What the Catbus Teaches You About Japanese Culture

Studio Ghibli's Catbus


What does My Neighbor Totoro’s  Catbus (nekobus) say about Japanese culture? Too much for one post, actually. You could write a doctoral thesis on a single Studio Ghibli film, so I’ll just focus on a few points from one character. The Catbus has a story. Let’s begin.

That Creepy Smile

However cute it might be, the Catbus still looks…a bit sinister. Be honest now. If a giant catbus smiled at you like this, would you take a ride? But in Japan, the good gods are scarier than evil spirits to frighten them away. Male deities often look quite vicious.

Besides that, some Shinto deities are actually malevolent. Susanoo is the terrifying lord of the underworld, but despite being twice banished from heaven and murdering the goddess of food, he has shrines devoted to him throughout Japan–including a popular one for couples. The most clear-cut reason why he’s worshipped is that Susanoo is strongly tied to the formerly independent and powerful Izumo area.

The Japanese imperial family once based their right to rule off ancestry to the sun goddess. Many other powerful clans also had divine ancestors. Since the creation myth was compiled by the ruling family, they tried to legitimize their authority over the extremely important–but dangerous–Izumo clan by painting its divine ancestor in a subordinate role. Worship of Susanoo and his progeny was deeply engrained in Izumo though, and the imperial family’s ancient PR campaign wasn’t enough to squash it. Stories of Susanoo from Izumo still depict him neutrally.

Susanoo's Shrine in Hiroshima

A Susanoo shrine in Hiroshima

Kami (meaning very roughly, spirits. Including deities) are also not good or evil. It’s not that they’re not beyond the concepts: kami just have several souls. Among these is the ara-mitama, a kami’s aggressive soul that must be placated with offerings before the more good-natured nigi-mitama can appear. A kami’s souls can even be separate entities enshrined in separate places. The Grand Ise shrine has several shrines devoted to the various humors of the sun goddess, all of which must be prayed to in a set order. Having the Catbus look a bit scary is just a traditional part of Japanese religion, which has no problem with gods that aren’t always good guys.

It’s A Boy!

The Catbus is visibly male. Studio Ghibli didn’t have any issues animating its testis, and Japanese parents didn’t have any issues with their children seeing them. In My Neighbor Totoro though, it was an easily-missed scene, so a better example might be Pom Poko. Pom Poko was Japan’s top-grossing domestic film in 1994 about a tanuki (racoon dog) war. Testis are very prominent in tanuki folklore, and were an integral part of the characters’ magical arsenal.

Japanese children though, are aware of gender differences. Anyone who’s seen My Neighbor Totoro’s might have missed the Catbus’ unmentionables, but they couldn’t have missed the mixed-gender bathing scene between the father and his two daughters. Family baths are an important part of Japanese culture. Most Japanese I asked had mix-gendered family baths until around age six through ten. That might be shocking for many non-Japanese, but in Japan, family baths are an important chance for family members to communicate openly.

Why A Catbus?

In ancient Japan, the forest was a mystical place that lent its mystery to its animal residents. While eclipsed by foxes and tanuki, folklore about cats nevertheless hit closer to home because cats were part of everyday life. There were even documents warning Japanese to be wary of strangely-behaving cats, which may be demons.

Bakeneko and nekomata are shapeshifting cats that gained supernatural powers after living for (around) a decade. Their most common depiction is a two-tailed cat dancing on its hind legs with a napkin on its head. (Don’t ask why.) They were sometimes harmless tricksters, but more often malevolent.

Yet in Japanese folklore, nothing is ever completely good or evil. The most common cat superstition is the manekineko. According to legend, one day a man saw a cat beckoning him with its paw. (The gesture to beckon someone in Japan has your hand facing downward, like a cat.) When the intrigued man heeded it, lightning struck right where he had been standing. Ever since then, shop owners have placed manekineko in their stores to beckon both customers and good fortune.

Why A Catbus?

The Catbus is a kami-like being. In the first section I said kami roughly means “spirit,” but it could also be translated a number of other ways. Japanese philosophers are still wrestling with what the word truly means. According to Shinto, almost anything can be/have a kami. Rocks. Plants. Animals. People. Gods. When something has a spirit of significance, it is/has a kami.

That’s significance, without regard for good or evil. There is a story about a Japanese statesman who was removed from his post, died, and became a vengeful god who tormented the land until a shrine was built to placate him. Even those, especially those, bearing grudges can become kami. Sadako from The Ring is a likely a vengeful kami. (My theory is she’s an ara-mitama. I glean that from Ring 0: Birthday, where she was split into two beings: one good, one evil.)

But kami can be created for a number of reasons. There’s a kind of youkai (Japanese monster) called tsukumogami, kami of a tool. They’re animate household objects that include sandals, lanterns, rolls of cotton, etc. They can spring to life for a few reasons, including being misused or existing for a certain number of years. The idea of a bus having/being a kami isn’t far fetched in Japanese folklore. The Catbus wasn’t born only from Hayoa Miyazaki’s imagination, but greater Japanese culture.

Japanese Culture And The Catbus

The Catbus has a lot to say about Japanese culture. There’s more, but going further would get too abstract and philosophical. That’s it for the Catbus for now. Stay tuned though. There’s more Japanese culture from common things to come. A few more from Studio Ghibli films might be in order too.

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2 Comments on “What the Catbus Teaches You About Japanese Culture”

  1. AnnaSan
    January 25, 2014 at 10:01 pm #

    To be honest I never noticed the catbus’s testes – was it edited out of the Disney version?

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