Every year, I start kindergarten with a relationships unit. We learn about family relationships, interpersonal relationships, relationships in the garden, and relationships between plants, insects and animals. My Neighbor Totoro will be a perfect addition to this unit--this is a movie all about relationships. The premise: Mei and Satsuki move to a new, rural town with their dad. Their mother is in the hospital. The girls, adjusting to their new life, make new friends, including a forest spirit animal that they call Totoro, experience grief, and become closer as a family. In the end, their mother gets better, and we are to assume they live happily ever after.
After comparing Mei and Satski's life in rural Japan to our life in urban Los Angeles and noting differences in culture that we see in their family dynamic (sleeping, bathing, and chores, to name a few), we will discuss three different relationships in our class after we watch the movie:
1. The relationship between Mei and Satsuki: as sisters, as children, as newcomers to the countryside. They have a very interesting and relatable relationship, one that at times is positive and supportive, and other times is stressed and can be hurtful. I think the students will really enjoy pointing out all the intricacies of their relationship
2. The relationship between the sisters and their parents: there is love and trust, but frustration and panic as well. I could see my students coming up with positive and negative aspects of their relationship as a family--namely, that mom and dad are not always there, and the girls are forced to deal with the stress of having a mother in the hospital on their own.
3. The relationship between humans and the environment: there are a lot of points in the movie where the respect for nature is emphasized. The family prays to the tree, the girls dance with Totoro to grow the seeds--nature is seen as healing, wonderous, and to be respected. I know my students will have a lot to say about what positive and negative things that humans do to the environment--and vice versa.
If nothing else, the students will respond to the cuteness of Totoro, and the transformation of the neighbor boy from enemy to friend. There is a lot that the students can relate to in this movie, as well as a lot they can learn!