Collected Works: Film
My Neighbour Totoro
directed by Hayao Miyazaki
A girl waits in the rain at the side of a dust-track road, umbrella over her shoulder, sleepy sister on her back. A streetlamp looms, a toad passes by, but otherwise they seem alone. Then giant, furry feet lumber into view. Peeking out from beneath the brolly frame, we espy a large creature, perhaps part-owl, part-raccoon, a large leaf balanced between its pointed ears. The girl grabs a second umbrella and hands it to the creature’s clawed paw. Sheltering from the drizzle, they look blankly ahead. The toad stares back inquisitively.
My Neighbour Totoro’s titular character is a benevolent forest spirit, its protagonists a pair of siblings called Satsuki and Mei. The opening scenes see the sisters move to a new home, to be closer to their hospitalised mother. As their father leaves for the office each day, or sits behind a pile of paper, they explore the countryside. One adventure sees Mei tumble down a rabbit hole, concealed beneath the tangled roots of a towering camphor tree. The cushiony mound that she discovers is revealed to be Totoro’s rotund belly.
The film is set in the post-war fifties, but the conflict here is between man and nature, the present and a time when ‘trees and people still got along’. The Tokyo commuter belt has started to expand, and stands on the verge of swallowing the verdant landscape. As Satsuki and Mei wait for their father to return home from the city, they alert us to the close relationship between capitalism and the nuclear family. When a handful of rubbish is seen settled at the bottom of a stream, it is a sign of environmental damage to come.
In Totoro, though, the family and forest are havens of safety. Even when danger lurks, it proves unable to surface. In one scene, Mei gets lost while walking to see her mother. As she takes a break to sit in a roadside shrine, statues of Ksitigarbha, the Buddhist deity and guardian of children, watch over her. We are reminded that some things are worth protecting. Just as Mei cares for her spirit friend’s home, My Neighbour Totoro understands that a child’s innocence and security are qualities we all should cultivate.
Words by John Wadsworth
More to discover
Watch the trailer here. This article is loosely based on an earlier essay by the author for The Oxford Culture Review. Isaac Yuen has written about My Neighbour Totoro, children, and nature for Ekostories. Rieko Okuhara has written about the film and psychology for The Looking Glass.