“My Neighbor Totoro” Filmed by Hayao Miyazaki Review

Subject: Art
Pages: 1
Words: 1658
Reading time:
6 min
Study level: College

My Neighbor Totoro, filmed in 1988 by famed animator Hayao Miyazaki, is one of the iconic animated tales produced by Studio Ghibli and one of my favorite movies. This cartoon embodies the main motives of Miyazaki’s work – childhood, the fidelity of friends, the dark side of the personality, and the power of fantasy. The film about Totoro needs to be analyzed to find out why it is a complex work with a lot of details.

The primary interpretive step is to limit one’s own judgment in order to avoid the realization of internal prejudices. Personally, I am a big fan of animation. My experience tells me that some anime tend to be very hard to follow due to its twisted plot, full of flashy flashes and over-the-top actions. However, this film does not have any of the above features, it is soft, restrained in pacing, and its animation is noble. The plot of the film is not only a children’s fairy tale but a folklore about a fabulous friend and a touching story, which can resonate with an adult audience. To be more specific, the scene where Mei and Satauki find Totoro and tell this exciting news to their parents, instead of convincing them that this creature is not exist, they actually start their trip to find Totoro together. That is one of the happiest moments Mei and Satsuki have throughout the movie. The scene could play as a pathos as it affects audience emotion positively.

The film begins with two sisters, Mei and Satsuki, moving into a private house in the countryside with their father. Not far from it is a hospital where the mother of the girls is. The sisters accidentally find the keeper of the forest – Totoro, and not only him. In the course of the picture, they meet various fantastic creatures that help them cope with problems. For example, Totoro, who, together with the girls, performs a ritual that awakens the crops, or Catbus, who helps in the search for the heroine’s sister. The sisters in the film interact with things that cannot exist. Children are extremely realistic and detailed characters that fit seamlessly into different scenes. They scream, get lost, cry, feel ashamed over trifles, worry too much, and laugh for no reason.

In detailing his heroines and fantasy worlds, Miyazaki draws on a vast array of sources, including myths, ancient Japanese legends, history, science fiction, and fairy tales. This can be seen in the film about Totoro, which is filled with references both to the era of the samurai and to more modern culture. Miyazaki’s characteristic handwriting is that practically every frame contains aesthetic features that either hint at a phenomenon to the viewer, or are necessary to convey the atmosphere. In any case, Japanese features are expressed even through small details, such as grass or trees, characteristic of the local climate. Finally, wooden utensils, sticks, hieroglyphs and silhouettes of clouds in the sky refer to a special and unique world that is instantly recognizable.

Besides, Totoro is a fantastic animal, fluffy and very large, but at the same time it does not pose a danger to children. The scene where the main character interacts with the sleeping Totoro proves that this creature should be perceived as a protector figure. The girl grabs his huge paw, climbs onto the fluffy chest of the animal, but he is not at all annoyed, like a kindly older relative. Totoro is clumsy, but symbolizes majesty, it causes adoration and a sense of reliability and security in the characters of the film (Napier, 2018). Indeed, Miyazaki shows through the friendship of the main character and Totoro that a person must be curious, kind, innocent, and connected with culture as with the organic fabric of life. Totoro is a creature from the forest, embodying nature, so his interaction with the girl means a search for kinship between a person and the world around them.

The most interesting aspect of the film for me was the unusual relationship that develops between a girl and a creature from a mythical space. The dynamics of their relationships constitute the emotional core of the film and provide the audience with interest. Japan is shown in this way as a land of mythical creatures and fairy-tale mysteries, which is the most revealing part of the film. Furthermore, from Miyazakiworld: A life in art, Napier brings us inside the Miyazaki universe and explains how Miyazaki drew inspiration from his own European experiences for many of the cinematic worlds he built, which provides an opportunity to explore and refine perspectives of Miyazaki’s movies and animations in general (Napier, 2018). This will support my argument that the creature is harmless and a protector figure. For another example, in one of the most beautiful scenes, the sisters wait in the rain at the bus stop for their father from work. They took two umbrellas, one for the eldest girl, one for her father, and the youngest sister put on a raincoat. The agonizing expectation dumps the youngest, she literally falls asleep on the go. In order to drive away frightening thoughts or brighten up the longing of waiting for the bus, Totoro comes to the bus stop with them and accompanies them.

