My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
Written & Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
No one wanted Totoro. From the first pitches by Miyazaki and his producer Toshio Suzuki in the early 1980s, they were rejected by multiple studios who didn’t believe that such a pastoral, simple story about two little girls and the spirits of the forest would appeal to too few people. This was also the first film from Miyazaki to take place in an identifiable 1950s Japan, further diminishing the escapist fantasy the distributors were looking for. When My Neighbor Totoro was released, it was shown as a double-feature with Grave of the Fireflies, a brutal tragedy about Japan’s victims of the American atomic bombing. It wasn’t until a year after its release when it began airing on television that My Neighbor Totoro finally found its fan following.
The film tells the story of two sisters, Satsuki and Mei, whose father has moved them to a home in the country to be closer to the hospital where their sick mother is staying. The girls discover the house is the home to susuwatari, little soot spirits who hide in the building’s dark spots. While Satsuki is off at school, little Mei wanders outside and follows two forest spirits into the nearby woods where she finds a slumbering troll. His roars sound like he is saying “Totoro,” the Japanese equivalent for “troll,” and so she names him that. Satsuki eventually meets Totoro one night while the girls wait in the rain for their father’s bus, and he becomes a distant but helpful presence in their lives.
You can tell how much the Japanese rural landscape inspired Miyazaki as he devotes so many scenes to the pastoral land. The farmland was based on the area the director lived in at the time, about an hour outside Tokyo. He went for many walks during the day and took in the beautiful natural scenery, eventually inspired to make a film centered around these vistas. Totoro continues the filmmaker’s work about humanity’s relationship with the natural world, with the themes here being much less dire and confrontational than in Nausicaa. Instead, the story is about nature’s ability to protect these children from the harsh realities of what is happening in their family. We do get a happy ending with the mother moving towards recovery, but Miyazaki doesn’t try to soften the reality of these people’s situation.
There have been some wild fan theories about what My Neighbor Totoro is about, from saying it references some notorious child killings in Japan from the 1960s to Totoro being the God of Death. Miyazaki has debunked all of these and has clarified that the film is about Shinto philosophy. Shintoism is a very ancient Japanese tradition that attempts to show respect to the spirits they believe make up all aspects of life. Both the forest and the house are home to different energies, and the characters find old shrines throughout the landscape that are reminders of a time when Shintoism was practiced more regularly. The girls’ father makes a reference at one point that humans and trees were once good friends and has his children bow and greet a large camphor tree near their home.
Despite this, Miyazaki has gone on record saying that Totoro is not a spirit, but an animal that lives in the forest. He sees Totoro as the forest’s keeper, a unique creature who watches over those who live in and around the wooded area. This bears similarities with some of the ideas explored in Princess Mononoke, where we see a very different forest guardian who acts in a much more threatening way. Here the animals are friendly to everyone they meet, but Miyazaki never presents us with anyone really threatening nature in Totoro. There is no real over-arching conflict until the third act, and even that is resolved relatively quickly.
My Neighbor Totoro is an incredibly pleasant and heartfelt movie that never engages in empty sentimentality. The story never lingers on the sick mother as we see events unfold through the children’s eyes. Their parents do an excellent job of being honest with them while protecting them from the anxiety and fear that could easily accompany their situation. In turn, Miyazaki makes the potential scary forest into a place of mystery and magic that anyone of us would love to explore. Totoro’s message appears to be one of hope for humanity, that we should find ways to break away from the stress of modern life and be silly, embracing the natural world that we came from.