Sibling Sisterhood on Screen: Part 3

Sibling Sisterhood on Screen: Part 3

Sibling sisterhood is a complex affair. When push comes to shove the sister bond can generate fierce protectiveness, closest confidences and our sister – younger, older, or the middlers – can be our most formative female role model. Sisters can of course also be a bloody nightmare!

Directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven and co-written by Alice Winocour, the brilliant Turkish drama MUSTANG depicts five spirited sisters fighting the physical and psychological confines of their patriarchal home. It’s beguiling and sometimes harrowing, but what shines through is the siblings’ tenderness and their unbreakable bond.

The film is released in UK cinemas on Friday 13 May by Curzon Artificial Eye. To celebrate, BEV is running a series of reflections looking at other great portrayals of sibling sisterhood on screen…

My Neighbour Totoro

Japan 1988, Dir Hayao Miyazaki
By Laura Adams (Directors UK)

There’s a go-to film for whenever you’re in need of reassurance that the world is good, and that film is My Neighbour Totoro. As with many (most) of the Studio Ghibli films, you can rely on it to focus on the adventures, and also the everyday life, of a young girl; complex in her emotions, ambitions, and behaviour. In …Totoro we get a double whammy in sisters Mei and Satsuki, who move with their father to a run-down house in rural postwar Japan to be closer to their mother, who is convalescing in a hospital.

They’re not necessarily carefree young girls, and their shared worry for their mother, and their new life, is revealed frequently. Yet, they are also children who are able to set aside anxiety to cartwheel around the garden together; chase coal dust spirits from the attic; and follow a large furry lagomorph with a wide and toothy grin into its peaceful lair in the forest, finding comfort in nature.

The sisters meet the Totoros, keepers of the forest, separately. Mei, the younger sibling, is first, following the creature from her garden and falling asleep in its fur, only to be found and woken later on a mound of leaves by Satsuki, who doesn’t give credence to Mei’s tale. Satsuki is next, as she waits at the bus stop for her father in the rain, resulting in one of the best cinematic moments for an umbrella since Singin’ in the Rain. It’s telling that their encounters involve their foremost characteristics – Mei curious and Satsuki caring. When they do meet the Totoros together, it results in a celebratory dance and a wondrous trip to the top of a magic tree.

The sisters are independent, and yet can rely on each other. They experience sadness and worry, they’re in fairly scary situations, and very exhilarating ones too. They annoy each other, and hug each other. And, most importantly, they get to ride around in a giant furry bus made of a cat together. Satsuki takes it upon herself to be responsible for Mei, getting irritated by her when she isn’t where she should be, or when she gets upset; ultimately Satsuki is unable to be upset in front of Mei, keeping her emotions under control until she finally breaks down with Granny.

When Mei runs off after an argument with Satsuki, the older sister becomes the leader of the search party, finally enlisting Totoro, who summons the catbus (oh how I wish I could summon the catbus), who yowls across the countryside to where Mei sits, lost in the night. Satsuki knows her own anger is really a yearning to be able to show her emotions as truthfully as Mei; and Mei knows that Satsuki will look out for her.

The original concept art for My Neighbour Totoro shows a girl alone, younger than Satsuki but older than Mei, standing in the rain with Totoro. Split into two characters, siblings, sisters, their names are the same – Satsuki derives from the word for the month of May. I for one am glad that that lone girl, that Alice following Chibi-Totoro (Little-Totoro) down the rabbit hole, ended up as a pair of sisters for the final film.


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