My Neighbor Totoro

March 15, 2011 § 7 Comments

There is something about watching a Miyazaki film that leaves you feeling overjoyed, exuberant even. His animation is beautiful, sparkling with little details that are often overlooked in most Disney movies. I recently watched My Neighbor Totoro (1988), one of Miyazaki’s earliest films, and it left another stunning impression upon me. Totoro is definitely one of Miyazaki’s most kid-friendly films, especially when compared with some of his darker films like Princess Mononoke (1997) and Howl’s Moving Castle (2004). This childlike feel, however, does not detract from the film, in fact, it adds an extra layer of amusement and meaning.

When watching a Miyazaki film, one must suspend a great deal of disbelief, especially as an American watching a film created by and for a Japanese culture. In Miyazaki’s films, as well as in other Asian cinema, the disconnection between the natural and the supernatural is blurred so often, that it almost doesn’t exist. Spirits, ghosts and gods are a part of everyday life and show up everywhere, even if sometimes you can’t see them. This is exactly the way it is in Totoro, from the very beginning. When Mei, Satsuki and their dad move into a new house in the country while their mom is in the hospital, Mei quickly becomes sad and bored, a natural thing for a five-year old girl. While her dad is studying, being a professor, and Satsuki (Mei’s older sister) is off at school, Mei quickly discovers these small bunny looking creatures, which lead her to Totoro. Totoro is a large, adorable creature that the film affectionately calls a “troll” and he shows up in strange places and eventually ends up helping both the girls adjust to their new life.

There are two things about Totoro that stood out to me personally as I watched the film. The first is in respect to the girl’s father. When Mei tells him and Satsuki about Totoro, he responds graciously without a hint of condescension, and even brings the girls to a shrine to offer thanks to Totoro. If this was an American movie, it would be obvious that the father is humoring his daughter if he told her that he believed what she experienced. Here, probably due to the way the Japanese culture looks at things like magic and spirits, the father is loving, giving his daughter the ability to believe in herself and encouraging her, instead of bringing her down. I hope to be that kind of father, one who takes his children at their words and lets them experience the world and use their imaginations without squashing them before they can flourish.

The other thing that My Neighbor Totoro captures so perfectly is the way that children look at the world and see it full of wonder and excitement. Whenever I see films that spark my imagination and draw me toward the wonders of this life, I ask myself why I forget that this world is full of so many amazing things. So often I am content to sit around inside, busying myself with work and “adult” things while outside the beauty of Creation is awaiting, willing to give me its treasures if I only take the time to see them. In Totoro, Miyazaki captures the childlike sense of wonder at the smallest things, and endues his fantastical world with sights and sounds that force us to use our imagination like the cat bus and Totoro flying on a top. It is this quality that makes My Neighbor Totoro a film that everyone should see, kids and adults alike. In fact, as much as this is a film for kids, it may do more to boost the ailing spirit of imagination and wonder in adults than it ever will for children.

This is part of the Japanese cinema blogathon. Please visit the links below to check out other great blog posts on Japanese cinema and consider donating some money to the Red Cross for relief efforts in Japan.


Prayer in Ushpizin

April 19, 2010 § Leave a comment

Communication is essential. In the communication discipline, there is a maxim, “You are never not communicating.” At every point in time, through words, facial expressions and body language we are communicating and although we have all this practice at communication it still is one of the hardest and most convoluted things in our existence. And that’s just when talking to other humans. Communication is even more difficult when relegated to the realm of the supernatural. How do we talk to God, who we can’t see and from whom we hardly ever receive verbal reciprocation?

I know that my dialogue with God is often fraught with distractions and other concerns because of the lack of a physical presence. God sometimes doesn’t seem as real as my friends around me or even the people I walk past in my everyday life. One of the ways I’ve learned to overcome this in small ways is by following the example of those who pray like God is sitting right next to them. I think that these examples are crucial to helping us become people who better communicate with others and with God.

