact or variability on their lives; stop right there, because that’s the whole summary. Not so much with The Wind In The Willows. I’ve read the source material, and gandered at the movie thinking it would be similar in tone to the former; I was flat out wrong. Yes, the atmosphere is calm and fitting for a child’s view, other than a few hints of cartoon violence, but everything about it is mature, and goes beyond the trope of “silly animals doing silly things”. Nor is it a full-on, cookie-cutter Looney Tunes precursor; actually, this would probably have been Looney Tunes if it was directed for aristocrats.

Although the writing style is on par with C.S Lewis, Lewis Carroll or J.R.R Tolkien, it’s nonetheless mature, bounded in reality, and captures the daily lives of characters in a world similar, but different to our own – no wonder adults have found this much to their liking! In conclusion, I’m happy to present – and even recommend – The Wind In The Willows for those who want a story about nature that’s not propagandist or objectionable of any sorts, as well as the winner of this week’s East Meets West campaign.

FINAL SCORE: THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS 3, MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO 2

CONCLUSION

Kenneth Grahame’s work is one that manages to uproot initial expectations, and become a beloved staple of British literature simply because of its witticisms, the lifelike world, and the peaceful, utopian setting. One can see how developed the characters are in their works, and if The Wind In The Willows is the result of Grahame’s stories to the young Alistair, one ought to imagine what those might have sounded like. On the other hand, My Neighbor Totoro won people worldwide because of its simple story, stunning visuals and adventurous spirit present like in most Ghibli flicks, and inspired a revival of interest in countryside living in ways that the former did not. They’re both great stories, fun for all ages, and a testament to the human genius inhibited by each of us by God, the Author of Life.

2 thoughts on “East Meets West #11: My Neighbor Totoro .vs. The Wind In The Willows

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