My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Writer: Hayao Miyazaki
Cinematographer: Hisao Shirai
Producer: Toru Hara
by Jon Cvack
I remember the first time I experienced cinema was junior year after meeting a sophomore cinephile who I met at the high school film festival. Per the usual curse, my best friend Tim and I hadn’t made any film to enter, but decided to sit there and criticize the screeners. Until the sophomore cinephile’s short played, containing a kinetic and amazing energy, and I realized I might have found a fellow film buff. We talked and he soon told me about three of his favorite films that I had to see - Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), which provided the greatest intro I’ve ever seen and still struggle to think of anything better; Amadeus (1984) which I haven’t yet revisited but enjoyed: and Spirited Away (2001), which not being a big fan of animation, I liked, but didn’t entirely follow.
I’m ashamed to say that My Neighbor Totoro is only the second film I’ve watched from Hayao Miyazaki, though it was after my friend demanding I watch Cowboy Bebop (1998) that my interest piqued in anime (the friend went so far as to ship me his DVD collection from Chicago), I moved onto Ghost in the Shell (1995) and Akira (1988) which both blew my mind.
I was excited to check out the legend, whose work is completely and utterly adored by his fans. It’s the story of a husband Shigesato Itoi (voiced in English by Tim Daly) and his two daughters Mei Kusakabe (voiced by Elle Fanning) and Satsuki Kusakabe (voice by Dakota Fanning) who move out to the country to both be closer to their mother who’s dying a long term illness (which taking place in 1958 could very well be radiation poisoning), and for the girls to get a change of scenery from the big city.
Arriving at their farmhouse, the family meets both a young boy Kanta Ōgaki (voice by Paul Butcher) who immediately crushes on Satsuki; told through intimidation, and his Granny (voiced by Pat Carroll). The girls discover these strange large black dust bunnies which the Granny calls susuwatari - essentially a dust-like house spirit.
One day, Mei discovers two abbit-penguin looking ghosts that lead her deep into the woods and through a tunnel where she meets the film’s title character Totoro (voiced by Frank Welker) - a gigantic version of the rabbit-penguin monster - is found sleeping on his back. Mei lays upon his belly, soon falling asleep.
Mei tries to tell her sister and dad who don’t believe her and so the family continues to live; settling into the house, visiting their sick mother, and Tatsuo working on his lectures. One evening, while waiting for Tatsuo as his bus runs late and it begins to rain, a cat-bus hybrid machine creature rolls up and Tutoro exits. He protects them from the rain and they lend him their father’s umbrella. In exchange he provides them almond seeds. He then leaves with the cat-bus and their father arrives, explaining how he missed his ride back home.
The girls plant the seeds and wait for them to grow, but it doesn't look like they will, until one evening they find Totoro and his other ghost friends doing a ceremonial dance around the garden. The girls join them and the trees explode into the air, creating a gigantic forest. They grab onto Totoro and fly up to the canopies, enjoying their creation, then waking up to find it was all a fantasy; though the seeds have finally sprouted.
With their mother due to arrive home soon, complications arise and Tatsuo takes off from the hospital; leaving the girls under the care of granny. Mei can’t handle the news and runs away, vowing to make the three hour journey alone back to her mother. Satsuki, Granny, Kanta and the rest of the neighbors assemble to go and try and find her, but as it grows darker, and they find one of her shoes in a nearby pond, fearing the worst.
Desperate, Satsuki returns to the camphor tree where she begs Totoro and the other little ghosts for help. Thrilled, they call upon the catbus who picks them all up, jetting across the farmlands. They find Mei sitting on a bench in the middle of nowhere, taking them all to the hospital, discovering that it was only a minor cold that set the mother back, now healthy.
By the end, I enjoyed the more fantastical elements, but I didn’t really get what this was about. Two girls see some ghost creatures that none of the adults see, which the Granny might know about, all while mother is incredibly sick in the hospital. It’s often my problem with cartoons. Similar to surrealism, it allows anything to exist or be possible. The girl’s needed distraction and guidance and found the monsters who helped Satsuko find Mei in the end. I’m not sure what the point of a catbus was, or how Mei crawling through the tunnel of an imaginary camphor tree led her to the monsters, or what the point of almonds and their attempt to grow almond trees were all about. They were just great uses of the imagination; images that have still burned themselves into popular culture given how many Totoro toys I’ve seen.
However, it was reading about the film that there seems to be a possible reading. Kotaku links to an article from the website fellowof, which states:
The rumor says that Totoro is the God of Death, so the persons that can see Totoro are actually close to death, or already dead. What that means for the story is that when Mei goes missing and a sandal is found in the pond, Mei actually drowned. When Satsuki is asked about the sandal she cannot face the truth and lies about it not being Mei’s sandal. So Satsuki goes on a desperate search for Totoro, calling for him and actually opens up the door to the realm of the dead herself. With Totoro’s help she finds her dead sister and they together go to their mother’s hospital. There, the only one who actually noticed that the sisters were there, was the mother, who also soon is going to die... And in the ending scene, Satsuki and Mei don’t have any shadows...
Kotaku goes on to point out that there’s a famous murder Samaya Incident which became a popular media story in 1963 Japan. My Neighbor Totoro takes place in the Samaya Hills. The story also takes place in May; with Satsuki’s name translating to “May” and Mei being self-explanatory.
Studio Ghibli went on to deny the rumors, but the connections do seem oddly apparent. There’s a peculiar darkness to the film; as though the ghosts are not just showing the sisters a good time, but distracting them from their mother’s illness. There isn’t necessarily anything to corroborate that what the girls see is true. Maybe the susuwatari were actually just dust bunnies soon cleaned out of the house once they all arrived; maybe Mei’s fantasy of crawling through the camphor tree was all just a dream; and maybe the two fell asleep at the bus stop rather than momentarily meeting Totoro and the catbus (after all, what was the point of this sequence if not as a type of brief dream before their father arrived). It is creepy that no one beyond the mother addresses Mei, given that the whole neighbor has been searching for her. Or that even though the mother has been hospitalized for months that a small cold is all that prevented her from coming home. At the very least, it’s easy enough to imagine that she lied about the cold, and that she might be coming home to spend her remaining days with the family.
In which, whether death or a guiding spirit from the other world, the idea does tie the story together. Planting the seeds of life, making them one with nature, it does appear as though they’re preparing either both or one of the girls for death. Of course, this all might be speculation and Ghibli is honest in his denial, but I’m then left wondering what this movie is about, and why so many people would love it if not for containing some deeper meaning.
BELOW: Great scene. Could be about death
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