My Neighbor Totoro: A Slice of Fantasy Life

(Catch the most recent essay in this Ghibli series HERE. To go to the beginning click HERE.)

Studio Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki’s fourth feature film, My Neighbor Totoro, is an anime classic. The 1988 film’s titular character, the large grey bear-like Totoro, is an enigmatic and popular character who is to Japan what Winnie the Pooh is the Great Britain or Mickey Mouse is to the U.S.A. His image is probably known to you whether or not you’ve seen the film by virtue of his ubiquity in merchandise like t-shirts and plushes. This guy is everywhere today, from the Studio Ghibli logo, to a cameo in Toy Story 3, to the shelves of every big-chain bookstore, media store, and alternative mall store in America.

Much has been made of this film’s Shinto themes (Shinto being the native religion of Japan where all things have an animating spiritual force and can manifest themselves at particularly important times). When the film’s young protagonists, Mei and Satsuki, move to the countryside with their father Professor Kusakabe, in order to be closer to their ailing mother Yasuko, they find a seemingly enchanted Utopian paradise. The people are all friendly and on a first-name basis. They work the fields for their food and are quick to help one another, like Granny who babysits the children while their father is away or the townspeople who search for Mei when she goes missing. The scenery is beautiful with its wide-open blue skies, perfect rice-fields, giant camphor trees, and relatively undisturbed forests.

Further, there is real magic in the air as the children find their own home infested with susuwatari, or soot-sprites, liminal Shinto yokai (created by Miyazaki) who live in the darkness of old, abandoned homes, and can disappear from the earthly realm, vanishing into that more ethereal realm, at will. The girls find small, badger or bear-like creatures, who wander their yard and the adjacent woods. They gather acorns for sustenance, can make plants grow at abnormal rates, can become invisible and hide within the giant camphor trees with Shinto zig-zag markers (the sign that a deity has ascended to the spot or that a miracle was witnessed there at one time or another in the past).

The large Totoro, who is the focus of the title, sleeps deep within the camphor trees and comes out at night to ride the wind upon a spinning top or lurk about old shrines and bus stops. In one particularly iconic scene, he waits by a bus stop for his own ethereal, Shinto bus that takes the form of a cat (another particularly iconic image from the film). It can run atop telephone wires and along the ground at ridiculous speeds, and its very invisible presence seems to generate gusts of wind.

Many reviewers focus on the kawaii, or cute, aspects of the film. The iconography if you will. Others like to write about how beautiful the film’s cinematography and hand-drawn animation styles are. Some focus on the Shinto aspects of the film’s story and how its various characters liminality is made apparent in each scene. Some extend this to the liminal Alice in Wonderland narrative at the film’s core. One can even spin the story to evoke powerful ecological themes and philosophical notions of being-there with nature and community. And all of these are relevant and interesting and beaten to death.

But Miyazaki himself has said that the film’s protagonist is not a spirit or some Shinto deity. As Miyazaki is certainly the auteur of this film, we should take him seriously and wonder aloud at what implications this has for the critical literature and its essayists.

Totoro is a large bear-like being who inhabits the woods. He is a sentient creature, not unlike human beings but very similar to our conception of Bigfoot, who resides in the forest and protects it. He has the ability to become visible and invisible at will, as do the other seemingly other-worldly creatures of the film. Can we be sure that any of the Totoro’s, the cat-bus, or the soot-sprites are not real creatures invested with similar abilities? Are they merely using some form of camouflage?

If we assume that all creatures in the film are naturally-occurring, we find almost no real problems. The cat-bus could have run along the telephone wires and produced wind while running at great speeds, the little Totoro’s and soot-sprites would find it necessary to hide from Mei and Satsuki because if they did not they could be harmed, and their ability to make plants grow quickly was really just a dream. The camphor tree opening up its root system to show a huge, underground area was just the produce of Mei’s overactive imagination. Totoro may be able to fly on a spinning top, but this may have only been part of the dream as well.

Instead of a liminal Alice in Wonderland narrative, we are left with two girls in an odd world with overactive imaginations, at times that is. We find that the story is not a Shinto tale, but only derives influence from Shinto to create an alternate reality with little to no indicated religious or metaphysical assumptions (ie. we can watch this in an atheistic mode where metaphysics are null). The ecological analyses are still stretching themselves, just a great deal more so now that the film’s interior world has no metaphysics backing an ecological message and no overt messages in that direction (beyond them living in an idyllic setting close to nature? but where children can become lost more easily and potentially come to harm?). The philosophy of the film is an interpretation or reading of the film not based on any metaphysical basis any longer and with no overt dialogue or actions in the voices or bodies of the film’s characters to support such a conclusion.

So what are we left with? Cute characters in a fantasy setting that highlights the imagination and folly of youth while setting up the elder sister, Satsuki, on an interesting coming of age and responsibility tale in an idyllic, imagined Japanese past. Under this new lens, the film loses much of its subtext, if not all of it, and becomes a commonplace slice of life (one of the genres I find most detestable for its usual lack of brain-power). One might be tempted to discount Miyazaki’s comments about the character of Totoro as a real animal invested with some odd powers. But once we choose to liberate texts from their authorial intent, we only begin to impose our own biases and backgrounds and educations on those texts and open them up to any well-reasoned interpretation. To put this in another perspective, I think that only George Lucas should be able to tell us if Rei is Luke Skywalker’s daughter. Anyone else’s theory is only their opinion. Lucas’- and in the case of My Neighbor Totoro Miyazaki’s- opinion is the only one that matters.


Cody Ward

[Next up Porco Rosso!]

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  1. Anime Update: August 2019 | TheBoronHeist - 08/01/2019

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