What if it were the other way around, however? What if it were the failures of socialism, better still, of socialists and communists, which left in their wake a universal disillusionment in which only consumption and narrow fanaticism seem possible, at least for the present?
–Fredric Jameson, Foreword to Kojin Karatani, Origins of Modern Japanese Literature
No differently will the world one day appear, almost unchanged, in its constant feast-day light, when it stands no longer under the law of labour, and when for homecomers duty has the lightness of holiday play.
–Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia
Even in this global age, it’s the most local things that can have a worldwide effect. Yet why doesn’t anyone make a delightful and wonderful film set in Japan?
We need a new method and sense of discovery to be up to the task. Rather than be sentimental, the film must be a joyful, entertaining film.
Those that are considered lost.
Yet I made My Neighbor Totoro with the firm belief that these things still exist.
–Hayao Miyazaki, The Art of My Neighbor Totoro
In the voices we hear, isn’t there an echo of now silent ones?
–Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History”
In what follows, I want to make a case for reading the great Japanese anime film maker Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro (Tonari no Totoro) (1988) as a supreme example of the subgenre of the science fiction narrative utopia know as the alternate history or “what if” story. Many of Miyazaki’s films present what will be readily recognized as Darko Suvin’s “possible worlds” of utopian narration.1 Most explicitly, examples of this can be found in the far future ecological dystopia of Miyazaki’s first feature film and manga, Nausicäa of the Valley of the Wind (1984); but also in the young adult fantasy of Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) (itself an adaptation of a novel by the Japanese children’s author, Eiko Kadono); the heroic fantasy of Princess Mononoke (1997); the mythic world invoked in Spirited Away (2001); and even the fantastic post-WWI allegory of Porco Rosso (1992). Moreover, a number of Miyazaki’s films explicitly deploy elements of the alternate history, including the fantastic alternate nineteenth century imagined in Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986), and the parallel worlds story of Howl’s Moving Castle (2004).2
However, most critics would in fact exempt Totoro from this list. The film is understood to be at most a beautiful nostalgic evocation of rural life in late 1950s Japan (or earlier, and more intriguingly as I will suggest, of Miyazaki’s own childhood in the late 1940s), with some fantastic elements drawn from Shinto, the traditional polytheistic and animistic religion of Japan, injected in it.3 The pioneering scholar of anime, Susan J. Napier, for example, describes the film as “perhaps the most ‘Japanese’ of Miyazaki’s films” (493), a “nostalgic personal fantasy,” and thus an exception to a body of work that “supports the kokusaika [internationalization] side of the debate, as both texts and subtexts of his films clearly advocate a flexible openness to and appreciation of other cultures” (475).4 Moreover, the film continues to be an inspiration among some Japanese viewers for an outpouring of nostalgia for the more “innocent” 1950s, before the explosive wave of modernization that would sweep the island beginning in the 1960s (although for a devastating critique of the former moment see Kenzaburo Oe’s classic novel, The Silent Cry ). This nostalgia culminated in the construction at the 2005 World Expo in Japan of a replica of the house featured in the film, where, as a website for the Expo notes, “everything in the house appears to have come straight out of the 1950s” (Expo 2005 n.p.).
The story of Totoro is a deceptively simple one (and I must confess that I was first drawn to this film by my twins, Nadia and Owen, who, as three year olds, requested repeatedly that we watch the film – I thus need to thank them for the inspiration to begin to watch and rewatch all of Miyazaki’s films). Two sisters, four-year old Mei and pre- teenager Satsuki, move with their father, Tatsuo Kusakabe, a professor in the department of archaeology at Tokyo University, into a beautiful if run-down house, one that combines traditional Japanese and modern Western elements, located in farmlands modeled on those of Saitama Prefecture outside of Tokoyo. They do so, we soon learn, to be nearer the moutainside hospital where the girls’ mother convalesces. (Mei’s age and the mother’s condition have led some viewers to surmise that the film is in part based in autobiography, as Miyazaki’s beloved mother began a nine-year period of treatment for spinal tuberculosis when the boy was only six years old [McCarthy 120]. This too required that the Miyazaki family move frequently.) While establishing themselves in their new home, the children encounter magical beings, first the soot sprites (susuwatari) inhabiting the shadowy regions of the building (and ultimately driven from it by the family’s collective laughter); and then, far more significantly, the creature that identifies itself as Totoro (a childish mispronunciation of the phonetic Japanese pronunciation of troll [toröru]) and his diminutive companions, all of whom inhabit a magnificent camphor tree that grows near the family’s home. In perhaps the most celebrated scene of the film, Satsuki first meets Totoro at a bus stop as the girls wait one rain soaked evening for their father to return from the university.