Furthermore, when examining the cultural value of ‘My Neighbor Totoro,” we cannot overlook one of the central themes that the movie seeks to address, which is the fact that the film is emphasizing the importance of environmentalism and the significance of conserving nature. Indeed, research points out that the issue of preserving nature and safeguarding it from the harmful impact of urbanization represents one of the essential ideas that Miyazaki seeks to convey: “We are returning to you something you have forgotten” (Mandal, 2022, p. 99). In turn, the specified notion is emphasized by the use of animation, introduction of new plot, and the subtle hints in the behaviors.

Indeed, considering the movie closer, one will recognize the scenes that point to the idea of respecting nature and striving to preserve it. For example, the scene in which the two sisters attempt at making the trees grow in the night by performing a series of elaborate bows and movements can be considered an example of demonstrating appreciation for nature (Miyazaki, 1988). Though the specified gesture could be considered slightly weird in the present-day cultural context, Mandal (2022, p. 99) explains that “My Neighbor Totoro” “takes the audiences back to a simpler time when everything appeared to be magic with its illusion surrounding life.” Therefore, in the environment of what the movie views as a simpler time, the specified ritual can be seen as an attempt at reviving nature.

Moreover, the setting of the movie is highly indicative of the theme of environmentalism as one of the central ideas to be actively developed throughout the narrative. Apart from the rural context, which is a hint in itself, pointing directly to the notion of being environmentally aware, “My Neighbor Totoro” allows the viewer to explore the rural past of Japan According to Mandal (2022), “the film also takes the audience back to a national past, seemingly untainted with the pollution showered in by the advent of globalization and the subsequent materialism” (p. 99). Indeed, the movie features the only mode of transportation most characters use is a bicycle. Specifically, the protagonist and her friend are seen on their bikes as the search for Mei starts. Therefore, the focus on returning to the earlier and simpler times that did not pose the same extent of threat to the environment is evident in the movie.

Despite the overall positive impact of the film and the obvious well-established morality in the form of goodness as the answer to all questions, Totoro still possesses the status of a deity which is a majestic and intimidating burden for his image. Miyazaki, who often weaves typical religious references into his narrative and assigns a large role to folklore and Japanese mythology, endowed Totoro with standard divine capabilities in the form of, for example, wind control. His silence, mythical abilities, and obvious Shinto background become the reason why an adult viewer can develop a distrust of his figure. Considering the image of Totoro as the deity of death, a bad omen for those who happened to meet him (Nosa, 2021), the story will transform into dark shades. Totoro itself does not have a clear explanation of his abilities and leaves a huge area for reflection on what he patronizes. Perceiving the character as a Shinto deity, his virtue and motives are still hidden, which may make one doubt the sincerity of his actions.

Nevertheless, the main moods of the animated film become a clear contrast to the uncertainty of Totoro’s motives. He never becomes a terrifying divine figure for the two sisters and remains in the role of a funny animal-like friend till the end. The metaphor of an umbrella, the use of which demonstrates care and kindness towards other beings (Toh, 2021, p. 144), is placed in the center of the narrative to dispel the sense of danger from a strange and alien mythical creature. As a result, the viewer does not think about a deeper vision and relies in judgments about Totoro’s character solely on his tacit actions towards the two sisters.

One could ask questions about the additional motivations Totoro wonders why he never talks to the girl, although he understands her, it is what makes two kids see Totoro, but others cannot. A more detailed analysis probably would reveal that Totoro is not just a fabulous friend but the embodiment of a divine totem, a creature that must be treated with sacred awe. To be more specific, the showing of the Totoro’s cat bus and the scene where their parents cannot see their kids. On the other hand, it could just symbolize warmth, innocence, and childishness. The entire mythology embedded in the film requires more detailed consideration.


HBO Max Family. (2021). My Neighbor Totoro | Mei meets Totoro (Clip) [Video]. YouTube.

Mandal, B. The Insertion of Cultural Identity and Ecological Recovery through a Critique of Materialism and Overconsumption in Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro. PostScriptum: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Literary Studies, 7(1), pp. 93-103.

Miyazaki, H. (Director). (1988). “Searching for Mei.” My Neighbor Totoro [Screenshot]. Studio Ghibli

Napier, S. J. (2018). Miyazakiworld: A life in art. Yale University Press.

Nosa, D. (2021). Studio Ghibli Debunked This Major Theory about My Neighbor Totoro. Fansided.

Toh, C. (2021). The Aesthetics and Ethics of Hayao Miyazaki’s Enchanted Forests. Broad Street Humanities Review, 3, pp. 140-146.