Finding my culture in a VHS copy of Totoro

By MEAGAN PEOPLES | October 5, 2017

One of the first movies I ever watched was Tonari no Totoro (sometimes referred to as My Neighbor Totoro by people who speak English). My sister had a small TV in her room. It wasn’t connected to cable, but it did have a VHS player built into it. In the age where even CDs seem retro, it’s weird to think that my main source of media consumption used to come from something you had to manually rewind.

Later, when we realized that library was actually good for something, we would rent videos to watch together. It was on that small screen that I watched The Princess Bride, I was introduced to the Sailor Scouts and that I first saw Totoro.

I’m going to be honest, I didn’t like it as much as other animated things I’d seen. The giant monster thing freaked me out more than a little, and the cat bus kind of grossed me out (it had freaking windows made of fur). But it was more or less the first look I had into Japanese culture.

For context, my mom is a Japanese immigrant, and my dad’s lineage could be visually described as a kind of porridge, because it’s just different shades of white. I, the offspring of this culture clash, am white. Like, really white, like Paul Ryan’s wet dream white. So it had always been a little bit hard for me to identify with the matriarchal side of my cultural inheritance.

It didn’t help that I lived in suburban Massachusetts (read: a beautiful but impressively Caucasian place) or that my mom felt she had to isolate us from the Japanese language, culture and traditions in order to help us fit in with the other kids at school.

So when I first watched Totoro, a movie where even the English title sounds foreign, it really felt like a bridge into understanding this other half of myself. Totoro is a hugely important cultural touchstone within Japan. In fact there is even a movement named after the movie to preserve natural areas within Tokorozawa city. Even now you can find stuffed animals, stickers and other paraphernalia of all the different characters (including the Catbus for some reason).

Though I wouldn’t say it gave me a comprehensive (or particularly realistic) view of what life was like in Japan, it wasn’t the worst introduction I could have had to my heritage.

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