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  • Writer's pictureRobin Syversen


Updated: Aug 7, 2023

Deciphering Totoro: Ten Cultural Connections Hidden in Plain Sight

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Cast/Voices: Noriko Hidaka, Chika Sakamoto, Shigesato Itoi, Hitoshi Takagi

Studio: Studio Ghibli

Year: 1988

Rating: 4.5/6

Much has already been said about My Neighbor Totoro, which is why this analysis takes a different approach: It uncovers ten cultural connections that are obvious to Japanese viewers but may be hidden in plain sight to overseas audiences.

Before delving into these cultural insights, I will briefly introduce 'My Neighbor Totoro' and explain why it isn't my favorite Ghibli film. Following that, I will shed light on some intriguing aspects of this quintessential Ghibli masterpiece.

However, if you're not interested in the musings of a Japanese film researcher whose fanboy obsession led him to relocate to Japan and study its cinematic landscape from within, feel free to skip ahead.

If you're simply eager to test your knowledge of My Neighbor Totoro, click chapter five in the list of contents to uncover the cultural links you never knew were there. Let me know in the comments how many cultural connections you already knew.


Introducing Totoro | Studio Ghibli’s Third Film and First Superstar

My Neighbor Totoro was the third Studio Ghibli film, and considering it was made back in 1988, it was a remarkable piece of work. The drawings are as timeless as Totoro himself, and the story takes us into the realms of magical realism, where the mundane meets the extraordinary in the everyday adventures of Satsuki and Mei.

While My Neighbor Totoro is a work of fiction, its depiction of rural life and childhood experiences draws heavily from the personal experiences of its director, Hayao Miyazaki. The film's setting is believed to be inspired by the countryside of Sayama Hills, where Miyazaki spent his childhood.

Perhaps that explains how the film came to possess such an innocent charm and a sense of wonder that transcends age, culture, and time. Totoro offers a profoundly heartfelt experience that has long since proven its lasting appeal.

However, is the appeal of My Neighbor Totoro as enduring as it appears the first, second, or third time around? Is it merely the enchanting world-building and spellbinding characters that enthrall us, or is there more beneath the surface?

Why My Neighbor Totoro is Not Ghibli’s Best Film

The narrative of 'My Neighbor Totoro' revolves around two young sisters, Satsuki and Mei, who move to the countryside with their father to be closer to their hospitalized mother.

Their new home, a charming old house surrounded by a lush forest, becomes the backdrop for a series of delightful adventures as the girls encounter the forest spirits, the most notable of which is the big, fluffy Totoro.

As for the characters and their development, they could benefit from a larger range of depth. Coupled with the two overzealous girls shouting most of their dialogue, parents can thank the forest gods that the film only spans about 85 minutes.

The two sisters are certainly worthy candidates for Ritalin treatment, but then again, they do provide exciting characters for younger audiences. Joking aside, Satsuki and Mei are the emotional core of the film. Their innocence, curiosity, and unwavering faith in the existence of magic in the world around them drive the narrative.

And let’s not forget the film's true stars: Totoro, his minions, and the Cat Bus – looking like the Japanese cousin of the Cheshire Cat – are utterly unforgettable. These characters are the main attraction of My Neighbor Totoro since the story is virtually nonexistent.

There is a slight rise in tension when the girls believe their mother has fallen seriously ill, but it does not make for a proper arch in the narrative. Neither does the finale, which concerns the disappearance of the youngest girl, Mei. She is never truly lost, and the suspense is never really raised.

So yes, Totoro is an enthralling fairy tale that never fails to whisk us away to a world of cuddly wonders. Yet, Satsuki and Mei’s enthusiasm overshadowing character development and the atmosphere taking precedence over a proper story arch leaves depth to be desired in the storytelling department.

That said, there are layers to Totoro hidden beneath the surface and much depth to be found in its cultural connections, which we’ll get back to in a little bit. But since I just spent this chapter bashing Totoro, I need to make amends by also paying my respects to the magnificent aspects of the film: Its production qualities.

