My Neighbour Totoro has a special place in the hearts of every anime fan, especially those who grew up exploring the wonderfully crafted worlds of Studio Ghibli films. A whimsical masterpiece by Hayao Miyazaki, the 1988 classic is a beautiful coming-of-age tale about childhood loneliness, rural life and post-war Japan. It follows the lives of two young girls who befriend forest spirits while waiting for their sick mother to recover.
Over the years, many scholars and critics have commented on the extensive symbolism of My Neighbour Totoro. While some have insisted that the film is an expansion of the beliefs of animism and that he is a kami according to Shinto mythology, others have maintained that My Neighbour Totoro is an exploration of ecocriticism that calls for the conservation of natural habitats by using the multiplicity of animation.
A major part of the magic of My Neighbour Totoro can also be attributed to art director Kazuo Oga who knew he wanted to work on the project as soon as he saw a sketch of Totoro. Although the scenery of Tokorozawa [the setting for the film] has changed due to the forces of modernity, that time is crystallised within the frameworks of Miyazaki’s masterpiece.
Miyazaki recalled: “There was a house that was the splitting image of Kanta’s house [in the film]. When we were making the film, I went there with the background artist Kazuo Oga to check it out, it was surrounded by all these levee protection works, and the scenery had changed. I was disappointed, but Mr. Oga said, ‘I get the vibe.’ He put his imagination to work and reconstructed the feeling.”
Most children and adults who watch the film consider Totoro as well as the other creatures as furry friends who keep the children company and show them that there is more to life than what adults label as reality. However, some cynical fans insist that there is much more to My Neighbour Totoro than a reductive dismissal of the film as a happy tale.
On the contrary, one fan theory claims that Totoro is actually the God of Death who is encountered by the sisters when Satsuki searches for Mei. This theory isn’t the first to suggest that Totoro wasn’t a benevolent entity. In fact, it was Miyazaki himself who had told a prospective applicant who wanted to work with him to talk about My Neighbour Totoro.
When she talked about all the positive emotions she experienced, Miyazaki implied that the entities in the film were “terrible creatures” who would have eaten the sisters at any given moment but they weren’t hungry. Another applicant, future director Kenji Itoso, objected to the claim by stating: “Totoro has molars which are designed for grinding grass, like an herbivore. There’s no way it would have eaten Satsuki and Mei.”
Miyazaki later revealed that it was a trick question, saying: “With people who make entertainment, being the kind of person that will swallow any old story that is told to them isn’t enough. It’s also important to be the kind of person who thinks for themselves.” Since its release, Totoro has transformed into a symbol of hope and comfort for children all over the world who keep searching for him in the darkest of corners.