'Totoro' namesakes across Japan lament exit of beloved forest spirit's creator

September 07, 2013

THE ASAHI SHIMBUN

A-san's Garden lies in a residential quarter of the Asagaya district of Tokyo's Suginami Ward. The public park is the brainchild of Hayao Miyazaki, the 72-year-old legendary anime director who formally announced his retirement on Sept. 6.

A cozy little private residence used to stand in the park area. Affectionately called "Totoro's house," it was just one of many places, structures and things in Japan that bear the same name as the plump and mysterious forest spirit featured in Miyazaki's 1988 blockbuster "My Neighbor Totoro."

Featuring a red-tiled roof and white window frames, Totoro's house was a one-story, wooden structure built in the early Showa Era (1926-1989) by the uncle of Ei Kondo. Kondo's garden contained 50 species of plants, including tea olives and roses. Kondo eventually moved into a more modern house next door.

Miyazaki discovered the house one day during a stroll through the area and he was enchanted by it. Entering through a window because the lock on the door was broken, Miyazaki later called the house one of his "treasures" in a book he published in 1991, adding that Totoro, his fictional character, would be happy to live there.

Suginami Ward was preparing to refurbish the area as a public park when the building was destroyed in a fire of unknown origin in February 2009.

With the original structure lost, Miyazaki stepped in to lend a hand.

Miyazaki drew up five design prospects for the park, which was completed in 2010 and named A-san's Garden. The new structure in the garden has much of the same look and charm of the original Totoro's house.

Today, A-san's Garden is frequented by people from all walks of life--from children to young couples to elderly people on a stroll and company workers lying down beneath the wisteria trellis. Some visitors say the lushness of the plants gives them hope for life.

"I want to leave the thriving greenery here in the hands of posterity," says the now 89-year-old Kondo.

"I want to use the living plants to turn the park into a likeness of the scenes in 'The Secret World of Arrietty,' " she added, referring to the 2010 film that Miyazaki co-wrote.

Since 1996, Miyazaki has been involved in a project to preserve Fuchi no Mori, a woodland that straddles Higashi-Murayama, Tokyo, and Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture, where he lives. It is said the director worked out designs for "My Neighbor Totoro" while he was strolling in Fuchi no Mori.

Miyazaki also heads a local conservation group and has joined clean-up sessions in and around the forest and nearby river.

"I have been told that his retirement will not change anything about his activities in our group," said the 66-year-old secretary-general of the group. "I hope he will assume the role as an opinion leader from now on."

Miyazaki is also an adviser to the Totoro Fund, a group in Tokorozawa that strives to preserve what little nature is left in the Sayama Hills area. The fund has so far acquired 20 plots of land and has named them "Totoro's Forest."

The secretary-general of the fund said the success of the movement owes so much to Miyazaki's support.

"We have been able to achieve so much, not the least because our use of the name 'Totoro' made it easier for many to understand that we are striving to preserve forests near where humans live," the secretary-general said.

He said Miyazaki often shows up to help weed their plots and sometimes agrees to be photographed with volunteer workers.

"Miyazaki is very unassuming," he said.

Southwest on the island of Kyushu are even more things "Totoro." One district in the city of Nobeoka, Miyazaki Prefecture, has the privilege of being named Totoro.

But the JR Totoro Station lies quite off the beaten track. The unmanned station only has a tiny waiting lounge and a rest room. Nothing much in or around the station, except for the signboard that shows its name, is reminiscent of the fictional forest spirit of the same name.

A notice board on a utility pole at some distance from the station says, "Totoro's forest: 400 meters ahead." At the indicated distance, up a hill and closer to a swath of forest, lay a low-key, two-story home for elderly citizens.

A Totoro doll sits on the reception desk at the facility. It was donated by local volunteer firefighters the year after the establishment opened, its 58-year-old director said.

"I am sad that Miyazaki is retiring," she said. "But his wonderful works will live on. I feel honored to be directing this Totoro namesake facility."

The Totoro district of Saiki, in neighboring Oita Prefecture, has no problem showing off its "Totoro." The district, which is better known among Totoro enthusiasts, has a signboard in the shape of a "cat bus"--an unforgettable character from "My Neighbor Totoro"--alongside the road.

Totoro Pass, an elevated plot of land in Fukagawa, Hokkaido, has also won a certain name recognition by installing a cat bus and cat bus stop, a city government official said. Local volunteers remodeled a bus to look more feline.

But residents and officials of the Totoro district in Nobeoka were indifferent to the idea of promoting their own community on the back of the anime's fame.

"We could give some thought if calls became more vocal, but that apparently hasn't been the case," said a Nobeoka city government official.

Added a 68-year-old homemaker in Totoro, "If we promoted Totoro through the anime we would only become passe, seen only as trying to imitate Oita."

(This article was compiled from reports by Kazutaka Mizuyama, Kosei Kito, Takashi Sugiyama and Shuhei Shibata.)

THE ASAHI SHIMBUN
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Ei Kondo visits A-san's Garden, a public park in Tokyo's Suginami Ward, where her house once stood on Sept. 4. The plot of land was reborn under anime director Hayao Miyazaki's design. (Kazutaka Mizuyama)

Ei Kondo visits A-san's Garden, a public park in Tokyo's Suginami Ward, where her house once stood on Sept. 4. The plot of land was reborn under anime director Hayao Miyazaki's design. (Kazutaka Mizuyama)

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  • Ei Kondo visits A-san's Garden, a public park in Tokyo's Suginami Ward, where her house once stood on Sept. 4. The plot of land was reborn under anime director Hayao Miyazaki's design. (Kazutaka Mizuyama)
  • Anime director Hayao Miyazaki attends a ceremony to celebrate the public ownership of the Fuchi no Mori forest in Higashi-Murayama, Tokyo, on Nov. 11, 2007. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)
  • The No. 1 plot of Totoro's Forest in Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture, was the first to be acquired by the Totoro Fund national trust movement. (Takashi Sugiyama)
  • The JR Totoro Station in Nobeoka, Miyazaki Prefecture (Shuhei Shibata)
  • A doll of Totoro, a fictional creature in Hayao Miyazaki's eponymous 1988 anime, sits on the reception desk of "Totoro's forest," an elderly citizens' home near JR Totoro Station in Nobeoka, Miyazaki Prefecture. (Shuhei Shibata)

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