When I was eight years old I watched my first Hayao Miyazaki anime movie, My Neighbor Totoro. The movie, about two young sisters who move to the Japanese countryside with their father while their mother is ill in the hospital, was the first story to touch some cold, slick stone inside of me. The first story to reverberate against my inner walls and send ripples through the previously unexamined waters of my emotional depths. I remember that when it finished I felt like crying and I didn’t understand why.
When I was eight years old I had a lot of feelings I didn’t understand. My parents had split up years earlier, while I was in that stage of development where permanent memories beginning to form. Some events crystallize forever in your mind while others are lost to the murky ether of early childhood.
I don’t remember a life with my father in the house, or the tumultuous days during which the split actually occurred, but I do remember my mother’s face when she, my brothers and I walked out of karate class to see my father waiting for us in the parking lot. I remember hiding under the kitchen table, only able to see my parents’ feet and hear their screams, then the sound of something breaking while my mother gasped, and seeing the phone, electrical cords freshly ripped from the wall, crash onto the floor by my father’s feet.
I remember one question the lawyer asked me while I stood on the witness stand, testifying against my father for having violated our restraining order against him. Do you remember if your father has taken you out for pizza in the last couple of weeks? He had, and I said so, not knowing that that had been, in fact, an illegal excursion to the pizza store down the street. When I was eight years old my father was in prison, and was getting out soon. We moved to a new house tucked away in the woods so that he couldn’t find us.
The father in My Neighbor Totoro moves with his daughters to the remote countryside to be closer to their sick mother. He is a somewhat bumbling, well-meaning professor; the parenting hole left by his absent wife is apparent in a way that forces both him and the girls to be newly self-sufficient. The girls, Satsuki and Mei, spend the summer exploring the forest around their new home. During their woodland adventures Satsuki and Mei discover a gigantic furry creature that lives under the enormous camphor tree in the woods near their home.
They name the creature, ‘Totoro’, an interpretation of the hair-raisingly loud grunts it makes. Totoro quickly becomes a source of comfort and wonder as it takes Satsuki and Mei on nighttime nature adventures. As the girls become increasingly distressed after news that their mother’s return home is put off over and over again, their time spent with Totoro increases, and it is this gorgeously animated playtime with Totoro that helps the girls through this troubling, illuminating summer.
When I was eight years old I had no Totoro. I preferred to play alone. There was a swing set in our yard that I climbed on, dangling from the top rung, gripping the metal with two fists and then one, releasing myself finger by finger.
I hung there, suspended, for as long as my palms and muscles would allow. While I dangled I imagined myself in various scenarios, all of which had their roots in one of the narratives we feed most zealously to little girls: that of the damsel in distress.
I imagined myself hanging from cliffs, rooftops, the wings of airplanes, always waiting for rescue. I was waiting for someone to save me: a prince, a daddy, I’d even take a Totoro. My eyes would go glassy and my arms numbed as I hung there, playing out peril and salvation in my mind’s eye until my hands smarted and calluses grew on my palms.
Later, I would poke the calluses until they burst and white-hot, clear liquid oozed painfully out of them. It got so bad that my mother bought me golfing gloves to wear while I played, fingerless with grippy pads, so I would stop making a game of hurting myself.
When I was a preteen we lived in our new house in the forest. My mom had a procession of boyfriends, none of whom impressed me very much. Every now and then they would take my whole family away on a weekend trip, usually to another house even deeper in the woods. Some of them had their own children, their own familial scraps, and for weekends at a time we stitched ourselves clumsily together. We watched movies and ate dinner, these strange men almost comfortable in the role of de facto father, but not quite.
(Much, much later, my mother told me these weekend trips were almost always a way of getting us out of town when she felt the risk of my father coming to see us. Even though we had moved to the woods, he found us, and sometimes he would show up unannounced. We lived like a clan of whitetail deer—eyes wide, ears perked, noses trained upwind, sniffing for danger. Ready to bolt at a moment’s notice.)
During one of these weekend trips I watched another Miyazaki film, Spirited Away. The protagonist, 10-year-old Chihiro, is reluctantly moving to a new town when she and her parents become trapped in the spirit world. An evil witch, Yubaba, transforms Chihiro’s parents into pigs. It is up to Chihiro—petulant, fearful, and immature as she is—to save them from the slaughterhouse.
Chihiro takes up a hard-won job in Yubaba’s bathhouse and slowly works her way toward a chance to save her parents. In the beginning Chihiro is weepy and afraid, the concept of a hard day’s work as unfamiliar to her as the world of demons, big and small, smelly and scary, that now surround her. But along the way her earnest charm and stick-to-itiveness earn her many fantastical demon friends who accompany her on the journey to rescue her parents and return them to their human state.
