Trees as sacred – what we can learn from “Tonari no Totoro”

Totoro in treeEarlier this week, Jesse Mulligan put a call out to listeners to share stories or descriptions of their favourite tree on his Afternoons show on RNZ. Most anecdotes or descriptions that flowed in were about actual trees, but one listener identified as his or her favourite tree the one in the Japanese anime “Tonari no Totoro” (My neighbour Totoro). Jesse Mulligan was a little bemused by this, but as a Japanophile – and more specifically – a Biophilia-Japanophile (just made that one up) – I could completely understand this person’s sentiment.

“Tonari no Totoro” remains one of my favourite films of all time – actually I think it is my favourite. It is a 1988 animated film directed by the ultra-talented Hayao Miyazaki/Studio Gibli, and is the story of two girls who move to a dilapidated house in the country with their professor dad, to be closer to their mother who is recuperating from illness in a nearby hospital. They discover Totoro and his tree spirit friends, who inhabits a large old tree in the garden. The film is a profound exploration of the nature of life, human relationships, and most of all, the connection between people and nature.

sacred cedar tree Dewa Sanzan.jpgWhile the film is a fantasy, the idea that spirits inhabit trees is one that is entirely accepted within the Japanese worldview. Animism is central to the Japanese folk religion, which later became “nationalised” as Shinto. In Japan, sacred trees (trees which embody kami, or spirits) are marked by ropes decorated with paper streamers called shimenawa. So just as much as this film is a “fantasy” it also represents a kind of cosmological reality that people are very willing to suspend disbelief for. In fact, I would go so far to argue that on some level – for our own sakes as well as for the sake of the  environment (and in fact, these are one in the same) – we need to believe, as our ancestors did, that trees, forests, and nature generally are sacred.

The (somewhat conflicted) Japanese relationship with nature was the subject of my Masters thesis, completed at the University of Canterbury in 2004.

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