One such example is Ushpizin (Dar, 2004), an Israeli film, that follows Moshe, a rabbi, and his wife, Mali, during the Jewish holiday of Succoth as they welcome unexpected ushpizin (guests) to their house. There are three specific scenes I want to focus on that provides some stunning examples of prayer that bleeds emotion and authenticity.

Moshe and Mali don’t have any money to pay their bills let alone celebrate the holiday that is approaching. Distraught by this possibility they do the only thing they can: pray. Moshe leaves the house and goes to a park. He sits down on the bench and begins conversing with God in honest, down-to-earth terms. As his prayer continues, his emotions continue to rise as he claps his hands and eventually lets out a heart-rending cry. While he is praying, through the magic of parallel editing, we see God answering his prayer before he has concluded it by sending Moshe and Mali a gift of 1,000 dollars.

Moshe and Mali’s reaction to this gift is one of overwhelming joy. They begin to dance and sing to the Lord, praising Him for the gift. The joy in this scene is palpable and once again there is a sense of real connection to God with Moshe using “Abba” to address God from the position of a son. Once again we see a very real belief in a God who breaks into everyday life. In the Christian culture I inhabit in America, a reaction like theirs is something unusual and not seen very often. Their reaction makes me question where that joy and intense belief in God’s power is in my faith.

The final scene that sticks out to me is essentially the climax of the film. The unexpected guests have driven Mali away by their behavior and what they have brought out in Moshe. His guests have also just used a very precious lemon, which Moshe purchased for 1,000 shekels, as salad dressing. This time, instead of succumbing to his anger, like he has previously, Moshe runs from his guests. He finally stops running, out of breath, in a grove of trees and unloads his anger on God. There are tears and screams. As he prays, I can almost imagine a Psalmist in this position, laying his soul out before God. And there is Moshe, lying prostrate on the ground, pleading for God’s mercy. I’m not sure I’ve ever bared my soul to God in that manner.

Like before, God hears Moshe’s prayer and brings his wife back to him. This is not a God that is removed from his Creation, but One working in and through His people, showing them grace and mercy. Ushpizin, as you might expect from a film centered on a Jewish rabbi, is profoundly spiritual and delivers some beautiful portraits of prayer. Like I’ve learned from those who have gone before me, I hope to learn from the picture painted by this wonderful film.

Food as Grace

February 1, 2010 § 1 Comment

In the Spanish language there is a word that has no equivalent in English. This word is la sobremesa and it refers to the conversation that is shared during a meal. La sobremesa is something so special it has its own word in Spanish. I think it points to an understanding about the meal and food that has been lost on Americans to a large extent. We have our fast food and our tv dinners. We have restaurants where we feel pressured to leave if we are staying too long. We are so consumed with using food as a means of energy and profit that we have lost the mysterious essence of food as a means of grace.

There are two movies that immediately come to mind when I think about food turning into a way of dispensing grace into the world. These are Chocolat (2000, Hallstrom) and Babette’s Feast (1987, Axel) and, interestingly enough, they are both set in Europe. They also both feature bold female protagonists who use their culinary skills to enact change and offer grace to people that are stuck in legalistic ways of living.

In Chocolat the main conflict exists between Vianne (Juliette Bincoche) and the mayor of the town (Alfred Molina). Vianne is an anomaly in his town. She is swept in by the wind during the Lenten season, wearing bright clothing and opening a chocolate shop, filled with a myriad of sensual, seductive chocolate. This sets her at odds with the mayor, a strict church man, who runs his town with a long list of rules to keep things in order. The mayor has his hands on everything except Vianne, and as the movie progresses, his hold on the town begins to slip through his tightly clenched fist due to Vianne’s unconditional acceptance of the town’s outcasts and the intense draw of her wonderful chocolate.

The movie emphasizes the food’s power in many ways. Vianne has a mystical quality, wherein she is able to guess the favorite chocolate treat of everyone in the movie. When she hands them their “favorite” and they take that first bite the chocolate ceases to be merely a piece of chocolate and becomes a transcendent moment in time. Their eyes close and flutter and an undeniable smile creeps ever so slowly over their face as the camera slowly zooms in. This is food becoming more than food.This is food, made with love and given freely, opening a part of the soul that has been closed for a long time.