When Satsuki shares her umbrella with Totoro, he gives her a set of magic acorn seeds – which a few nights later, sprout into giant trees – before climbing on board a fantastic “cat bus,” one of a number of such vehicles that race across the countryside while apparently remaining invisible to adults.
A crisis arises late in the film when Mei, believing her mother’s condition has worsened, attempts to walk to the distant hospital. When they cannot find the child, the family’s close friend, Granny, comes to believe she has drowned. After learning this is not the case, Satsuki pleads with Totoro to help her. Totoro comes to the rescue, calling for the cat bus, which finds Mei and then takes both girls to the hospital where, safely perched in a tree, they are reassured by the sight of their mother sitting in bed talking with their father. The girls then leave an ear of corn on the windowsill where it is found by their parents, a sign that moves the film from what Tzetvan Todorov calls the genre of the fantastic, a tale that leaves the viewer hesitating between understanding the events they witness as the children’s fantasy or as actuality, to that of the marvelous, “characterized by the mere presence of supernatural events, without implicating the reaction they provoke in the characters” (47).5 The end credits serve as an epilogue to the film, and assure us that eventually the mother becomes healthy enough to join the family in their new home.
A number of critics have read Totoro and the other marvelous creatures in the film as kami or the animistic spirits of Shinto. This interpretation is further strengthened by the fact that the family honors the various shrines they encounter as they move through the countryside. This in turn reinforces a reading of the film as nostalgic for an earlier more “pure” Japanese way of life, a fact that becomes even more problematic when one recalls that Shinto was deployed as a nationalist ideology in the period of military build up leading to the Second World War. Such an interpretation, however, runs counter both to Miyazaki’s explicit denial – “this movie has nothing to do with that or any other religion” (qtd. in McCarthy 121) – and to what we know to be the filmmaker’s professed early investments in Marxism. (Indeed, although sometimes referred to, much to his dismay, as the “Walt Disney of Japan,” Miyazaki served in his earlier days as an organizer and officer in his animator’s union.6)
One recent reading that complexifies this interpretation of the film has been advanced by Lucy Wright, who argues that while Miyazaki “is still drawing on the cultural myth of an idealized, paradisal existence in ancient Japan,” he also “attempts to distance himself from the significant political and nationalistic implications inherent in any discussion of Shinto.” In its stead, Miyazaki develops a “more expansive and global vision” that ultimately brings in elements of other culture to “coalesce into coherent and transnational human traits” (paragraph 3). While moving in the right directions, Wright’s reading still elides the deeply historicist, materialist, and ultimately radical political nature of the utopian vision evident in this film. Indeed, I maintain that this is in many ways the most political of all of Miyazaki’s deeply political films.
In order to begin to shift the discussion then, I want to note one remarkable aspect of the film that has received very little critical attention – the utter absence of “landscape” within it. I take the concept of the historical “discovery of landscape” from Kojin Karatani’s landmark book, Origins of Modern Japanese Literature. Karatani claims that landscape is, along with a number of other foundational categories – face, interiority, confession, a signifying sickness, and the child – “an epistemological constellation, the origins of which were suppressed as soon as it was produced” (22). He later expands upon this idea, arguing, “Once a landscape has been established, its origins are repressed from memory. It takes on the appearance of an ‘object’ which has been there, outside of us, from the start” (34). The rapid emergence and naturalization of this new notion of landscape occurs in the late nineteenth century, the period of a dramatic change in Japanese life known as the Meiji Restoration. Karatani notes, “I would like to propose that the notion of ‘landscape’ developed in Japan sometime during the third decade of the Meiji period. Of course, there were landscapes long before they were ‘discovered.’ But ‘landscapes’ as such did not exist prior to the 1890s” (19). Karatani further contends that while these transformations first take place in the West, “Meiji Japan offers us the key to the nature of that inversion which was specific to the West yet was concealed (since it took place over a much longer period of time) under the façade of linear development” (30).