In the end, Chihiro and her parents are transported back to the realm of humans, her parents having forgotten all about their brief jaunt as potential bacon in the spirit world. Chihiro has seen her parents’ vulnerability, as well as her own. She has also seen her strength, possibly for the first time. She is able to face the prospect of starting a new life in a new town with her parents, for whom she has a drastically renewed sense of gratitude.
When I was a preteen I thought Chihiro was stupid and annoying. I thought most things were stupid and annoying, including my mother, my brothers, my teachers, and myself. I wasn’t interested in my mother’s boyfriends as replacement father-figures, and I lashed out when anyone tried to fill that role. I was angry with my mother for not being ‘normal’, for disrupting our nuclear family over and over again, and failing every time to fix whatever it was that had gone wrong before I could get a sense of what right was.
What I didn’t know then was that, bubbling not-so-convincingly under the surface of my anger was in fact a deep hurt; a fear that I was broken. At the same time, as the years went on I felt more and more removed from my traumatic early childhood. I hadn’t seen or heard from my father in years, and by most metrics my life had settled down into something average, if not boring. But some days I woke up anxious or depressed. I didn’t feel average. I felt lower than my peers, like I was damaged goods. I was never and would never be a carefree child. I was dark in all the ways they were light.
And I was jealous. I was jealous of my friends who had never had to stand up in a court of law and speak words that sent their fathers to prison; who hadn’t come to our small wooded town to run away from something; who knew how to be around grown-up men without feeling strange or afraid. I was jealous of Chihiro for her neat journey toward maturity and self-sufficiency, for the fact that she overcame her fears, and that her fears were so easily definable. I was jealous that she had help, and knew how to ask for it.
My days of hanging from the swing set were over, but still no one had rescued me, and now I didn’t know quite what I wanted to be rescued from. Specific memories of my childhood were fading fast, and the uneasiness, anxiety, and distrust that had been bred in me during those years fed seamlessly into the typical preteen angst I was beginning to cultivate. Some big, dark, looming thing was stalking me through my life, and I had no name for it. The idea of rescuing myself hadn’t yet occurred to me.
When I was in college I watched Princess Mononoke. The film’s namesake is a wild and beautiful girl named San who was raised by a wolf goddess. She is beyond cool. And she is embroiled in an environmental battle with the people of the aptly named Irontown and their leader, Lady Eboshi. Eboshi has been deforesting San’s home and threatening the lives of all who live there, including various animal gods, goddesses, and mythical spirits.
Meanwhile, Ashitaka, the last prince of an antiquated, secretive village, is cursed by a giant boar: a vengeful forest god in the throes of a violent and bloody death. Ashitaka is forced to leave his village, and because of their customs he can never return. His search for a cure leads him to Irontown, and to San. The two are fated for love—a damaged prince and a wild princess—but not before they are fated to solve the environmental crisis and create a more sustainable way of life in tandem with Eboshi and the residents of Irontown.
When I started college I was on the other side of a few hard teenage years in which the dark, nameless thing inside me was winning. I had been harming myself, starving myself, drinking too much and thinking in absolutes. I was a bad person, I was fat and ugly, I was broken and deserved every bad thing I did to myself.
In college I kept the dark thing at bay by smoking a lot of weed and reading a lot of books, doing peaceful things. I was happier when I was high, and this was the closest to carefree I’d been for a while, maybe ever.
I hung out with college boys. I had a boyfriend, and then I didn’t. And then I had another boyfriend, and then he was gone too, and so on. My life had provided me with no template of how a relationship ‘should’ go, so I did it my own way. I enjoyed these arrangements, not wanting to get too close to any one man, instead choosing to take care of and be nicer to myself.
I loved San instantly. Like me, she was raised by a fierce single mother—although her mother was not human, my mother raised three kids by herself and I don’t think she would object to being compared to a wolf goddess. And, like me, San had distrust rooted deep inside her. This distrust, combined with an even deeper allegiance to her forest brethren, is what informs the shape of San and Ashitaka’s relationship at the end of the movie.
The two are in love; it is obvious; everyone knows it, and San—smart girl—is the last to admit it. They agree to live apart, Ashitaka in the city and San in the woods. They will visit each other often, but they will have separate lives.
Ashitaka is a man of the people. He isn’t going to take to the woods and leave the fledgling Irontown behind. And there is no way that San is going to leave the forest. The people of Irontown fear her, but they also pity her. To have been raised without human parents, alone with the wolves in the dark forest, there must be something wrong with her now. Something bad happened to her when she was small, and that is why she is the way she is now. This is San’s own darkness and she carries it with her. Maybe there is something wrong with her, but she doesn’t think so.
