“Hey, let’s go! Hey, let’s go! We’re happy as can be!”
-Opening song lyrics
By 1988, Hayao Miyazaki had already directed The Castle of Cagliostro (which we’ve not included in our list of reviews), as well as Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Castle in the Sky. His trio of films ranged from comedic to sci-fi to adventure/fantasy, but with a film about two young girls moving out to the countryside and encountering mysterious creatures, Miyazaki hit home. My Neighbor Totoro is an intensely personal and intimate film, like we’re looking in on the memories of someone’s family. That’s what makes it so special.
I hold that the film defies easy categorization. Is it anime? Well, it is Japanese animation but good luck finding any of the typical, silly anime tropes: dirty old men, hair/personality correlations, transformation sequences, super-deformities, and ugh… tentacles. So is it a coming of age story, then? There’s no angst or social anxiety and discomfort. Is it a fantasy film like Miyazaki’s previous works? Then where are the action scenes and the villains and the rousing climax?
It’s simply a movie that’s unlike most. It takes its time. In moments, it seems to slow to a lazy crawl. Almost all of its scenes seem irrelevant to each other, though of course there’s a distant narrative being told of the lives of the two girls. But take for example their returning the boy’s umbrella, their pumping the water, their eating vegetables, their spending time in school together. Scenes like these don’t build a narrative but they tell us what the lives of these characters are like as children. They seem less like parts of a script and more like individual snapshots, memories pulled intact but independent from the hazy, golden days of youth.
Without villains or antagonists, without action scenes, fights or wars, without quests or maguffins, over-arching plot or archetypes, even without any threat or sense of danger until almost the end of the film’s short run time, My Neighbor Totoro tells its story the way life happens. There are no elaborate setups or predictably scripted outcomes. Its rambling nature is similar to another children’s classic: The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. Like moments in Pooh’s 100 Acre Wood, Totoro’s days and nights feel episodic and unrelated.
Things don’t ever happen in the order that they happen in movies. Things don’t seem to fit together. Isn’t that the way life really is? I can’t look at my life and point out how one experience led directly to another and so on, or who are the villains, or when is the climax. But that’s what Totoro is like. From the perspective of a child, each day is different. Each day is a new experience of wonder and delight and exploration, even if they quickly forget each of those things.
Through My Neighbor Totoro, Miyazaki managed to distill the essence of childhood with all of its carelessness and innocence, its willingness, its awe of the world. You and I used to be like that. Maybe that’s Totoro’s point and purpose. We used to imagine monsters or faeries or strange animals (or in my case Menehune) living in the wilderness around us. Of course, now that we’re sensible and imaginatively-sterile adults, we know better than to believe in such things. Quite clearly they were never there. Or maybe we just don’t see them anymore.
My Neighbor Totoro has been called a children’s family film. It launched the debut of one of animation’s most enduring icons and the mascot for Studio Ghibli: the lovable Totoro himself. This is surprising considering how little Totoro actually appears in this movie. Go back and watch it! He’s in barely any scenes! Yet to this day, the character remains the most recognizable of Ghibli’s creations. He has found his way into many a parody and many a cameo, even appearing in Toy Story 3! Totoro is the Mickey Mouse of Japan.
The film begins with the Kusakabe family moving to the country, riding on their overburdened truck and surrounded by rice paddies. The family consists of two sisters, Satsuki and Mei (ages 10 and 4) and their father. Their mother is ill in the hospital (presumably with tuberculosis). The girls miss her and they’ve moved to the country to be nearer to her, hoping that she’ll be able to come home soon.
Moving into their new house, they discover that the place has resident spirits living in it known as susuwatari, “Traveling Soot” or soot sprites, or gremlins and dust bunnies in some translations. The harmless black balls are yokai from Japanese folklore, a word referring broadly to supernatural creatures of myth. Yokai can vary from mischievous to evil to benevolent and can resemble almost anything. Think of all of the generations of Pokémon if that helps. In Totoro, all of the yokai creatures seem to range from wary and elusive to friendly and helpful.