Karatani goes on to observe, “Of course, I do not mean to say that landscapes and faces had not previously existed. But for them to be seen as ‘simply landscape’ or ‘simply face’ required, not a perceptual transformation, but an inversion of that topos which had privileged the conception landscape or face. It was only through such an inversion that the naked face – the naked face as a kind of landscape, took on meaning in and of itself and what had been insignificant became profoundly significant” (56). “Landscape as such,” a concept Karatani claims is central to the development of literary realism, depends upon a separation of subject and object: “Both the landscapes and the ‘ordinary people’ (what I have called people-as-landscapes) that realism represents were not ‘out there’ from the start, but had to be discovered as landscapes from which we had become alienated” (29). This then marked a profound break from older practices, evident in sansuiga landscape painting, haiku poetry, and, even earlier, medieval European arts:
Medieval European painting and landscape painting share something in common that differentiates them from modern landscape painting. In both, place is conceived of in transcendental terms. For a brush painter to depict a pine grove meant to depict the concept (that which is signified by) ‘pine grove,’ not an existing pine grove. The transcendental vision of space had to be overturned before painters could see existing pine groves as their subjects. This is when modern perspective appears. Or more accurately, what we call modern perspective had already emerged at some point before this in the form of a perspectival inversion. (27)
It is a form of this older transcendental vision of space that we see at work in My Neighbor Totoro. The best example of this is to be found in the figure of the giant camphor tree, home to Totoro, that hovers above the family’s home and much of the action of the film.
The choice of this particular tree species was not an accidental one, for as Wright observes, “The majestic camphor tree often plays an important role as signifying both kami and ancestors” (paragraph 26). It is her term “signifying” on which I would like to place the most emphasis here, for this fantastic form is clearly not the representation of any existing tree but rather the figuration of a set of concepts signified by this tree: an erasure of the dividing line between humans and nature – at one point when the family goes to greet and thank the tree, the girl’s father states that this is a very old tree from the time “when trees and people got along” – as well as a deep rootedness in place, community, belonging, and mutual support. (Moreover, in a brief scene that uncannily seems to nod toward the passage from Karatani I cited a moment ago, Satsuki’s classmate and Granny’s grandson, Kanta, is shown inscribing the Japanese characters signifying the concept “pine nut.”)
We also are presented throughout the film brief self-contained lyrical images – raindrops in a rice paddy, a frog crawling alongside a puddle (“Spring rain: as yet/ the little froglets’ bellies/ haven’t got wet”), a pink sandal floating in a pond with a dragonfly resting upon it – which function in a way similar to traditional haiku.
In describing a work of the great Edo period poet, Yosa Buson (1716-1784), whose “spring rain” haiku I quoted in the previous sentence, Karatani writes, “what this example really reveals is that Buson was fascinated, not so much by landscape, as by the written word” (22). Similarly, I would suggest that in My Neighbor Totoro, as well as in his more fantastic anime, Miyazaki is fascinated not so much by landscape as by the expressive potentialities of the animation medium itself. This is because such a non-naturalistic presentation is especially well suited to animation – and, following Walter Benjamin’s lead, we might use Miyzaki’s work to begin to think further about the utopian dimensions of animation itself.7
The film’s setting further reinforces the notion of the absence of landscape. The main actions of Totoro take place in a region known as the satoyama, forest commons managed by local agricultural communities. One discussion notes,
According to another more recent definition, satoyama includes not only mixed community forests, but also the entire landscape necessary for agricultural activity. Thus, according to this definition, satoyama consists of a mosaic of mixed forests, rice paddy fields, dry rice fields, grasslands, streams, ponds, and reservoirs for irrigation. In this system, each habitat is considered essential for the agricultural economy. Grasslands were maintained to feed horses and cattle, which were then used as sources of power in agricultural activities. Streams, ponds, and reservoirs were managed to adjust water levels in the paddy fields and to supply fish to eat. (Kobori and Primack 308)
It is this sense of a total integration with the land, a blurring of the lines between nature and culture, and a collective stewardship of these commons that is a central aspect of the film’s larger vision as well. Crucially, without landscape, there can be no possibility of an environmental politics isolated from other social and cultural concerns. (However, in our non-utopian world the film served as the inspiration for efforts to preserve satoyama in the Sayama Hills region, giving rise in April 1990 to the National Trust of Totoro no Furusato [homeland of Totoro].)8
This also offers us another explanation of the Shinto imagery and practices on display in the film. In a later discussion of the role of Christianity in the transformations of the Meiji period, Karatani writes, “Through monotheism, for Uchimura, nature became for the very first time ‘simply nature.’ . . . One has the sense, moreover, of a discovery of landscape here. Nature, formerly veiled by diverse prohibitions and significations, becomes ‘simply nature’ when it is seen as the creation of a single God” (88). In a similar manner, in Totoro, Shinto functions not as an articulated system of beliefs, let alone the nationalist ideology it had become in the prewar period, but rather as a sign of the absence of the alienations that produce landscape and its related conceptual configurations.