I’m not much older now, but I’ve decided to finally name that unnamed dark thing that follows me around. Some days it is anxiety, some days it is depression, and some days it is just general malaise. Some might call it neuroatypicality, but I’m still too afraid to get so clinical. This big dark thing is just what it is: a fear of the unknown, of the dark possibilities that I know from experience can become reality.
To be a child is to watch your life unfold from the sidelines. My formative years were marked by a series of unknowable, terrifying changes. I didn’t understand what was happening when we went from a nuclear family to a huddle of scared, fleeing creatures. I didn’t understand what was happening when my father would show up after a long absence, but already his face made my stomach flip and my heart pound. I didn’t understand why I always hated surprises, hated walking into a dark room, or watching my mother drive away, even if only to go to the grocery store. I didn’t trust that she would come back alive.
Would I be this way if what happened to me as a child hadn’t happened? Is that relevant anymore? Not to me.
Miyazaki’s girls and women all face some form of the unknown, the fantastical, the scary. Mei and Satsuki’s darkness is the idea of losing their mother, that she may never come home from the hospital. Chihiro’s darkness is being trapped in the spirit world with two pigs for parents—or is it simply the unknown of moving to a new town? Wasn’t her terrifying time in the spirit world just the right kind of darkness she needed to test her, make her more able to face the challenge of starting over in the human world? See how darkness compounds and confuses, shapes us and makes us stronger.
For the girls of Totoro and Spirited Away, their forays into the unknown, the dark and scary, are brief blips in their lives, a test to help them grow and get back on track. In the end of Totoro the girls’ mother comes out of the hospital and the family is put back together. In Spirited Away Chihiro drives off in her parents’ car, leaving the spirit world behind but taking some newfound knowledge with her.
But it is San, the wolf princess, who helps me best understand the value of my own darkness. San is one of a kind; her entire life is an unknown. The humans don’t know what to make of a girl raised by wolves, and the wolves know that even though they love her she is, in some essential way, not like them. She doesn’t quite fit anywhere.
There is no journey through difficult and unforeseen circumstances that can return San to normalcy. San’s normal is the unknown, she is the darkness, and still she falls in love, cobbles together a family from wolves, spirits, and an outcast, cursed prince. Does she manage all of this despite the darkness within her? Or because of it?
What I’m trying to describe is not a need for me to find my own cursed prince and live happily ever after in separate apartments, or even to save my family and myself from the spirit realm. Those may be products of a more important goal, which for me is simply acknowledgment. To acknowledge the feelings I wake up with, the thing that grips my heart and sends my mind spinning through old memories and imagined failures early in the morning. The heavy, wet wool that winds itself through my chest and knocks me down for days at a time. The first step to surviving the spirit realm is to acknowledge that you’re in it, and to take a look around.
What Hayao Miyazaki has shown me, through his girls and his women, who were with me as I grew from girl to woman, is that the darkness, the unknown, is there for a reason. We never forget our childhood trauma, but use it as a foundation from which to grow. Like a tree that bends around a boulder, or a forest that regrows itself on top of bones and burnt branches. The things that threaten us are what form us. They make us grow differently, better—or maybe not. But they make us grow.
There is nothing wrong with me. I have unresolved fears, regrets, gaps in my memory, and painful memories I sometimes wish would become gaps. I still wake up feeling anxious or depressed a lot of the time. And without all of this who would I be? A part of me is still afraid of whatever dark, scary, bad things will inevitably come next, as they do, but a bigger part of me wouldn’t have it another way.
When San and Ashitaka part at the end of the film, they are smiling. He stands on a hill, new grass rustling all around him, peace and rebirth in the air. He watches her as she leaves, riding on the back of a wolf brother. In this leaving there is a break in the typical romantic mold. There is an open acknowledgement that San is unable to live a traditional life with her prince among the people—no, not unable but simply unwilling.
To know what we want is easy. The things we are supposed to desire are thrown in our faces all the time: happiness, prosperity, companionship. But to know what we don’t want takes a special ability to see ourselves clearly. To see ourselves clearly we must acknowledge whatever dark things are in us, the things that may not match the templates of normalcy we’ve been given. This means depression and anxiety, our fears and the shadows that cross us. San doesn’t look away from the big dark unknowns of her past and future. In her leaving there is a joyful acceptance, a celebration of her uniqueness. In turning her back and moving toward that which others see as darkness but which is indeed only her life, there lies the possibility of a better life, or at least a truer life.