This is seen most powerfully in Vienne’s interactions with Armande (Judi Dench), the grumpy old woman whose shop Vianne is renting. One day Armande ventures into the store and Vienne gives her a cup of hot chocolate laced with chili powder. Armande takes a sip, her eyes widen, the camera zooms in on her smile and a moment later Armande is sharing old childhood stories with Vianne. The food has shown grace to Armande, one of the town’s outcasts, and she has responded by opening up a part of herself that was long ago hidden deep in the recesses of her soul.

This emphasis on the food is not just evident in how it interacts with the citizens of the town, but also in how it is seen through the eyes of the camera. The camera lingers on chocolate, glories in its making and steadfastly watches people consuming it. During the movie Armande has Vianne make a feast for her seventieth birthday. This feast is filmed slowly and sensually, focusing on the decadent creations of food and chocolate and in the people’s euphoric reactions to the consumption of it. While we watch this, we sense that there is something deeper happening. This food is drawing these people together; making them into a community of fellow diners and helping them leave their past troubles behind.

Finally, we see the transformative power of grace in one of the final scenes of the movie. The mayor has reached the end of his rope, breaks into Vianne’s store and begins destroying the chocolate in her display window. With the chocolate flying everywhere as he smashes it a small piece lands on his lip. His tongue quivers as he tentatively licks the chocolate off his lip, breaking his Lenten fast. As soon as this is done, he begins to gorge himself with the chocolate until he falls asleep in the display window covered in chocolate, only to be awoken by the priest and Vianne the next day, which happens to be Easter Sunday.  We see in Vianne’s reaction the outpouring of grace to the mayor. She promises not to tell anyone and lets him go on his way. The movie concludes and we see that the mayor’s life has not just been changed by Vianne, but also by his weakness in consuming the chocolate. The food was a very unlikely agent in changing his very outlook on life.

Babette’s Feast plays out differently than Chocolat but it is concerned with many of the same things. Babette (Stephane Audran) is a French woman who finds herself in a small Danish village, where she is taken in by sisters Filippa (Bodil Kjer) and Martine (Birgitte Federspiel), who are daughters of the revered and deceased minister of the small town. They agree to give her shelter and she in turn offers to serve as their chef and take care of their house. Throughout the movie we learn about the sister’s lives and how their strict father kept them in the village even though they both had chances to leave. We don’t learn much about Babette, however, and we don’t need to until the movie begins to draw near the feast which its title refers to.

The sisters wish to throw a party for their father’s 100th anniversary and Babette, who recently has won a lottery, offers to cook for it. The sisters reluctantly agree, but tell all their guests to not comment on the food that might be cooked because it might be very different.  What the sisters don’t know is that Babette has prepared a feast unlike anything they have ever tasted. The meal is luxurious, expensive and radically infringes on the austere way of living practiced by the villagers. Babette begins to serve them and accordingly to their agreement none of the villagers show any sign of enjoyment or speak about the food in any way. But as the feast continues the joy building up inside of them becomes impossible to contain.

These villagers, who have been living under a legalistic faith that has no room for the pleasures of this earth, begin to experience true grace through the very things they have shunned for many years. As they eat foreign delicacies and drink expensive wine, they begin to experience the many blessings of the good earth, created to be enjoyed. The meal concludes and there has been a rebirth, but the greatest part of the story is yet to be told. Babette used the entirety of her lottery winnings to pay for the feast. In an amazing act of sacrificial love, Babette gave up all the wealth she had gained to dispense grace to the villagers. She did it through food.

In both these films grace is given through food. Food is a powerful thing, both in of itself and also because of the community it creates around a shared table. Food should be embraced as something mystical and powerful, not merely as a way to gain energy or to make a quick profit. In this way, perhaps the concept of la sobremesa can be redeemed for America and food can reach its highest potential.

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