All of this is effectively staged in a visually rich sequence that immediately precedes Satsuki’s first encounter with Totoro I alluded to earlier. Running home from school, Satsuki and Mei are caught in a sudden heavy rainfall – the first sign of which is the image of drops hitting a rice paddy I described a moment ago – and are forced to seek shelter in a roadside shrine to Jizo (literally translated as “womb of the earth”). The girls thank the Jizo statue, addressing it as “sir,” and ask if it would not mind if they share his shelter for a while. We then cut to a pan across a rice paddy that stops on an image of Kanta moving up the road. Next, we see through Kanta’s eyes the shrine with the girls framed by an electric trolley passing by.
Kanta arrives at the shrine, forces his umbrella on the girls, and then sprints home through the downpour, passing by the stone entrance way to the shrine of the giant camphor tree. When we next encounter Kanta he is at home playing with a model prop plane – images of flight, especially in propeller driven craft, recur throughout Miyazaki’s films for reasons that I will make clear shortly – and being berated by his mother for leaving his umbrella at school. Shortly thereafter, the girls arrive at Kanta’s home, return the umbrella and ask his mother to thank him for them, before they head off in turn to meet their father at the bus stop. Kanta’s joy at this recognition is indicated by his subsequent play. In this sequence, all of the elements I described above are present – the absence of landscape and in its place a sense of the deep interrelationship between humans and their world; the reinforcement of all of this through signifiers of Shinto; and a clear expression of the forms of mutuality that pervade the community. It is as if the subsequent “miracle” of the encounters with Totoro and the cat bus are enabled by precisely these events.
Finally, we might also follow Karatani’s lead and argue that there are no children in the film, children being another of the ruptural discoveries of the Meiji period: “Of course, children have existed since ancient times,” Karatani writes, “yet ‘the child’ as we conceive of it and objectify it did not exist prior to a particular period” (118). This plays out in the film in terms of a blurring of the distinctions – between adult and children and, equally significantly, between work and play – that are fundamental to the “discovery” of the figure of the child: the girl’s father is shown at a number of times working at home, sharing a bath with his daughters (a scene that produced some anxiety when the film was first planned on being released to a Western audience), and taking their claims about the existence of Totoro and the soot sprites with an utter joyous nonchalance.9 At the same time, we see all of the younger members of the families continuously moving fluidly between school and work in the family farms.
Moreover, the film also dispenses with the divisions between children of different ages, divisions, Karatani points out, that are produced by modern educational systems: “From this viewpoint, it becomes clear that the grouping of children by age in the compulsory educational system of modern Japan signified the uprooting of children, as abstract and homogenous entities, from productive relations, social classes, and communities that had previously been their concrete contexts” (130). In a useful on-line close reading of the film, Chris Tham interestingly observes that, in the scene I described a moment ago of Kanta at work in the one- room classroom, the characters the boy inscribes in his notebook are those learned in three different grade levels (3,4, and 5). Tham then concludes, “Perhaps this is an attempt to ensure grade schoolchild viewers (of multiple ages) identify with the drill practice. Or perhaps Miyazaki’s recollection of his early schooldays is a bit hazy!” (n.p.). I would argue, on the other hand, that through this figure Miyazaki deliberately undermines the divisions, hierarchies, and developmental teleologies (” ‘maturation’ an inevitable trajectory for them” [Karatani 123]) that are an essential aspect of modern schooling.
