If I had to pick two of my favorite anime, they would be My Neighbor Totoro and Haibane Renmei. Totoro is a sweet story about two young children meeting the cuddly god of the forest, and Haibane is about a girl waking up without memories in a walled town. Both are beautifully made works of animation with a spirit unlike other anime, and both have something I didn’t really think about until a few days ago.
Not a single television, computer, or phone screen is present in either of them.
Totoro’s reason is that it’s set in 1958. Haibane doesn’t set a date, but its technology apart from the wind towers seems akin to something 1980 or less, but with no sign of televisions. Totoro has all of one phone, a rotary dial one which is probably the only one in the village. Haibane has no electronic technology that I can recall whatsoever; all the technology is mechanical. Both have severely limited contact with the outside world, to where they are plot points. When the children in Totoro play, they do so outside, and not an Ipod or game system can be found. The Haibane don’t even have heat in some of the rooms in Old Home, and even the books in the town’s library have no mention of the outside world.
It’s hard at time to realize just how much screens have dominated our lives in barely thirty years. Around when I was under ten, in the late seventies to early eighties, many things we took for granted were severely reduced or non-existent. You had a single console TV that used an antenna to pull in maybe five or six TV stations. Even the ones pulled in were often marred by noise or static. There were no specialized channels, either; a young child then wanting to watch television after school would be watching things like Bowling for Dollars rather than Nickelodeon or Cartoon Network. Same with evening television; you watched programs mostly catering to adults, with the occasional special for kids.
Even more amazing is that television actually stopped beyond a certain point. Stations would sign off for the day at around 11 P.M.-2 A.M. and run a test pattern until dawn or later. Even if you wanted to, you couldn’t watch it all the time. VCRs wouldn’t be introduced until later, and neither would basic cable. In real life, what this meant was children mostly relied on books, toys, and the great outdoors to occupy themselves, and adults were limited in the amount of electronic entertainment they could consume.
While both computers and cell phones were beginning around then, I’d argue it really wasn’t till 2000 or so that both became real fixtures in people’s lives. Screens were slowly becoming more and more predominant, but you could still resist them. Magazines did well alongside Geocities web pages, and watching movies meant a trip to the theater or the video store. Cell phones were still a toy of the rich and lacked even the basic features prepaid phones have today. It was a different world.
The reason why I go into this is that I think I like both so much because they have balance. The library in Haibane is precious precisely because it isn’t a screen with all the world’s knowledge in it. Because screens aren’t so omnipresent and cheap in Totoro, the children can have pleasure just in playing and enjoying a spooky house and a lush, green woods. We live in a world where you can buy a disc with ten movies on it for five dollars, where people give away their novels for free, and where I can always be connected to people and information with a device costing under two hundred dollars. This has changed us, and not always in good ways.
Screens educate us, but they also numb us. Art in small doses inspires, but in large doses can make us inured to wonder. There’s a scene in Kiki’s Delivery Service where the artist Ursula invites her over to cheer her up. Problem is, Ursula lives a long way off from town. Ironically, the long journey makes the moment where Kiki finds the painting about her the more poignant, compared to if Ursula just pulled out an Ipad in town and showed her a GIF. I hate this cliche, but the journey to the destination is also important, and a coin lost can seem more valuable than ten in hand.
I guess that’s why I love both Totoro and Haibane so much. The lack of screens, and the importance of the journey make what could be trite very meaningful. An Ipod, or easy access to cell phones and GPS would kill both as stories, and the connections the characters make are meaningful because they aren’t instantaneous, or easy to do or maintain. I have more reasons why I like both, and I plan to explore them in later posts. But the slow life that isn’t always moderated by screens and is bounded by limits makes for a strangely compelling world. Maybe a medicine to always-on 24-7 modern life.