The girls are a little frightened by the soot sprites but try to capture them. Mei slaps one between her hands and ends up with dirty palms stained black. Their father rationalizes the sprites as something that can only be seen when coming into a dark room from the light. Strangely, he seems excited to be living in a “haunted house”.
I think that this is one of the main differences between the English and Japanese versions of the film, culturally speaking. In the West, the poltergeist (German for “noisy ghost”) is characteristic of haunting and generally associated with horror genre entertainment and folklore. You could hardly expect a father of young girls to be excited about there being evil in his new house after seeing the movie Poltergeist, nor would you want the Christian concept of demons or other spirits with “unfinished business” loitering around and rummaging through your stuff or making a racket and bothering you while you sleep. Cue Paranormal Activity.
Yet in Totoro, there seems to be a welcome air about these gentle, naturalistic spirits. They represent an older time in Japan before modern people stopped believing in such things. They’re culturally defined differently than the “ghost” in the West, and so “haunted house” is misleading. The character of Granny, their next-door neighbor, explains that the soot sprites “live in old, empty houses and run all over the place, covering everything with dirt. I used to be able to see them when I was your age. So you’ve seen them too. That’s very interesting… Don’t worry, dear. There’s nothing to be afraid of. If they decide you’re nice people, they won’t harm you and after a while they’ll just go away.”
This movie is distinctly Japanese and the first Miyazaki film to be explicitly so, thus we’re talking about a different set of beliefs which frame My Neighbor Totoro which undoubtedly made it difficult to dub and can make it difficult to engage. Shintoism and animism are the correct interpretive contexts for this movie, and not the supernatural beliefs inherent to the West more along the lines of Judeo-Christian theism.
Once the family is moved in and the girls reconcile their fears of the unknown, the soot sprites do decide to leave the house, floating off into the forest. Nice guys.
Some time later, as Mei is playing alone in the yard nearby the woods, she sees a little white spirit and chases it only to find a bigger blue one carrying a sack of acorns. She pursues them into the woodland and falls downward à la Alice in Wonderland, and encounters a gigantic, fuzzy animal she names Totoro, a mispronunciation of tororu, the Japanese word for troll. Satsuki later says “Troll? Like the one in your storybook?” Again, don’t necessarily think European fiction like ugly cave trolls and what not. This magical entity seems to be a kindhearted combo of tanuki, cat, bear and owl.
Both Totoro and Mei fall asleep and Satsuki later finds her sister snoozing on the ground in the woods. Mei doesn’t know where Totoro has gone and there’s no sign of the creature, except for an acorn they find at the roots of the gigantic camphor tree.
Their father explains:
“You must have met one of the spirits of the forest. That means you’re a very lucky girl. But you can’t always see the spirits… You can only see them when they want you to.”
From that point on, the mysterious spirits including King Totoro and the Catbus play a dreamlike role in the lives of the two girls. Living closer to nature, it seems that the girls’ perspectives on many things change over time. Totoro represents to them a return to old ways of living and old traditions.
As a more personable story, Totoro is biography. It can work in that sense from anyone’s perspective, since most will have shared some of the same experiences of play and family like the two girls. But on a more fundamental level, the film is autobiographical from the heart of its director. When he was young, Miyazaki’s mother suffered from tuberculosis and was hospitalized similar to Mei and Satsuki’s. So too the film is set in actual 1950’s Japan, in Tokorozawa City, Saitama Prefecture, not some fantasy universe, with depictions of real rural life in the lush countryside with which Miyazaki would’ve been familiar.
It is startling to think that My Neighbor Totoro was originally released as a double-feature alongside the far, far grimmer Grave of the Fireflies by director Takahata. I can’t even begin to fathom what seeing these two movies together would be like. Surprisingly, Totoro was originally rejected as a financial risk and was only given the go ahead when it was pitched together with the now more obscure Fireflies.