Finally, this absence is further reinforced in the difference commented upon by both Napier and Wright, between Miyazaki’s films and the “sanitized children’s stories” and “reassuring fantasy” produced by the Disney corporation (Wright paragraph 12; Napier 490). (Ironically, Disney now is the U.S. distributor of Miyazaki and other Studio Ghibli films, including most recently Miyazaki’s latest critical fable of environmental despoilage, Ponyo ). Indeed, Miyazaki’s films are closer to traditional folktales and, as Karatani notes, “Japanese folktales were not meant for children” (121).
It is the recognition of the absence in the film of landscape and children (and to this list we might also add, psychological interiority) that is crucial to understanding the film as a utopian alternate history. For what Miyazaki presents us with in My Neighbor Totoro is a vision in which the classic “what if” question of the genre has been proposed: that is, what if the Meiji revolution did not happen? Moreover, since it is the dramatic and rapid modernization of the Meiji period that gives rise to the virulent imperialist nationalism and militarism that ultimately results in the Second World War, Miyazaki also offers in his film us a glimpse of a Japan in which the catastrophe of World War II did not occur.
A further sign that Totoro represents an alternate history is indicated by the fact that in its original Japanese release, the film was screened as part of a double feature alongside Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no Haka), a grim naturalist portrait (indeed, it has been compared to post-World War Two Italian neo-realism) of an orphaned brother and sister’s futile efforts to survive during the final weeks of the war in a Japan devastated by fire bombing. Not only did many of the same animators and production teams work on both films, there are a number of references throughout that suggest it and Totoro were intended to be understood as a complementary pair. For example, the lush visual representation of the countryside that the children inhabit for part of Grave of the Fireflies recalls the setting of Totoro; and at one point, the young protagonist Seita lies to his sister telling her that their mother – who perishes after being severely burned in the attack on their city and whose ashes are in a can inside their meager cave-like dwelling – is buried under a giant camphor tree.
Here too we see a world that is the inverse of that figured in Totoro. The children starve and Seita is forced into robbing homes during air raids because of the refusal of the local population, and even their aunt’s family, to share their meager possessions. Moreover, whereas in Totoro the natural world itself seems to also shelter and nurture the children, here a fully objectified mute landscape appears glacially indifferent to their suffering. And finally, the fact that this world is the direct product of the Meiji modernization is made apparent by Seita’s faith in the might of the Japanese military – the children’s father is a member of the Navy – and the rightness of its nationalist and imperial project. The final image of the film, where the ghosts of the two children sit on a hillside overlooking the gleaming towers of a prosperous contemporary city, suggests that they are to be understood as the specter disrupting, in Benjaminian fashion – “The chronicler who narrates events without distinguishing between major and minor ones acts in accord with the following truth: nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost to history” (390) – any triumphalist late twentieth century vision of Japan’s economic success.
As in the classic examples of the alternate history, the valences are then reversed in Totoro, this contemporary urban landscape becoming the terrible specter, and the children given a new and redeemed life. One of the standard devices of the alternate history is to present the world we know and inhabit as a grim dystopian possibility within the alternate world. Viewing the two films in tandem in effect locates the naturalism of Grave of the Fireflies in this same position of dystopian Other in relationship to Totoro.
Read in this way, the biographical and psychological motivations for Totoro‘s alternate history scenario become readily apparent. Miyazaki’s father was not, unlike Mei and Satsuki’s, a university professor benignly studying ancient civilizations. He was in fact the director of Miyazaki Airplane, a manufacturing concern that made the rudders for A6M Zero fighter planes. We are told that Miyazaki has been plagued throughout his life by guilt for his family’s profiting from the destructiveness of the Second World War. Thus, in this film fantasy, this guilt, along with the war’s violences and victims, are spirited away along with the histories – “one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet” – that gave rise to them in the first place (Benjamin 393).