Miyazaki’s Magical Mechanics | The Making of My Neighbor Totoro

Miyazaki is renowned for his meticulous attention to detail, and My Neighbor Totoro is a prime example. The film serves as a love letter to rural Japan, showcasing lush landscapes and traditional Japanese houses, all depicted with a keen eye for detail.

The art style isn't merely visually appealing – it's crucial to the storytelling. The vibrant colors and meticulous attention to detail bring the world to life, enhancing the sense of realism and immersion. Even the smallest details, such as raindrops on a leaf, are treated with care and attention, making the fantasy elements seem all the more magical when they appear.

The film's appeal lies in its magical atmosphere, captivating creatures, and compelling art design. While many of the creative concepts bear a striking resemblance to Alice in Wonderland and Jack and the Beanstalk, the Japanese context lends a unique freshness.

Moreover, the music plays a pivotal role in My Neighbor Totoro, adding another layer to the film's magical ambiance. Composer Joe Hisaishi's score is a masterclass in mood-setting, perfectly complementing the visuals and the imaginative creature designs.

The music encapsulates the film's sense of wonder and adventure with playful melodies that mirror the childlike innocence of the main characters. The iconic Totoro theme is a prime example, its memorable melody evoking a sense of joy and curiosity.

Hisaishi's score also knows when to step back, letting the natural sounds of the environment take center stage. This contrast between music and silence is used effectively throughout the film, emphasizing the movie's themes of nature and tranquility.

As such, the music in 'My Neighbor Totoro' isn't just a backdrop – it's an essential part of the storytelling, guiding the audience's emotions and enhancing the cinematic experience.

Now, for those who didn't skip directly to the list, let's delve into the cultural connections of My Neighbor Totoro. But before we reveal the bait that enticed you to click, let’s first consider the Japanese cultural landscape in which My Neighbor Totoro is set.

What is the cultural significance of My Neighbor Totoro?

My Neighbor Totoro holds great cultural significance in Japan. It presents a unique blend of Shinto beliefs and folklore, conveying a sense of respect and awe for nature that is deeply ingrained in Japanese culture. The film's depiction of rural life and traditional Japanese architecture also provides a nostalgic snapshot of post-war Japan.

Post-War Japan in the Shōwa Era: A Time of Transition

My Neighbor Totoro is set in the mid-Shōwa era (1926-1989) or the late 1950s. Following World War II, it was a period of reconstruction and economic growth in Japan, marked by both restoration of pre-war traditions and post-war modernization.

Society was rapidly changing. Japan was experiencing a cultural shift while trying to hold onto its traditional roots. The duality of the period is beautifully portrayed in My Neighbor Totoro through the blend of traditional and contemporary elements.

Japanese society underwent a significant transformation, from political shifts to economic growth. The nation was on a journey to redefine its identity. My Neighbor Totoro provides a nostalgic look at this era, capturing the rural simplicity and communal spirit that characterized post-war Japanese society.

Moreover, the theme of resilience in the face of adversity is as poignant as any other theme in the film. The two young girls, Satsuki and Mei, display courage and optimism despite their mother's illness, echoing the spirit of resilience that helped Japan rebuild after the war.

Japanese Folklore: Where Shinto Deities like Totoro Reside

My Neighbor Totoro draws heavily from the well of Japanese folklore and owes much to the rich tapestry of mythical beings and spirits that inhabit these traditional tales. Totoro can be seen as a manifestation of a Shinto deity or 'kami', a benign spirit of the forest, and embodies the Shinto belief that gods can be found in all elements of nature.

His interaction with the sisters fosters a deep sense of respect for the natural world. In his gentle and nurturing way, Totoro acts as a symbol of harmony between humans and nature, a central tenet of Shintoism. These folklore references provide a unique cultural lens, enhancing the richness of the film's narrative.

The film's portrayal of Totoro and his smaller counterparts as gentle, helpful, and mysterious beings echoes the Japanese respect and reverence towards nature, reminding us of the harmony that can be achieved when humans and nature coexist peacefully.

The lush fields, scenic views, and slow pace of life convey a sense of nostalgia and longing for a simpler time. It's a quiet critique of rapid urbanization, reminding us of the intimate connection with nature that can be lost in the hustle and bustle in the urban jungles of modern Japan.

