Review: My Neighbour Totoro​ (1989)

Written and Directed by Hayao Miyasaki

‘What does Japan offer the world?’ A proverb is known by Japanese people that had been lost to time resurfaces.

A haunted house of soot sprites chased away with the laughter of the Kusakabe family.

A 4-year-old girl lives a world of whimsy that leads her to magical spirits living in the forest.

Her sister, a mature 10-year-old sits by her mother’s side in a hospital.

Their father sits home and writes distracting himself from his wife’s illness.

And there’s also a catbus.

This is My Neighbour Totoro.

To see how important this film was to Miyasaki we need to look at what he once said ‘Totoro is where my consciousness begins.’

To understand this we should look at Miyasaki’s childhood. As a boy, his mother suffered from tuberculosis. This is directly parallel to the sick mother in the film. At a young age his family would often move to different towns and villages to find a hospital capable of treating the terminal disease causing a lot of distress. In fact, he’s gone on to say that if the girls in the film were boys it would have been too difficult to make.

Satsuki is seen as an anchor and support for her father, an author who often loses himself in his work. She’s 10 years old, a young age to be given the responsibility of caring for her little sister. Through these responsibilities, she’s often shown to be stoic and determined. Mei, however, is the opposite, a carefree excitable 4 year old who ends up on the wrong side of trouble despite her innocent intentions. She often finds herself in situations she can’t work her way out of because of her lack of hindsight.

You can see how the characters of Setsuki and Mei are thought to represent Miyazaki:
Mei, the young and innocent free spirit, and Satsuki, the elder sister who is on the cusp of coming of age can be seen as two sides of the young Miyasaki. Coincidentally Setsuki and Mei were originally meant to be only a single character (as seen in the original promotional artwork).

An unknown 6-year-old girl waits with Totoro in the promotional poster.

As the girl’s father writes and Satsuki goes to school, Mei digs up flowers, pokes tadpoles and explores abandoned buckets before following a trail of acorns that lead her to a wondering tiny Totoro and eventually the more renowned big Totoro. (In the Japanese dub Mei frequently mispronounces words, when she names Totoro she’s actually trying to pronounce ‘troll’.)

Hands full of dirt and a gateway into another world. Watching Mei it felt like watching a reflection of my 5-year-old self. The moment before she meets Totoro captures youth and wide eyes innocence so well. As she walks through the shrubbery, she stumbles down the rabbit hole. It felt I was Mei, on the belly of a forest spirit, hands clasped on coarse fur laughing back at the wide-mouthed Totoro.

An achievement in animation. Totoro comes to life in a heartwarming moment.

My Neighbour Totoro is influenced by various fairy tales. This is shown with its homage to Alice in Wonderland as Mei falls down the tree into the den of the big Totoro. The troll inspiration is drawn from the children’s book Three Billy Goats Gruff and arguably the Japanese folktale The Crab and the Monkey. It’s important to identify (these influences) only to appreciate how originality can be sourced from inspiration. No matter how minor or insignificant it may appear.

There’s a suggestion that adults can no longer see the spirits as Nanny says when she was younger she could see the soot sprites in the house, but as she gets older she can no longer see them. What comes with youth isn’t only innocence but the ability to capture that sense of wonder and see things that are invisible to an adult eye -such as a foraging blue Totoro with his gunnysack full of acorns.

The connection between the children and the spirits is strongly associated with the Japanese culture and its roots with nature. The spirits are not necessary invisible either. There’s a religious connection between the family and the forest as seen when the family pay respects to the ancient tree in the middle of the forest.

How the film disguises the serious nature of the mother’s illness is a testament to good storytelling, creating whimsy and integrating it with the anxiety and angst of the Kusakabe family. A lot of My Neighbour Totoro is viewed from the perspective of the Kusakabe sisters. By doing this we see the world through their eyes, and are able to see the spirits that would otherwise not be visible to the human eye.

Although the father, Professor Kusakabe, may have once seen the spirits like Mei and Satsuki, here he only sees the old, towering tree. The powerful symbol set within the lush green forest serves as a reminder of how beautiful and mighty nature can be.

The cat bus. One of many spirits only visible to the sisters Satsuki and Mei.

My Neighbour Totoro addresses the cynicism of adults. Wonder is lost with age but should that mean natural beauty should be ignored, or devalued? Or rather should we pay respects to things greater than ourselves and have that humble humility that helps us in our daily quest to become better people? Has our increased attachment to technology soiled our appreciated of the natural world? Do we take for granted things that are given to us and expect more for nothing? My Neighbour Totoro was released in 1988, 30 years later the messages within the film are as relevant as ever.

Miyasaki wanted a proverb returned and rekindled among the people of Japan. To be on the tip of their tongues whenever people would ask what Japan offered the world. ‘The beauty in nature and the four seasons.’ Is what they would reply. After experiencing My Neighbour Totoro nothing is made more apparent than just how beautiful nature can be.

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