My Neighbor Totoro abides as a perennial favorite among fans of Ghibli and anime. It’s magical, innocent, and gentle qualities make it a remarkable example of possibilities in storytelling. We who have grown up may never be able to see the world exactly as children again for all of their blissful happiness, but we can always watch this film and through Satsuki and Mei relive the things which made us wonder about the world, the things which made us happy or sad in simpler times, which made us want to explore the deep forests and make friends. Totoro inspires feelings which we may have lost somewhere along the road and I am thankful for that.
The 8-bit Review
The animators of My Neighbor Totoro managed to craft a story that resembles childlike life. They also captured childlike mannerisms. Tons of them. Watching the film you almost think you’re watching real children playing, running, talking, laughing. Except this is hand drawn animation. It’s so organic and genuine, it makes motion capture look clumsy and robotic by comparison. The animators breathed life into these cells, where even watching actual human actors and actresses would’ve seemed drab and maybe would’ve made for a much more boring film.
Besides for Mei and Satsuki, I think of the character of Kanta. He’s a neighborhood boy who has just reached the age where he’s noticing girls and trying to justifying teasing them with more chivalrous platitudes beginning to develop within him. As a character he’s underdeveloped, yes, but as an image of adolescent boyhood he’s like a photograph. Couldn’t be more accurate, right down the the dirty seat of his shorts.
At this point in Studio Ghibli’s canon, you really begin to notice the art direction. Kazuo Oga, who functioned as art director here, is a genius among geniuses and an artist among artists. His work in Tororo and his background design in many other Ghibli films are absolutely extraordinary. I’ve simply never seen any other animated movies with backgrounds as detailed and as rich as these not only in terms of their enthralling colors but even the most minute bits of character. Mei and Satsuki’s house, the nearby woodland, the iconic bus stop, the rice paddies, the surrounding countryside all seem as if you could pass through them yourself, turn around a corner and see more landscape similarly drawn to perfection rather than a black corner of paper.
There’s also a softness to this film that defines the gentle characters. It immediately disarms the audience of any sense of apprehension when the strange new creatures appear. Tororo the King of the Forest is so large and has such a monstrous roar that he seems frightening in the earliest of moments, until characteristic Ghibli charm kicks in and we even see the young girls’ fear drop away. Their ease puts us at ease and we come to watch this film about giant, supernatural entities without terror.
My Neighbor Totoro uses its own verdant animation to help the film to breathe, and it breathes a lot. This is a slow-paced film but there are (sometimes referred to as “pillow scenes”). Even the style of animation and the choices made in the animation process “invest this form of thoughtfulness”, according to The Anime Art of Hayao Miyazaki by Dani Cavallaro. This film gives you time to think it over as you’re watching it. How sweetly estranged from the manic rush-hour of today’s blockbusters!
No wonder My Neighbor Totoro is still one of Miyazaki’s greatest achievements.
Sorry, NPC’s, but for once I couldn’t find original soundtrack segments for you. These are orchestrated versions and sound bigger than their counterparts do in the actual film. However, they aren’t dramatically rearranged so they’re still representative of the mood of the music in the movie.
The film opens with the song “Hey Let’s Go!” over the credits. This is the original Fox dub version:
The rest of the film has absolutely warmhearted music. One of the tracks which plays early in the movie when we see the children playing is a song that my wife always says “Makes me feel like I’m at Disney Land” about.
Joe Hisaishi of course is the one to return to compose and craft a soundtrack which sounds like extract of magic. It is so happy-go-lucky and sweet, as if it sprang out of the crayon-drawing of a toddler.
Like the animation, a lot of the music has an organic, handmade quality to it. Even the more majestic songs which accompany themes of the forest spirits remain grounded. It is the soundtrack in a sunshiny world where everything will always turn out alright. Set at the same pace as the rest of the film, the music almost has a sleepy quality to it, as well.
