My Neighbour Totoro, a film by Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, is important for a number of different cultural and aesthetic reasons. It’s a wonderfully imaginative and beautifully animated fantasy story that people of all ages adore. It’s also arguably one of the best anime movies of all time. However, like all the best “family” films, the childish facade masks something much more nuanced than the story actually presented, which follows two young girls and their encounters with a number of forest spirits or “Totoro”. It’s a family film for sure but whimsy aside (the Catbus springs to mind) the Totoro have a lot to teach us.
It must be very gratifying to watch something you created in 1988 become more and more relevant as time has passed. As concerns about climate change, and impending ecological disaster mount, My Neighbour Totoro is more important than ever. The story centres on two young girls, Satsuki and Mei. They, along with their father, move to the countryside after their mother falls ill in order to be closer to her hospital. After adjusting to their new lives, the girls encounter a number of forest spirits which they come to know as “Totoro”. It is through their encounters with these spirits that we get to the heart of the film.
In broad terms, My Neighbour Totoro is about the value of the natural world. It also deals with themes of ecology, our relationship with nature, and the decline of wild places. There is also an obvious Shinto influence. While not necessarily a Shintoist himself, it’s clear that many of the core tenets of the faith resonate with Miyazaki, the film’s creator. As he once said himself, “In my grandparents’ time, it was believed that spirits existed everywhere. In trees, rivers, insects, wells, anything. My generation does not believe this, but I like the idea that we should treasure everything because there is a kind of life to everything”. Clearly, a man with great love and respect for nature.
The Totoro act almost as Miyazaki’s envoy. They are the life of the forest, and it is with their assistance that Satsuki and Mei are able to cope with their mother’s absence. By bringing the natural world to life, perhaps embracing Shinto animism, Miyazaki is able to depict the dynamic between humans and the natural world in a number of wonderfully imaginative ways. The scene where Satsuki and Mei are waiting for their father’s bus is one of my favourites for this very reason. It’s funny, touching, and manages to encapsulate everything the film is about perfectly.
First, a little context. The girl’s father is working late one night and will arrive home on the night bus. Waiting for him at the bus stop, Satsuki and Mei become a little nervous. Several buses go by but their father isn’t on them. As the hour grows later, they become increasingly anxious. However, they are then joined by Totoro. Despite the darkness and the pouring rain, there is nothing even remotely threatening about the big beast’s sudden appearance. He is simply waiting for a bus, just like Satsuki and Mei. He only has a leaf on his head to keep the rain off and so Satsuki hands him a spare umbrella. Totoro seems delighted by this, especially by the patter of raindrops on the canvas, roaring in approval. Not long after, the Catbus appears and Totoro departs, but not before handing Satsuki a small bag of magic seeds.
It’s hard to know where to begin with this scene. I love it for so many reasons. I think the most important thing I took from it when I first saw it is the way the natural world mirrors humanity. We are part of, and have an intimate connection with nature. I don’t think many people would try and deny that. Totoro’s appearance at the bus stop makes this point perfectly. He isn’t there to do anything strange or unusual, he is waiting for a bus, just like the girls. He even ends up holding an umbrella, emphasising the parallels further. If Totoro is understood to represent nature, this scene could even be a nod to Shinto animist beliefs. The same life that is in humans is in the world all around us.
This is a very important thing to understand. In my opinion anyway. The bus stop moment is a lesson in perspective. Without wishing to sound sentimental, I genuinely believe that appreciating one’s place in the natural order leads to self-improvement. Understanding that we are part of nature entails respect for nature, which entails respect for each other. I know that sounds a bit slushy (for want of a better word) but it’s true. We have our own little niche alongside all the others, and there’s something very humbling about that.
The delight Totoro seems to take in the sound of the rain against his new umbrella also speaks volumes. He acts like a child, with a playful innocence. Something as simple as the sound of the rain brings him endless happiness. In recent years (especially during the pandemic) I have made a conscious effort to try and be more like this myself. Taking pleasure in simple, but beautiful things. And I thoroughly recommend it. Find a truly wild place, free of concrete and the sounds of urban life. It doesn’t need stunning vistas or unique geological formations. it just needs to be a place you can experience nature without interruption.
Once you have found such a place, simply wait and observe. Your mileage may vary of course, but I am almost always entertained, fascinated, or sometimes just bemused by what I see. With the interactions between animal and plant life, the cycle of growth and rebirth, and the intricacies of nature’s design, it’s not difficult to see why Shintoists believe that “kami” (spirits) inhabit all things. In any case, it’ll do you good to get away from modern life, even for just a moment. Despite the abundance of life and energy, there is also a remarkable stillness to such places. A dose of which will do anyone the world of good.
The film itself embodies this idea. Many critics, such as Roger Ebert, have noted the film’s distinct lack of conflict. Far from a criticism, this is in fact a testament to Miyazaki’s creation of a place that feels almost like an oasis. A serene point of tranquillity in an increasingly chaotic world. The bus stop scene demonstrates this wonderfully. The natural world is all around us and ready to lend us its support. When the girls need Totoro, he is ready and waiting. There’s no mystery, no obstacle, and no quest. If we need it, it will be there. As long as we protect it that is, but that’s a different story. We are a part of it, and it is a part of us.
This may all come across as vague pseudo-spiritual nonsense, and I know it sounds a little like it at times. I firmly believe, however, that the Totoro can teach us a number of vitally important ecological lessons. A little perspective can go a long way.