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‘My Neighbor Totoro’: When the Archeologist Becomes the Artifact

Two young girls and three forest creatures lounge on a tree branch.
Toho Co., Ltd.

It feels bold, though no less right, to say that My Neighbor Totoro is the most interesting movie to consider—in its entirety—in Hayao Miyazaki’s filmography. On one hand, most notably and immediately, there’s its legacy: it was still early in Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli’s careers when the film first released in 1988, and yet, it managed to catapult director and studio to global stardom, to the point that Totoro became the furry face of Studio Ghibli itself, and, in effect, Japan’s answer to America’s Mickey Mouse.

On the other hand, there’s also its story: two young girls, Satsuki and Mei, befriend a cuddly creature named Totoro after they move with their father into a new countryside home while their ailing mother recuperates in a nearby hospital—as we all know, theirs becomes one of the most heartwarming, fuzzy, and beloved narratives to come out of Studio Ghibli.

And then, on the other, other hand, there’s Miyazaki’s pursuit of ma in the film, which he described in a 2002 interview with Roger Ebert as the Japanese term for “emptiness,” and involves characters doing things like sitting in thought, waiting at a bus stop, or letting out a deep sigh—essentially, taking a moment to just exist regardless of whether it advances the plot or not. In fact, Miyazaki proclaimed ma to be in intentional opposition to the clearly defined and decidedly linear cause-and-effect-style of storytelling—the “busyness,” as he called it—that viewers, particularly in the West, had become used to.

A fuzzy creature carrying an umbrella runs down a grassy hill with two young girls
Toho Co., Ltd.

Of all Miyazaki’s movies, My Neighbor Totoro represents quintessential ma. Languid and dreamy, the film offers an invitation to resist a passive, spoon-fed experience of watching a movie and instead exercise the very imagination, investigation, and inquisition that Satsuki and Mei display throughout. Just as they find themselves rooted in a new world, we, too, embark on a journey of discovery (of the self, the other, and the world at large). We tangle with fear of the unknown, excitement about the endless possibilities this new home provides, and grief over where—and thus, who—we once were.

This in mind, it’s interesting (read: misguided) that there are many who see the film as a kids movie where nothing happens. On the contrary, My Neighbor Totoro shows Miyazaki at his most archeological. Especially considering the chronology of his films at Studio Ghibli, this film feels the most emotionally excavationist. Unlike the two previous films he directed—Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, a post-apocalyptic fantasy, and Castle in the Sky, a fantasy adventure—Totoro is set in the past and in the real world, specifically, in rural Japan after World War II, a time and place the director himself lived through. It’s not hard to imagine, then, that he ruminates, here, on questions he must have pondered as a young man coming of age in a traumatized world.

That Miyazaki filters these questions through Satsuki and Mei effectively makes them two of the most deeply tragic characters he has written for Studio Ghibli so far. Between a severely ill mother (whose health seems to be perpetually declining), a father buried in his work, and a mysterious land filled with equally mysterious people—and, for that matter, creatures—they know nothing about, the two girls, despite their ages, are already confronting ideas of mortality, loss, and the inevitable lack of control over virtually everything that happens in our lives.

Make no mistake, My Neighbor Totoro isn’t afraid to plunge us in the darkness—just look at the scene where the villagers call upon Satsuki to confirm whether her sister has drowned in the river (which, by the way, happens after it’s confirmed that her mother is still gravely sick). The shot, here, of a little girl’s slipper floating, like a lifeless body, in the water is, without question, horrifying.

A little girl's slipper floats in the water
Toho Co., Ltd.

That being said, for every step it takes towards the darkness, it takes two more steps towards the light. More than anything, tenderness, joy, and love are the pillars of the film, upheld by the child-like wonder with which Satsuki and Mei throw themselves into this new world. Indeed, much of the first act alone shows the two girls running in and out of their new home, leaving no door unopened and no dark corner unexplored. It’s their openness to this strange new world that ultimately allows them to meet, befriend, and, in times of need, call upon Totoro.

Totoro, in this regard, is a fascinating figure to consider. On one level, he embodies a spirit of the forest, representative of humans living in harmony with nature (as most know, environmentalism is a prominent theme in Miyazaki’s works). In the film, Totoro lives and sleeps, unbothered, in a land scarcely touched by industrialization: Satsuki’s family doesn’t own a car, the farmers in the village tend to their land using their bare hands, and the most modern forms of technology in Satsuki’s home are a single landline and a manual water pump in their backyard.

But, on another level, not much else is known about Totoro—which, in a poetically symmetrical way, makes him the physical incarnation of ma. He invites any and all interpretation, and because he is the embodiment of nature itself, no meaning we attach to him can be wrong. (Funnily enough, in fact, his name originates from Mei’s initial mispronunciation of “tororu,” the Japanese word for “troll.”)

The question we are left with now is: in another 35 years, will My Neighbor Totoro's legacy still hold the same power in reminding us of the importance of joy and curiosity in the natural world? And, by extension, can we still find ma in this world? After all, Miyazaki created Totoro in the ‘80s, at a time when the world was on the precipice of the information age, while still recovering from war. Discovery, finding ways to connect and innovate, and transformation were at the fore of humans’ minds; inspiration in this regard was easier to tap into.

At the risk of melodramatic cynicism, the world is definitively ending: we are entering the fourth stage of a digital revolution, wherein, with the rise of A.I. tools, originality may be the biggest casualty; our exponentially worsening climate crisis continues to go ignored by those who have the power to make tangible change; leading countries are funding genocides happening in front of our eyes in real time; social media, which was created to connect us, has actually been detrimental to our health—the list does unfortunately go on.

My Neighbor Totoro, even 10 years ago (when we made our first foray into the digital space), would easily have been an inspiring reminder of what’s important. However, the farther we move through this modern world, the farther we seem to step away from the film’s original grasp. In the saddest way, Miyazaki’s film now feels less like the archeological exercise it started as and more like an artifact of a bygone world—it’s harder to find the ma.

Of course, when Satsuki was at her lowest in My Neighbor Totoro as she waited at the bus stop—wet from the rain, exhausted from carrying her sister on her back, and worried that her father would never come home—Totoro was there. Perhaps, for now, that will have to be enough.

My Neighbor Totoro was originally released in 1988.


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