All of this also reveals something interesting about the formal operations of the subgenre of the alternate history. Fredric Jameson argues that one of the quintessential operations of all utopian figurations is what he calls “world reduction”: “based on a principle of systematic exclusion, a kind of surgical excision of empirical reality, something like a process of ontological attenuation in which the sheer teeming multiplicity of what exists, of what we call reality, is deliberately thinned and weeded out through an operation of radical abstraction and simplification” (271). The “what if” question that is at the center of the alternate history too can be understood as inaugurating a similar operation of world reduction, such that for example, what we have in the otherwise very different alternate histories of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine and Terry Bisson’s Fire on the Mountain is a vision of another world without the development of the superpower conflict of the Cold War; or more recently, in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Years of Rice and Salt, we glimpse a global history without the dynamics of European capitalist and imperial modernization.10
However, to read the film exclusively in this negative and wish-fulfilling fashion is to miss the deeper utopian implications of both Karatani’s study and this particular film. My title and epigraph in this paper are taken from Jameson’s foreword to Karatani’s book (an essay now also reprinted in his volume, The Modernist Papers). Here Jameson notes the radical originality of Karatani’s historical vision:
For Karatani also simultaneously projects a historical narrative which stands outside this one, and which has determinate political consequences: this is the notion that what we are here calling “Meiji” – that is to say, modernization and modernity, literature, interiority, “westernization” – is itself the result of defeat and failure. There were in this view two Meiji revolutions, one that succeeded and one that failed. The successful one is the constitution of the Japanese modern state as we know it; the failed revolution was contemporaneous with the Paris Commune, the popular uprisings that arose in millenarian fashion at the “dawn smell” of a new era and at the collapse of the old structures (like Bakhtin’s moment of Rabelais, at the end of the Middle Ages; or Imamura’s apocalyptic and utopian film, Eijanaika , about this same period). These needed to be repressed in order for power to be consolidated by the clique around the new emperor, but it is their repression and defeat which is accompanied by a massive popular disillusionment that can alone enable the setting in place of the new authoritarian structures: “[T]o speak in Freudian terms, the libido which was once directed towards the People’s Rights movement and the political novel lost its object and was redirected inward, at which point ‘landscape’ and ‘the inner life’ appeared.”
We here fleetingly glimpse an alternate world alongside our own historical one: a world in which modernity in the current coinage did not occur, without our being able to discern clearly the outlines of what, equally supplanting precapitalist forms and relations, took its place. But this alternate world, outside our own history, also lies beyond the boundaries of our explanatory and narrative systems. (xvi- xvii)
If such a utopian vision lies outside of Karatani’s genealogical narration it does not, I would suggest, lie outside of Miyazaki’s fictional one, and thus in this film we see a figuration of the lived relations of a world not only where the second Meiji revolution never occurred, but where the first popular uprising succeeded. A footnote in Karatani’s main text further describes what this event represents in ways that also hints at why it may be so resonant for a Miyazaki who remains so deeply concerned throughout his films with questions of gender and equality: “The People’s Rights movement (jiyu minken undo) was launched by Itagaki Taisuke and other samurai disaffected with the policies of the Meiji government in 1874. Agricultural depression and popular opposition to the new uniform tax system swelled the ranks of the movement, broadening its base to include village leaders, wealthy farmers and merchants and, by the 1880s, women” (37).
Thus, we do have in this film a world that seems to have returned to an earlier relationship between people and nature, where “landscape” and the child in their modern alienated senses have not come into being. However, it is also a world where modernization has continued, albeit in a new direction, something signaled by the repeated images throughout of electrification and Shinto coexisting side-by- side, and even in such figures of enchanted technology as the cat bus.
This then results in a vision not unlike what we find in William Morris’s great Meiji era utopian fiction, News from Nowhere (1890): a world where the hierarchies of gender and class have disappeared along with any sign of nationalist or militaristic violence (as well as the occupying U.S. military so omnipresent in Japan in our history of this period); where there is a sense of collective stewardship of the land and an end of the destructive exploitations illustrated and condemned in Miyazaki’s more dystopian anime and manga visions; where there is a deep sense of community and mutuality (something that comes to the fore in the images of collective working of the land, and in the representation of the mobilization to find Mei); and finally, where there seems to be no sign of money whatsoever. It is a deeply satisfying utopian vision of a world that has not yet but might very well come into being – a vision that, I would conclude, keeps not only my children, but myself, and many others besides, returning again and again to the “epoch of rest” so brilliantly illuminated in this film.
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