If you’d like to avoid SPOILERS for this film, please Ctrl+f Family Friendliness to skip both the Narrative and Themes portions of this review.
The majority of the movie plays out slowly, like a flower unfolding petal by petal, scene by unrelated scene. That is until something really dramatic hits. The girls receive a telegram while their father is at work that their mother’s condition has worsened and she won’t be able to come home to visit as was previously arranged. The girls obviously take the news hard and begin to worry. Mei tries to walk to the hospital without Satsuki and gets lost, and is even presumed dead at one point. Satsuki beseeches Totoro for assistance (the only time that he is found intentionally by one of the girls) and the King of the Forest summons up the Catbus to take Satsuki to her lost sister.
In the end, everything turns out alright and mother is not so bad as they thought she was.
Not everything in this movie is explainable but maybe the most significant thing about My Neighbor Totoro is that it was directed by an adult who remembers what it is like to think like a child. Hayao Miyazaki put some of his own childhood memories, some of himself, into this movie. No wonder it feels so tenderly human. The bulk of the movie isn’t about the titular monster. It’s about the two children whose lives intersect rarely with him and his forest friends. They came to Totoro for help and security but when their mother comes home, they live happily with her in the human world. Only they can see him.
The characters in the film point this out. As the Catbus rushes across the rice paddies, the people searching for Mei ignore the passing breeze and see nothing. When Satsuki is riding the Catbus, she remarks how no one sees it. The person who comes closest is their mother at the end of the film who mentions she thought she saw her daughters’ smiles in the tree outside (but not the giant Catbus behind them).
It’s easy to finish My Neighbor Totoro and ask “What was that even about?” Having seen it so many times and failing each time to unearth some deeper, esoteric meaning, I’m now of the opinion that its central theme lies on its surface. It’s easy to miss only if you’re look past it. It is one of Miyazaki’s trademark themes: the wonder of a child.
“I would like to make a film to tell children it’s good to be alive.”
Totoro is about seeing the world as a kid again, thinking it is a vast, endless, joyful place with magic in it. The movie’s disjointed, rambling narrative without a real conclusion (minus the credits sequence) is notable. Totoro is about believing everything is going to be fine. Totoro is about childhood escapism. Isn’t there some relation between the girls meeting Totoro and his friends just when they begin to worry most about their mother’s health? He is a surrogate of sorts for the closeness of their mother, and he vanishes like the world of Narnia when the girls are reunited with their mom. They don’t need him anymore from that perspective, and as they grow up they will cease maybe even to remember him except as a story.
What is My Neighbor Totoro NOT about? It is not about Totoro being a god of death and Mei or even Satsuki being dead spirits being remembered by their father and seen in the tree by their mother before her own demise. Don’t be morbid just to fish for traffic. Let’s be reasonable: Studio Ghibli has since denied connections between their film and this ludicrous theory or any other connections with real life people and events concerning murders of children and what not.
If you’re trying to expose some kind of sinister underbelly to this kind and gentle film, it only proves that you’re as cynical as an adult and this movie evidently isn’t for you. Sorry for the hard words but I really feel this enduring film deserves better than cheap fan theories, however intriguing they can be in their presentation. You can give them ear but not credence.
Besides, one needs look no further than the ending credits to do away with this theory of death. The end credits depict mother coming home in a taxi, with a taxi driver and father both smiling as the children run to embrace their mom. Unless we presume the taxi driver and the father are dead also, then… Oh yeah and there are images of Mei and Satsuki playing with other children. Are they dead, too? What, is everybody dead in this movie? Or what about the fact that the totoros are shown but not with the two girls, assuming they never see each other again (Miyazaki seems to have indicated as much). That’s because they’ve begun to grow up and their mother takes the rightful place in their hearts that they needed to find in the warmth of Totoro. With her, they no longer need a “neighbor” as a source of comfort. They have their mother.