Totoro’s Ten Cultural Connections Hidden to Foreign Eyes

While it may not be a cultural connection, it feels fitting to begin by exploring the origins of Totoro's name. 'Totoro' is derived from Mei's mispronunciation of 'torōru,' the Japanese transliteration of 'troll.'

This detail only becomes apparent during the end credits, when we see the mother reading the Three Billy Goats Gruff to the sisters. Upon encountering Totoro, it's presumed that the image of the troll from this Norwegian fairy tale was evoked in Mei's mind.

This playful miscommunication leads to a name synonymous with kindness, magic, and the wonders of childhood imagination. Totoro has since become a symbol of innocence and a beacon for the power of belief.

1. The Soothing Spirits: Susuwatari

The Susuwatari, or soot spirits, are unique creations of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. They do not directly appear in traditional Japanese folklore or mythology. However, the Susuwatari concept draws upon broader themes found in Japanese folklore, particularly the idea of yōkai.

Yōkai are a class of supernatural creatures, spirits, and demons in Japanese folklore. They can take many forms, from animals and humans to inanimate objects.

While the Susuwatari are not traditional yōkai, they embody the playful, sometimes mischievous nature many yōkai possess in folklore. They also reflect the Japanese aesthetic of "mononoke," a term used to describe the spirits or phenomena that influence the world's natural beauty in mysterious ways.

Their existence in the Kusakabe's house symbolizes its age and former neglect and adds a layer of magic to the girls' new home. Once the Kusakabe sisters approach them with kindness and curiosity, the Susuwatari become part of the family's daily life, reminding us that the world is full of unseen wonders if only we take the time to look.

2. The Names of Satsuki and Mei: A Seasonal Connection

The names of the two sisters, Satsuki and Mei, hold a seasonal significance. 'Satsuki' is an old Japanese word for May, and 'Mei' is a homophone for the English word 'May.'

The choice of these names is not accidental. The names Satsuki and Mei reflect the film's celebration of nature and the changing seasons, which are recurring themes in many of Miyazaki's works.

May is a particularly significant month in Japan. It's the time of year when the country is in full bloom, with cherry blossoms giving way to fresh green leaves. It's a time of renewal and growth, mirroring the personal growth that Satsuki and Mei experience throughout the film.

3. Catbus: A Fusion of the Familiar and Fantastical

The Catbus is a symbol of travel and transition, but it is much more than just a mode of transportation. It is a bridge between realms, between the mundane and the magical, the everyday and the extraordinary. In this sense, it mirrors the Shinto belief in the coexistence of the spiritual and physical worlds.

The feline form of the bus is no coincidence. Cats are highly respected animals in Japan, associated with good fortune and prosperity. The maneki-neko, or beckoning cat, is a common talisman in Japanese homes and businesses, believed to bring luck and wealth.

The Catbus, with its broad, inviting grin and glowing eyes, can be seen as an extended representation of this symbol, inviting the characters (and the audience) into a world of enchantment and mystique.

4. The Camphor Tree: A Symbol of Strength and Resilience

Ever-present and towering over the Kusakabe residence is the grand Camphor tree. This isn't just a piece of fancy background art; it's a symbol that carries a weight of meaning. The tree serves as a metaphor for the resilience and strength inherent in nature and life itself.

As the tree stands tall against the test of time and weather, so do the characters, particularly the young sisters, Satsuki and Mei. The tree is also where they first encounter Totoro, making it a bridge between the human world and the spiritual realm, reinforcing the strength and resilience of the spiritual bond with nature.

5. The Acorn: A Message of Hope and Growth

Small and seemingly insignificant Acorns play a crucial role in the narrative. When Totoro gives the girls these small seeds, they symbolize the potential for growth and the promise of a future.

Like the acorn, which eventually grows into a mighty oak, the girls, too, are growing and changing. Even in the face of their mother's illness, the acorns offer a beacon of hope, a tangible sign of life's enduring cycle of growth and renewal.

6. The Umbrella: Representing Protection and Care

While the umbrella may seem mundane, it is a powerful symbol in My Neighbor Totoro. A pivotal moment in the film is when Satsuki offers Totoro her umbrella during the rain. This gesture of kindness is not just a practical act of sharing but also carries a deeper cultural significance.

