Do You Love Totoro’s World? Read This Charming Memoir

Karin K Jensen

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The first time I watched Hayao Miyazaki’s animated fantasy film, My Neighbor Totoro, I was captivated by the themes of connection with a spiritually alive nature, the introduction to Japanese Shinto culture, and the funny and warm relationships between family members.

The film, set in post-World War 2 rural Japan, tells the story of a professor’s young daughters and their interactions with friendly wood spirits. Like all great films for children, it resonated with adults, too. The film examines:

  • How embracing change can lead to adventure
  • How exploring nature can change your world view
  • The value of spending time with family and chosen family
  • That it’s okay to grieve

I had a similar feeling when reading Yaeko Sugama Weldon and Linda E. Austin’s gem of a memoir, “Cherry Blossoms in Twilight.” This short book (128 pages) relates Yaeko’s memories of an impoverished but happy Japanese childhood shattered by World War 2, how her family survived the horrors of war, and the aftermath that lead Yaeko to marry an American soldier and move to the United States.

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The book is geared to children and written simply in a way that made me feel as if I was sitting with Yaeko over a cup of tea, and she was telling me her story. I enjoyed her everyday life descriptions, such as how they bathed without indoor plumbing, heated the house on cold winter mornings, and about what Yaeko learned in school.

“Once, my school class went to visit a silkworm farm and saw many shelves filled with caterpillars. There were so many eating the leaves that it sounded like soft rain falling.” -- Linda E. Austin

I enjoyed reading about the way her parents raised her. Although my mother was Chinese, there was a certain directness of communication about moral character and a value placed on self-presentation that reminded me of my upbringing.

“On the first day of school, my father wrote a little note and put it on the back of my closet door. It said, “right, straight, honest and cheerful.”… (H)e said, “Yaeko, every morning before you change clothes, look at these words, then be cheerful and show to your friends kindness of heart. I know you can do it.” -- Linda E. Austin

In today’s world, where we are glued to computers for so much of our work and social lives, I loved hearing about the education Yaeko received, with its greater focus on hand-craftmanship, such as learning to sew and to create art and how to connect with the real world.

“One day, the teacher taught us how to write poetry. She told us first we must get close to nature, to hear or see things, and then find the feeling inside ourselves. She took us to the woods and said, “Now we are in the very quiet woods, and you must listen carefully.” There I felt a gentle breeze shaking the treetops and heard a little insect singing. These sounds and feelings make haiku poetry.” -- Linda E. Austin

Each character comes to life, and I especially loved Yaeko’s father, who demonstrates by his actions how to create a loving relationship without money.

“In the winter, when I went outside to wash my face in the cold well water, my father warmed up a towel for me to dry off with. He would put my shoes in the sunshine to get them warm before I put them on.” -- Linda E. Austin

By contrast, Yaeko’s mother saved Yaeko’s life as an infant during a terrible bout of pneumonia that the doctor couldn’t cure, and she frequently demonstrates her love by sewing beautiful clothes for her. However, Yaeko has difficulty reconciling her mother’s cultural favoritism for her brother. Their relationship is stormier.

“I loved my mother, but I felt her love was unfair – that she loved my brother more than me. She would take my brother’s side, right or wrong. She always corrected me. My mother would say that girls are not so good to have because they marry and leave home, but when a son gets married, he stays to take care of his parents.” -- Linda E. Austin

Although the book is for children, it does not shy from the horrors of war. There are poignant scenes of devastation from the bombing of Tokyo that I will not soon forget. One scene in which a man, so starved that he can no longer speak or walk, wordlessly begs for food, brought tears to my eyes.

My father served in the Pacific Theater during World War 2. He was part of Japan’s occupation, so I was particularly fascinated by the aftermath – how some on both sides of the ocean could never forgive and forget. Yet many more came to recognize that governments’ actions do not always reflect the spirit of their citizens.

I recalled a story my Dad told me of walking down a street in Japan and observing two young Japanese women in kimono crossing the road and stopping to bow toward a temple, then giggling to each other as they continued on. He remembered thinking, “Are these people my enemy?”

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Similarly, as Yaeko finds employment as a food server at an American military base, she begins to reconcile herself with the reality that there are now so many fewer Japanese men her age whom she might marry. She comes to enjoy meeting the soldiers and learning about American culture.

There is a surprise, sad ending, which I did not expect in a children’s book. However, this story is true and wisely teaches that both sweet and bitter moments make up a life. As much as I loved Disney stories as a child, I concede my disappointment when I got older and learned that life is not all about “happily ever after.”

I highly recommend Cherry Blossoms in Twilight. The publisher suggests this book for grades 5 through 12 (but adults will enjoy it, too!).

Reference:

4 Lessons to Learn From “My Neighbor Totoro”

#nbholidaycheer #bookreview #cherryblossomsintwilight #japaneseculture #LindaEAustin #memoir

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Proud Alamedan writing about our arts, business, politics, and events. I also write about local Asian American history. On Instagram @karinkjensen.

Alameda, CA
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