Don’t tarnish a film about innocent belief with something so macabre. This is a movie about LIFE. Not death.
Family Friendliness: 9/10
For a children’s family movie, there are two things which stand out to me as possibly upsetting for a child. First is the climax(?) of the film which involves Satsuki and Mei’s mother reportedly getting sicker and having to stay in the hospital. Is there any fear more horrific for a child than the thought of losing their parents, just as there’s no fear worse for a parent than the thought of losing their child? It is thankfully brief but intense.
There’s also the matter of the talk of ghosts and spirits which may spook young’uns. I think of a scene where Mei is waiting for the bus with her sister and wanders around. She peeks round a tree trunk at a shrine with a statue of an animal in it and has this sudden, nervous face. This is before Totoro appears and lightens the scene. It’s not a scary movie, at all, but there is an element of the fear of the unknown in it and much of what happens via Totoro isn’t explained.
Finally, there’s the family bath scene. It can make people who aren’t used to public bathhouses or seeing animated nudity in a family film perhaps uncomfortable. Maybe not everyone, but I mentioned it here just in case. There’s no genitalia or anything. But it’s just, boom, there. Luckily, the scene is turned to comedy. I grew up having to share water from a catchment pool, so the concept of family baths isn’t entirely foreign to me, at least.
The Disney dub is really good. Compare it sometime to the original Fox English dub and you can see how it’s much more warm and nuanced, with the actors leaning into their roles rather than forcing out their lines.
Casting real life sisters to play the Kusakabe sisters was a great idea. Dakota and Elle Fanning sound as natural as two real kids could sound. They are some of the best child voice actors in the Ghibli canon, in my opinion, with their laughter and their crying sounding very authentic. This is especially true of Mei. Watching this movie for the umpteenth time, I noticed one particular thrill of giggling Mei utters and I thought about how real it sounded, almost as if they were just recording her while she was playing, rather than having her in a recording session.
Tim Daly and Lea Salonga bring so much softness and compassion with their voices as Mr. and Mrs. Kusakabe. Their mother may have been suffering from an illness in a hospital but she talks to her children with what sounds like the genuine affection of a real mother. And Mr. Kusakabe is constantly joining in with his daughters’ games of pretend but he always has this pacifying tone to his voice. No wonder, because Tim Daly played Superman on Bruce Timm’s Superman: the Animated Series from the 90’s. That’s two Superman/Ghibli references including the one in Castle in the Sky! Daly uses a bit of the sense of reliability and trust he developed as the Man of Steel here and it just fits perfectly as this great father figure.
Also, Pat Carroll. The sea witch Ursula herself. She plays Granny, though of course with a far friendlier tone than the wicked crooning of Ursula. She’s another reassuring voice in a film full of them. It seems as if she too was constantly searching for ways to take any edge out of her voice and tone it down to a mellow hush for young children. The character never scolds and that’s emulated by Carroll in her performance.
A movie about what it means to be a child. That’s such a unique concept in and of itself, yet take out all of the major draws for films such as romance, action, choreography, expensive special effects, the “wow” factor, and you’re left with this story that seems to be about nothing yet turns out to be about one of the most precious things in life worthy of protecting. It isn’t hard to see why it sits at nigh the top of the Ghibli canon, like their crown jewel. Is it their best movie? Well… ask around. It’s left an impact.
Fun fact: the girl shown holding the umbrella on the cover art was the original concept and she was eventually split into Mei and Satsuki by Miyazaki.
My Personal Grade: 9/10
This was the first Studio Ghibli film that I ever saw. I was a young teen and watched it at school in segments on break when we were allowed access to the TV and VHS tapes. It must’ve been the Fox dub that I originally saw, considering the year. I never forgot about Totoro after all these years and I remember always bringing him up now and then if discussion drifted to anime. “Have you seen My Neighbor Totoro?” The film just kind of sticks with you. It did with me. It must be because of its humanity.
Aggregated Score: 9.6
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Categories: Movie Review