It mirrors the Shinto practice of giving offerings to kami or nature deities. In Shinto, it's believed that acts of respect and offerings can appease the kami and bring about their protection and blessings.

Totoro accepts the umbrella and later becomes a protective figure for the girls. This reciprocity reflects the Shinto belief in the harmonious relationship between humans and nature, where respect and care are mutual.

The umbrella, therefore, embodies the reciprocal nature of caring relationships. It symbolizes the idea that acts of kindness and care, even small ones, can have a profound impact. It's a reminder that in a world often fraught with difficulties, compassion, and mutual respect can provide us with protection and comfort.

7. The Shinto Shrines: Where the Invisible and Visible Connect

The Kusakabe family shrine is where the family pays homage to their ancestors. This serves as a reminder of their deep roots and the importance of tradition.

It underscores the idea of continuity, of being connected to the past while living in the present. This is a common theme in Japanese folklore and culture, where the past and present are often seen as interconnected.

The shrine also serves as a bridge between the visible and invisible worlds, a gateway to the divine. This is particularly evident when Mei first encounters Totoro. She stumbles upon him, sleeping in the heart of a large camphor tree, serving as a Shinto shrine stand-in.

With its towering presence, the camphor tree exudes a sense of reverence and awe. It's a place of wonder and magic, much like the Shinto shrines scattered across the Japanese landscape. It's a place where the ordinary meets the extraordinary, where children can encounter spirits like Totoro.

As such, the Shinto shrines in My Neighbor Totoro are more than just physical locations. They are symbols of the connection between the human and the divine, the past and the present, the visible and the invisible.

8. Ocarinas and Fox Masks: Folklore Artifacts

The ocarina is a type of vessel flute, often made from ceramic. In the film, Totoro plays an ocarina, and its melody is hauntingly beautiful, carrying a sense of nostalgia and tranquility.

The sound of the ocarina can be seen as a connection to a simpler, rural past, evoking a sense of longing for a time that is no more. This ties into the concept of "mono no aware," which I’ll explain further in the next section.

The fox mask, on the other hand, is a common sight during Japanese festivals, particularly those associated with Shinto shrines. Foxes, or kitsune, are significant in Japanese folklore, often seen as messengers of Inari, the kami of rice, commerce, and prosperity. Kitsune is believed to be able to shape-shift and cross the boundary between the human and spirit worlds.

In My Neighbor Totoro, the fox mask represents the spirit world and the blurred lines between reality and the mystical. This is in line with the film's overall theme, where the magical and the mundane coexist.

9. The Bus Stop Scene: A Deeper Exploration of Mono no Aware

"Mono no aware" is a complex Japanese aesthetic principle that concerns the appreciation of the beauty in transience and the gentle sadness that comes with it. It's about finding beauty not despite but because of the fleeting nature of things.

In the bus stop scene, Satsuki and Mei are waiting in the rain for their father, who is late. They are anxious and worried, emotions that are heightened by the pouring rain. This situation is transient - a passing moment, just like the rain itself.

The rain, in this context, can be seen as a symbol of life's challenges and uncertainties, which are often temporary but can feel overwhelming at the moment. Then, Totoro appears and shares the bus stop with them. Despite the rain and their worry, they experience a moment of joy and wonder when interacting with Totoro.

This is where the "bittersweet" aspect of "mono no aware" comes in. Even amid worry and a downpour, there's a moment of beauty and joy - a moment that's all the more precious because it's fleeting.

When their father finally arrives, the rain has stopped, Totoro is gone, and the girls' worry has been relieved. This sequence of events - the worry, the rain, the encounter with Totoro, and finally, the arrival of their father - is a microcosm of life's impermanence. Moments of fear and joy come and go, just like the rain.

So, the bus stop scene is a metaphor for "mono no aware." It's a reminder that life is full of transient moments, both challenging and joyful, and there's a certain beauty in appreciating these moments as they come and go.

10. The Power of Silence: The Japanese Concept of Ma (Negative Space)

'Ma' can be translated as 'gap', 'space', 'pause', or 'the space between two structural parts.' It's often associated with negative space, but it's not just about physical emptiness. It's about the potential of the space and the possibilities it holds. 'Ma' is the silence between sounds, the stillness between movements, and the emptiness that gives form to the whole.

