Real landscapes are used as the basis for imagined ones in almost all Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli films, from the hills surrounding Welsh mining towns for Castle in the Sky (1986) to the ancient forests of Yakushima Island for Princess Mononoke (1997). It?s hard to think of a film that doesn?t feature viridescent backgrounds, full of towering trees and lush foliage. In My Neighbour Totoro (1988), there is a focus on one tree in particular: a camphor tree that Totoro calls home. Special mention is made of this fact early in the film, something I found surprising to hear the first time. In Australia, the camphor is regarded as a pest, a highly invasive species and a threat to the local ecology. So I began to wonder: why does Totoro live in a camphor tree?
?Trees and people used to be good friends?Tatsuo Kusakabe
The species depicted in the film is the Cinnamomum camphora. Although native to Japan it is not one that is emblematic. That would surely be the Sakura, the cherry blossom, but even the maple or the black pine so commonly used for bonsai are more readily associated with the country. Of course, none of these would make a suitable home for a giant forest monster. The practicalities of size and livability are important. One alternative that is both pragmatic and culturally significant is the Japanese cedar, the Cryptomeria, of which the largest is a nearly 7,000-year-old specimen named J?mon Sugi. They have an ancient, fairy tale look to them, with the older ones like J?mon Sugi characterised by gnarled trunks and wild branches. A mystical and formidable presence, full of personality.
The look of the tree is obviously important. It too is a character. But it can?t stand out to such a degree that it would call unwanted attention to itself. The landscape in My Neighbour Totoro is enchanted but with the lightest touch. It is enchanted in the way that the world is enchanted to all children, the way in which magic is inherent to nature. Miyazaki has said as much in a 2009 interview with The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences:
?Rather than trying to depict the magical creatures, my intention in making My Neighbor Totoro was to show my appreciation and love of nature, which I had pretty much ignored up until that time?.
Miyazaki?s relationship with nature is a complex one. He insists that he is primarily interested in the art of depicting the world, the actual craft of capturing how it really is, rather than imposing his own meaning onto it.
?It?s not that nature or ecology has become a growing concern for me. I think it?s just part of our natural surrounding and it?s sort of a common thing to depict it. For example, I tell my artists and the team working together to make it smoggier. Then it looks more like the natural surroundings that we live in. It?s not that I like smog. So it?s the kind of landscape that our children and we are used to living in and whether we should do something about it or not is something that we should think about in real life rather than depicting it in a particular way in the stories on screen.?
And yet his films show deep affection and sensitivity for the places they depict, something which cannot help but alter the way they look. They are also frequently about characters defending the environment and have been from his earliest projects. In the depiction of the new rural home of sisters Satsuki and Mei (Satoyama of Saitama Prefecture), special attention is given to the minutiae of a snail crawling up a flower and discarded bottles found at the bottom of a river tributary. These things frequently go unnoticed by us but they do get noticed by children. The magic of the film exists within the childhood gaze. Which brings us back to the camphor.
When Tatsuo visits it for the first time with his daughters?after Mei has witnessed its magical secret?we see that it is uniquely marked. The tree is a shinboku, a sacred tree, identified by a shimenawa, a sacred rope. This rope, made from laid rice straw or hemp is used in the Shinto religion for ritual purification and to mark sanctity. They are often seen festooned with shide?zigzag-shaped paper streamers. The shinboku is the place where the kami, divine spirits in the Shinto religion, dwell. It is strictly forbidden to cut or pollute these trees. It is made clear that this tree is special from the way it is drawn, towering over the family’s new home from a distance, a colossal presence in a gentle landscape of meadows and forested hills, but this ritualistic feature removes all doubt of its significance, its animism.
Still, the question, why the camphor? It is especially perplexing when we discover that Totoro and his companions carry around acorns. Through the use of forest magic, they help Satsuki and Mei grow giant oak tree one night. So why not an oak tree, like the red oak, the akagashi?
Perhaps inspiration was simply taken from one of Japan?s giant camphor trees, such as the 3,000-year-old Takeo no Okutsu, the 7th largest in Japan. Or Hikitsukuri the 1,500-year-old behemoth camphor in Mihama. Or, most likely, the 2,000-year-old camphor at Kinomiya, with its 20-meter girth covered in scared bark that twists into mysterious caves. It?s as if someone wrapped a seaside cliff face around a trunk. These and other ancient Japanese camphor just like them have been turned into shrines, prayer sites, and places of pilgrimage where people leave handmade devotional objects. These tree shrines provide a gateway to the past, and a place to commune with nature and the spirits that reside in them. What?s more, they grow big.
?It?s said that Japanese Gods use the tree to come to the earth and go back to their world by using this tree as transportation. Some even say that the trees are created from the body hair of Gods?.? Tadima Japan
From a biological perspective, the camphor is easy to establish, highly regenerative, competitive, long-lasting, and evergreen. It has been harvested for generations using forest stills and can be used to produce medicine, smokeless gunpowder, and celluloid. It is useful as a spice, and for aromatherapy, sometimes sold falsely as eucalyptus oil. This is not to mention the popular use of its wood. While not as well known in the popular imagination, the camphor does appear in various pieces of Japanese folklore. And, perhaps most significantly, there is the fact that the camphor is a defensive plant that produces its own insect repellent. The strong smell of the camphor comes from a white crystalline substance made in the wood and it works as a protective perfume. As a home for a spirit who wishes to remain hidden and yet is an incredibly conspicuous creature, the use of a tree designed to keep things away seems like an ideal choice.