In "My Neighbor Totoro," 'ma' is embodied in the scenes where there's little to no dialogue and where the sounds of nature take center stage. For instance, the scene where the girls are waiting for the bus with Totoro is filled with moments of 'ma.' The silence amplifies the sound of the rain, the rustling leaves, and the girls' breaths.

These moments of quietude are not empty; they're filled with anticipation, wonder, and a sense of connection with the world around them. They encourage viewers to appreciate the beauty of silence and the subtleties often lost amidst the noise. They invite us to slow down, listen, observe, and be present in the moment.

This is where 'ma' intersects with "mono no aware." Both concepts invite us to appreciate the transient, fleeting moments, whether filled with action or steeped in silence.

The concept of 'ma' in My Neighbor Totoro is a testament to the film's depth and complexity. It's a reminder that silence can be just as powerful as action and that the spaces in between can hold just as much meaning as the events themselves. It's one of the many ways the film invites us to experience the world with a sense of wonder and appreciation.

An anime girl riding a red scooter with a furry friend. The text reads "JCA Review Subscription".

Overseas and Japanese Interpretations of My Neighbor Totoro

Western interpretations of My Neighbor Totoro tend to stray somewhat from the original intent of Hayao Miyazaki. This is not to undermine the efforts of the translators, who have certainly done a commendable job, but certain cultural idiosyncrasies inevitably lose their subtlety in the process of translation.

Take, for instance, the character of Totoro himself. To Western eyes, Totoro is a cuddly, oversized creature that sparks off immediate comparisons with beloved characters from Western animation, such as Winnie the Pooh or Paddington Bear.

But Totoro is not the protagonist of the film; he is an entity that facilitates the sisters’ journey rather than driving the plot himself. The enchanting spirit takes on more of a supporting role, helping the girls cope with their mother's illness and new rural surroundings.

Through Japanese lenses, My Neighbor Totoro is colored by cultural familiarity. From that point of view, Totoro is not just a cute creature but a symbol of the harmonious coexistence of humanity and nature. The scenes involving the girls and Totoro evoke a sense of "yasuragi," or peacefulness, a concept intrinsic to Japanese aesthetics.

Furthermore, the girls' perseverance in the face of their mother's sickness reflects the Japanese cultural values of "gambaru" (perseverance) and "gaman" (endurance), making them the true heroes of the narrative.

Final Verdict: My Neighbor Totoro Review

Despite different interpretations, My Neighbor Totoro has immense global appeal. This can be attributed to Miyazaki's mastery in weaving universal themes into the narrative. Themes of family, love, resilience, and deep respect for nature resonate with audiences worldwide, regardless of cultural background.

The movie's exploration of childhood – its innocence, sense of wonder, and ability to accept the extraordinary as part of the ordinary – strikes a chord with both children and adults. It reminds us of a time when magic seemed possible, and every forest could house a friendly spirit.

From a nerdy film critic's perspective, it might not be perfect, but my want for more intricate storytelling and character depth probably reflects that I view the film through a Norwegian lens. And my impatience with the girls' constant yelling may say more about my introverted personality than it does about any flaws in My Neighbor Totoro.

That said, when comparing this film to the entire Ghibli back catalog, I can’t help but feel that it is a teensy bit overrated. When stacked up against Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Grave of the Fireflies, Howl’s Moving Castle, or the underrated From Up on Poppy Hill, it is outmatched as far as JCA is concerned.

There is no denying its legacy, which of course, is more than deserved. My Neighbor Totoro has played a pivotal role in popularizing Japanese anime. Its worldwide success has introduced many international viewers to the rich storytelling and artistic style unique to anime, expanding its global audience.

Furthermore, Totoro, the film's iconic character, has become a symbol of Japan, representing its culture in various contexts. He has become an ambassador of Japanese animation, or anime, to the world. In conclusion, My Neighbor Totoro is a central piece of Japanese anime history and a must-see for anyone interested in Japanese film and animation.


Studio Ghibli Movies: 9 Facts About My Neighbor Totoro

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